Here are five classes of systems change causes that logically have the potential for very high impact.
Each class includes numerous cause areas that are worthy of further investigation to evaluate their potential impact. The examples used are neither exhaustive nor intended as recommended causes (although some may become recommended causes in the light of future research).
Causes that make systems change more tractable
Systems change is typically very intractable; it can take a lot of time and resources to build public support for change and to drive through important policy changes.
E.g. Political/democratic system
If we were to change the political/democratic system itself, so that it becomes substantially easier to change policies for the common good, this would make changing other systems far more tractable.
Systems that affect our lives to a very large degree
Some systems seem to have a particularly pervasive impact on our lives. Changing these systems for the better would likely have a very large positive impact.
E.g. Economic system (including finance and banking system)
In theory, in a capitalist economy wealth trickles down from the rich to the poor by way of the ‘invisible hand’. However, the structure of our current global economic, financial, corporate taxation and banking systems results in increasing financial inequality. The world’s eight richest people have the same wealth as the poorest 50%. Structural systemic changes could reliably distribute global wealth in a far more equitable way.
For profit corporations are legally responsible to their shareholders, and thus put profits first. Businesses are not legally designed to operate in the best interests of the world at large, and are free to exploit labour, and pollute and plunder the natural world. Businesses’ negative externalities could be internalised through regulation and taxation, building the social and environmental costs into the price of their goods and services.
E.g. Education/social systems
We are moulded by the systems that we grow up in; they shape our values, our habits, our sense of self and place in the world, and our beliefs about what’s possible. Our social systems including our systems of healthcare, welfare, criminal justice and especially education, have the potential to give the population of Earth, en masse, the necessary tools, motivation and support to thrive and live deeply fulfilling, positively impactful lives.
Changing our system of technological innovation
Technological progress is exponential, and shows no signs of slowing down. As a result, there is exponential opportunity for new technology to have positive impact. Emerging and future technologies also pose an increasing risk to the human civilization thriving long into the future. From unstoppable pandemics to runaway artificial intelligence, our technology may realistically become our undoing as a species.
Technological innovation is driven, in no small part, by economic forces: many research and development funding choices are based on the potential financial returns, which in turn are based on what humans with money are willing to buy, and we don’t always buy what’s best for us. Just because we can build it, and we can sell it, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.
Should we work to identify research that has an unacceptably high chance of causing harm, and prevent such research from happening? Do we need to put the brakes on our technological progress as a whole?
Changing our system of technological innovation may well be harder than making our civilization environmentally sustainable; it may require a major reorientation of our global economic system. Given the scale of what’s at stake, it may also be the most important cause there is.
Technological innovations that change systems
Most system changes are driven primarily by one of three things: political action (e.g. setting up the UN), grassroots action (e.g. the abolition of slavery), or technological innovation (e.g. the electric light bulb, ushering in leisure time after dark). Given the exponential trend of technological innovation, this may now be the primary driver of systems change.
Technological innovations for whole systems change
Breakthrough technologies often don’t fit neatly into one system, but instead have wide-ranging impact across society and culture. Some new technologies lay the foundations for countless other innovations, and thus repattern the way we live our lives. Such ‘foundational’ technologies include:
E.g. The internet, which has given unprecedented open access to knowledge and information, and normalized peer-to-peer production and consumption of news via social media.
E.g. Blockchain, the technology that Bitcoin is built on. Still in its infancy, blockchain technology provides a tamper-proof, distributed public record, without the need for centralized management or administration. The potential applications are vast. Services built on blockchains could ultimately replace our centralized banking and political governance systems with transparent, distributed alternatives.
Technological innovations for specific system change
With a good understanding of a specific system, its failings, and a sense of what it could become, timely strategic technological innovations can play a vital role in bringing about systems change.
E.g. Online public consultation tools
There have been many experiments with digital democracy, and some particularly promising examples that pave the way for more inclusive democratic decision making.
E.g. Time banks
Time banks are popping up around the world, and provide a refreshing means of value exchange. Time bankers can offer their time (perhaps doing something they love but wouldn’t typically get paid for, for example, portrait painting), and can request help with specific tasks. This brings to life a gift economy, where individuals help each other out willingly without expecting financial recompense. Participating in a time bank can shift one’s perception of economic value in a profound way, from being something scarce and transactional to something personal and abundant.
Changing systems that directly relate to the top EA cause areas already identified
Within the EA community, causes have been prioritized relating to the welfare of extremely poor people, and to the welfare of animals under human control. A systems change approach may offer highly effective ways to help these beneficiaries. In fact, I think that the current EA approach in both areas is somewhat systemic in nature.
E.g. International development system
The impact of unconditional direct cash transfers to the world’s poorest people has been researched extensively by GiveDirectly, and seems to be a highly effective intervention. The cash is generally spent on the things that will have the biggest positive impact on the quality of life of the recipients.
This research, backed up with extensive pilot programmes, makes a good case for scaling up this intervention strategy. There is growing support behind a universal basic income policy in both developed and developing nations. This policy could soon become a cornerstone of how international aid is done, getting basic resources to the people who need them most.
E.g. Animal industrial systems
The meat and dairy industries, leather production, and animal testing in cosmetics and medicine involve extreme suffering of billions of animals. Animal Charity Evaluators recommends a diversity of ‘top’ and ‘standout’ charities that work effectively on different parts of changing the system of animal agriculture and exploitation by humans.
This is post 3 of 3:
Post 1: "Why to Optimize Earth"
Post 2: " Effective Altruism Paradigm vs Systems Change Paradigm"
Thanks for valuable suggestions & feedback from: Ray Taylor, Ulrik Horn, Kyle Bogosian, Samuel Hilton, Dony Christie & Alex Dickinson.