Epistemic status: I think there is a lot of merit to the ideas expressed in this post but I have to caution that this is a very quick write up of a complex topic that was done while I was on vacation.
Effective Altruism is broadly concerned with answering the question of “how to do the most good?” and then acting upon the answers. As of today, this has mostly involved identifying the most pressing causes and their most promising interventions judged against some carefully selected benchmark metrics such as disability adjusted life years (DALYs), subjective well-being measures, lives saved or economic measures of improvement. This is motivated by the well intentioned idea that it is morally important to use the limited resources which are available to us in a manner that is cost effective for achieving what we value most. In some sense this simple idea has been groundbreaking because our societies today are often seemingly running amok, allocating available resources in complex, intransparent, and unsustainable ways that do not effectively deliver on what we (profess) to value most. Thus, the EA approach (i.e., focusing on what we value most and finding cost effective ways for delivering on that) can be seen as an important innovation which aims to reorient our societies toward what truly matters.
However, critics of EA have remained vocal about a certain naiveté implicit in the belief that individual and unconnected interventions can help to resolve the large-scale wicked problems that our societies are facing today. From these critics' perspectives what is needed is a holistic systems view of our societal problems and their interdependencies rather than a focus on the most cost-effective interventions in isolation. This essay takes a middle-ground position and argues that while EA is in principle open to considering policy interventions aimed at “systemic change” – there is only a very limited overarching understanding of what systemic change entails. As we see it, compared to the state of the art in scientific research on societal “sustainability transitions” EA discourse is hampered by the lack of an overarching “evolutionary systems perspective” on societal change and transitions which could provide a conceptual foundation for organizing research and actions across the different EA cause areas. Altogether, this essay aims to make the case that more resources should be devoted to studying and developing our collective capacities for managing societal transitions as a broad meta-cause relevant to basically all EA causes that have been identified so far. This is the argument in a nutshell:
Assumption 1: The world is complex and full of wicked problems that can never be truly solved but only be addressed and managed as co-evolving complex adaptive systems.
Assumption 2: EA’s mission of doing the most good is an instance of a (super) wicked problem that requires a deep understanding of how to manage societal change and transitions to better (i.e., more ethical and sustainable) ways of being.
Assumption 3: A focus on identifying the most cost-effective interventions by itself without due consideration of an overarching “evolutionary systems perspective” is unlikely to lead to optimal outcomes because successful societal transitions depend on careful and deliberate management.
Assumption 4: An emerging field of research on “sustainability transitions” has demonstrated the tractability and utility of studying and developing the management of societal transitions as a meta-cause.
Assumption 5: Current EA discourse and thinking neglects an overarching evolutionary systems perspective in comparison to the significant benefits which could be leveraged from more explicit consideration of such an perspective.
The EA movement should start to more deliberately engage with the research and practice around the management of societal transitions and start to invest more to support this meta-cause.
The world is full of wicked problems, that is, problems that are characterized by a) the finitude of the resources available for addressing them, b) the normativity inherent to their definition and assessment, and c) the deep complexity of the world that these problems are embedded in. One consequence of these characteristics is that it is never possible to truly solve a wicked problem. The only end one can hope for is temporary relief to the extent that all relevant stakeholders have been involved in the resolution of the problem with all of their relevant needs being “satisficed”. Thus, managing the interactions between stakeholders and finding ways to effectively and efficiently satisfice their needs over time is the key to resolving wicked problems. Importantly, this process of resolving wicked problems can happen in a variety of ways. For instance, new technologies can be developed that help to satisfice stakeholder needs in more effective or efficient ways (e.g., development of AI technologies) or the values and problem framings of stakeholders can be altered so that situations may be perceived as more or less problematic (e.g., promoting the adoption of spiritual practices such as in Buddhism, advocacy against factory farming). However, one dimension is common to the resolution of all wicked problems: the need for change and transformation from personal to societal scales.
Against this understanding of wicked problems, it becomes clear that EA’s mission of doing the most good is a prime example of a wicked problem as all three characteristics of wicked problems are clearly inherent to – if not constitutive of – this challenge. Given the global scope of the EA mission, this entails a need for a deep understanding of how to manage societal change and transitions to better (i.e., more ethical and sustainable) ways of being. This need is readily apparent in all major EA cause areas such as “Global Health and Development”, “Farm Animal Welfare”, “Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness”, and “Potential Risks from Advanced AI” because all of them depend on or involve major societal transitions. As such, it seems reasonable to argue that the systematic development of insights for the management of societal transitions could likely make major contributions to the success of the EA movement as a whole and the individual cause areas in particular. Moreover, looking at what we have learned from investigations into “Potential Risks from Advanced AI” such as the “Alignment Problem”, it stands to reason that without a deep understanding of how to manage societal transitions carefully and deliberately, humanity may very well be facing extinction. Thus, we ought to be incentivized to start the systematic study of societal transitions in a way that helps us leverage the insights gained to support all of these causes. We suggest that we can achieve this through an overarching “evolutionary systems perspective”.
