Hide table of contents

The Problem: insufficient societal longtermism values

EA's have an obvious interest in longtermism, but my observation is that most EA work in growing awareness of longtermism falls into two incomplete categories:

  • specialized, technocratic: encouraging people to work in AI policy or AI alignment research
  • growing communities of likeminded people: spreading awareness of EA on college campuses or through community events

In my view, while these are both good directions to apply effort, they are not scalable for instilling longtermism in our broader culture and society. One of the lessons of Carrick Flynn's failed congressional bid (and there are many possible post-mortem perspectives on this) could be that the broader public just doesn't have an appropriate view of longterm risk.

Another example of this is climate change - a slow cooking global issue that still doesn't receive proportional attention and focus, even as heatwaves and droughts are increasing in frequency and intensity. 

The lack of longtermism perspectives and values in an ostensibly democratic society then lead to some obvious challenges for tackling longtermist challenges (or even relatively mid-term challenges like climate change).

Possible counterpoint: we don't need everyone to have longtermist views, just the right people in the right places

There are several issues I have with this counterpoint:

  • its doesn't help EA's image of elitist technocratic illuminati
  • it is difficult for me to imagine a world that is insured against various X-risks, the mitigations of which usually require non-trivial amounts of funding and expertise, and yet simultaneously a democratic world that is mostly apathetic
  • EA's incredible growth over the past several years I think shows that the above scenario is not a necessary outcome unless if we choose to let that happen.

In any case, there's no need for mutual exclusion, we can aim for "Yes and" approaches. Small investments in instill cultural longtermism I think are still worth testing and probably have add-on benefits societally.

How to instill cultural longtermism?

This is the idea that inspired me to write this post: its pretty out there but I wanted to see what others thought and hopefully get more conversation around this.

For background: A fair amount of my work is in climate policy and one clear policy solution that has been deployed is to set medium-term policy timelines e.g. ban gas powered car sales by 2030, ban plastic bags X years in the future. These are forcing functions that ensure businesses start planning the necessary deprecations into their investment and supply chain timelines, even though those timelines may be slightly longer than they would otherwise think about. They also send regulatory signals far into the future, demonstrating long-term commitment to decarbonization pathways, which currently has timelines out to 2050. Not exactly longtermist, but not trivial.

What would be the cultural equivalent of this? (and apologies for a very US-centric approach)

Pass a constitutional amendment that requires a new constitutional convention with a new constitution in X years, where X>40. 

There is significant historical evidence many of the founding fathers did not envision this constitution lasting for as long as it did, certainly not 250 years. 

There is also significant social backlash around certain parts of the constitution today e.g. 1st amendment, 2nd amendment, lack of privacy protection, etc.

But trying to pull together a constitutional convention in today's polarized society would be impossible, as many of the levers of government are ~50-50 split.

Instead, by pushing this far off into the future, we can mitigate polarization while still addressing the angst and displeasure with the current constitution. Most importantly, I believe there would be a fundamental shift in political strategy. Rather than thinking about short-term voter engagement via mostly negative emotions, there would be a significant re-focus on long-term political organization and party capacity building. This may also reinvigorate civic involvement and start making policymaking and political institutions a "prestigious" place to work after college. This could be the start of instilling long-term thinking within political institutions, which I believe would have add-on effects broader in society.[1]

I have no ideas about how to get such an enormous project started (constitutional amendments are, probably rightfully so, incredibly hard to pass). But I wanted to socialize the idea and see what others thought!

Addendum on more "longtermism" organizations

I think EA's would also do well to look for more "longtermism in the wild". While no large orgs are really thinking centuries out, there are clear examples of organizations that have clear practices of forecasting decades out that are flying under the radar. The example I'm thinking of is utility integrated resource planning (IRP), where energy utilities have to do energy demand modelling, infrastructure maintenance, energy generation, demographics etc 25 years out and plan financially how to fund and what they will build to respond. It is an immense undertaking that is only becoming more complex with distributed renewable generation and energy storage. 

Another example is the kind of science funding efforts into hard-tech e.g. quantum computing. The decision-making process in science funding agencies, VC's, and big tech companies that started making million dollar bets on this technology a decade ago that will probably not bear fruition for another 5 years at least are probably worth studying.


  1. ^

    This idea is also inspired by Liu Cixin Three-Body problem. No spoilers but a set of existential decisions is imposed on the entire society that reshapes how society thinks about the future, even though the decision point is many lifetimes off. In this case, the decision point (a constitutional convention) is at least 1-2 generations off or more.





More posts like this

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Bit late to the party and mostly meandering from the footnote but I've been thinking about this as well. +1 for the reference to Liu Cixin's Three-Body problem series (Rememberance of Earth's Past). Warning mild spoilers below although I've tried to keep them to a minimum.

While the physics used were super sci-fi, this has been the best book series I've read that really made me 'feel' the concepts of Longtermism and how they related to x-risk on a planetary scale. Few thoughts:

  • Two bits I thought were particularly well done were a) the experiences of those waking up from hibernation tech (they woke up to a world significantly different than they predicted, and you could feel their disorientation) and b) the Australia chapter where you really get a sense of how horrific worst case x-risks might be 
  • The speculative fiction on how society might respond to lots of these existential challanges also seems like good material to be able to reference and try to find solutions to in a common cultural language. E.g. as discussed here (Including referencing how a particular scenario is not like the one described).
  • The fact that it is written by one of the most popular Chinese Fiction writers seems like a major positive in terms of providing common ground for international cultural common ground between representatives of superpowers. 
  • A counterpoint to promoting this may be his personal comments on politics in modern China, but I didn't get the impression that his writing in the series was problematically anti-democratic.
  • I don't want to update too much on something like 'this is a representative view of how Chinese society tends to think about the long-term future'. If anyone has any insight on this I'd love to know.

Would it be a good idea to promote reading Liu Cixin's books on these merits above? How does it compare to other longtermist fiction for Instilling Cultural Longtermism?

I'm unsure about the tractability and desireability of a date-on-consititution-change. My major crux would be how much bipartisan support you could get.

Curated and popular this week
Relevant opportunities