The tractability of successfully developing the management of societal transitions as a meta-cause has been extensively demonstrated by the emerging but thriving field of sustainability transitions research. For a summary of the work done in this field, we refer to the review articles by Markard et al. (2012), Loorbach et al. (2017), Köhler et al. (2019). For this essay, we simply want to highlight that there is a comprehensive and rich body of work on the management of societal transitions that organizes concepts and notions associated with “systems change” in a way that is, to the best knowledge of the authors, much more systematic, rigorous and integrative than regular EA discourse on such topics. In particular, the conceptual frameworks and models developed in this field tend to be broadly useful across contexts (e.g., in energy or agricultural transitions). A major example is the multi-level, multi-phase perspective on transitions as advanced by Frank Geels and others. It provides a shared framework for organizing a wide variety of research on different aspects of societal transformations (e.g., niche construction, windows of opportunity, regime change, landscape developments) that helps to integrate findings across studies and contexts. Going beyond conceptual research, there is also a strong tradition of action-oriented transformative research in the field, which generates novel insights as well as tests and demonstrates the applicability of prior findings in a cumulative fashion. As such, we suggest it makes sense to view sustainability transitions research as a more academic “sister movement” to EA that demonstrates the tractability and usefulness of applying an “evolutionary systems perspective” to support societal transitions towards more sustainability.
Several critics of EA have highlighted that – at least to outsiders – the EA movement seems to unduly focus on quantifiable problems and interventions at the expense of more holistic and comprehensive systems perspectives that are more difficult to measure and evaluate. Although we see such criticisms as often overly negative and misrepresentative of the rather pragmatic and open minded nature of most EA thinking, we still see a grain of truth in them. It is hard to deny that many (if not most) EA conversations revolve around how to quantify problems and interventions so that cost-effective means of improvement can be found. While this “EA approach” should certainly be seen as an important innovation in the grand scheme of things, too much of a good thing can also become a bad thing. We suggest that a relentless focus on benchmarking specific interventions against quantifiable problems needs to be balanced against the backdrop of an overarching understanding of how problems and interventions interact in ongoing societal change. Although EA thinkers are certainly aware of this problem in general, systematic work on advancing our understanding and capabilities for the management of societal transitions as its own meta-cause (to the best knowledge of the authors) remains very limited within EA. In particular, we have never heard of systematic, rigorous work involving a comprehensive overarching “evolutionary systems perspective” comparable to, for example, the multi-level, multi-phase perspective on transitions or its extensions. Given the success of such perspectives for organizing and cumulating work in sustainability transitions research as well as the importance of getting a better understanding of how to manage societal transitions for all major EA cause areas, we suggest that this points to a neglectedness of the topic. Specifically, we see an opportunity for leveraging existing work on sustainability transitions research as a foundation for developing the management of societal transitions into a major EA meta-cause closely related to but still distinct from all other EA cause areas.
In this short essay we have tried to make the case that “Managing Societal Transitions” could be a useful and cost-effective addition to the EA cause area portfolio. The main arguments in favor of this addition are a) the overwhelming relevance of the topic for all major EA cause areas and b) the high tractability of advancing systematic work on the topic given the extant work on sustainability transitions research. A limitation of this essay is the solely qualitative nature of the argument. To strengthen the case for elevating the topic to a new EA meta-cause, a more quantitative exposition of the importance, tractability, and neglectedness of the topic should be attempted next.
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Loorbach, D., Frantzeskaki, N., & Avelino, F. (2017). Sustainability Transitions Research: Transforming Science and Practice for Societal Change. Annual Review of Environment and Resources, 42(1), 599–626. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-environ-102014-021340 Markard, J., Raven, R., & Truffer, B. (2012). Sustainability transitions: An emerging field of research and its prospects. Research Policy, 41(6), 955–967. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2012.02.013 ↩︎
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For example: Schlaile, M. P., Kask, J., Brewer, J., Bogner, K., Urmetzer, S., & De Witt, A. (2022). Proposing a Cultural Evolutionary Perspective for Dedicated Innovation Systems: Bioeconomy Transitions and Beyond: Journal of Innovation Economics & Management, 38(2), 93–118. https://doi.org/10.3917/jie.pr1.0108 ↩︎
Geels, F. W. (2019). Socio-technical transitions to sustainability: A review of criticisms and elaborations of the Multi-Level Perspective. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability, 39, 187–201. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cosust.2019.06.009 ↩︎
See footnote 1. ↩︎
For example: Tomasik, B. (2015). Charity Cost-Effectiveness in an Uncertain World. Center on Long-Term Risk. https://longtermrisk.org/charity-cost-effectiveness-in-an-uncertain-world/ ↩︎
See footnote 3. ↩︎
Thanks for writing this thought-through cause exploration. Looking forward to see if and what comes out of this.
On a very low scale I'm already developing the implementation of this combination of looking at the potentially most impactful interventions on their own, and system's thinking which is more about "in what phase of a transition does it make sense to implement what type of interventions". For the moment I'm concentrating on the Multi Level Perspective (Loorbach/Geels etc) and Sustainable Market Transformation model (New Foresight).
I will read some of the literature you mention in the notes, to broaden my horizon.
thanks for the interest. I am considering running some workshops to start bringing the communities a little bit closer together. If you are interested in stuff like that, feel free to reach out to me. Would love to connect with similar minded fellows :)