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Summary:

There is an elephant in the room that the EA community rarely confronts head-on: capitalism. In this essay, I argue that Effective Altruism is a consequence, form, and facilitator of capitalism. After dissecting what I mean by capitalism, I explore how EA epistemologically and materially assists exploitative, racist, and destructive practices of capitalist accumulation. I propose that this undermines the EA movement’s claims to greater effectiveness compared to other social movements. 

In the essay’s second half, I argue that EA has not interrogated how its capitalistic epistemology, wielded from elite settings in the Global North, limits the problems, solutions, and perspectives which it can see. I contend that EA suffers a serious paradox: it derives its power from claiming to identify the most effective allocation of scarce resources, but, given its capitalist epistemology, EA cannot integrate solutions outside capitalism which may be more effective. Either it definitionally short-circuits itself by choosing interventions it cannot confidently rank, or it co-opts these solutions as sites for capitalist accumulation. I use the example of tropical rainforest conservation to illustrate my argument. Throughout, I employ concepts from Marxist, postcolonial, decolonial, and feminist theory. 

I structure the essay as follows:

  1. Summary
  2. Preliminary aside: Who I am, and why am I writing this?
  3. What do I mean by capitalism?
  4. EA as consequence, form, and facilitator of capitalist accumulation
  5. Positionality, and EA’s other epistemological blind-spots
  6. Tropical rainforest conservation example
  7. Conclusion
  8. References

 

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Julia Karbing for a helpful discussion about this essay.

 

2. Preliminary aside: Who I am, and why am I writing this?

Earlier this year, I graduated with a degree in Geography from Oxford University. Like many curious undergraduates, I first encountered EA through the 80k hours website and career guide, which I eagerly consumed, though it left me disappointed. Their suggested high-impact careers seemed unappetizingly narrow and hardly matched my skillset. I felt jettisoned and inadequate before I’d begun. Yet, EA’s core argument of using evidence to select the most tractable, neglected, and impactful issues strongly resonated with me. It still does. 

As my Geography degree progressed, and I read more deeply about postcolonial and feminist Marxism, critical race theory and decolonial theory, I realised that my niggling frustrations with EA went much deeper than a missed global priority area or two. I realised that EA has neglected to theorize how its movement is imbricated in power and the geopolitics of knowledge (explained below). I feel that EA has not listened to critical social theory; as far as I am aware, this might be the first in-depth examination of EA through its lens (though see here). I believe the EA movement is surprisingly myopic when it comes to some of the most important challenges of our times and urgently needs to listen to external critiques, particularly those from the left.

My degree exposed me to numerous critical theorists from both the Global North and South, and I am grateful for tutors that encouraged me to explore diverse authors. These form the backbone of my argument here. That said, I’m a white, male, middle-class graduate from Oxford, and this positionality informs my interpretation of these texts, my argumentation, and my decision to address the EA community in the first place. I write unaffiliated with the EA movement and from outside it. I can’t know the full impact of my identity on my argument, but transparency and self-reflexivity about my positionality are nonetheless vital (Rose, 1997).  

 

3. What do I mean by capitalism?

Left-leaning people often use the term ‘capitalism’ as shorthand without explaining the exploitative system that lies behind this innocent-sounding word. Before I can examine EA in relation to capitalism, my first task is to explain what I mean by capitalism. 

Capitalism is a political system and ideology in which the means of production are held by private companies and operated for the accumulation of private profit. Capitalists try to maximize profit by exploiting the marginal difference between two or more ways of producing some commodity, or between selling different versions of a commodity. The difficulty capitalists face, however, is that this marginal difference is not constantly assured: the resources to produce the commodity will deplete, the commodity may saturate its market, or some externality (such as labour costs or pollution) will become too onerous for the commodity to maintain its advantage. When the original marginal difference evaporates, capitalism undergoes a crisis, and it must move elsewhere to recover an advantage: onto a new resource, a new place, or a new market. In the words of the Marxist geographer David Harvey (2003), capitalism seeks a ‘spatial fix’, a pattern of crisis-driven movement and temporary stabilization. In other words, capitalism survives by shifting the location of its crisis rather than by addressing how its need for perpetual growth – to maintain marginal advantages central to profit accumulation – is inconsistent with a finite planet. These spatial fixes leave climate and ecological breakdown, mass poverty and extreme income inequality in their wake.

Before the onset of capitalism and its feudal precursors, wealth was held in commons: shared resources owned collectively or by no-one from which people can subsist independent of a market. To turn common-pool resources into capital that can circulate within a market, capitalists must privatize an entity’s ownership and redefine its worth in fungible terms. Depriving the original custodians of a resource from self-determined access to it is called enclosure. In Capital, Karl Marx seminally described how capitalism redefined human labour into monetary wages by alienating the worker from the means of production. Theorists after Marx, like Rosa Luxemburg and David Harvey, have argued that capitalism must continually enclose resources to reproduce itself. Harvey (2004) calls this ‘accumulation by dispossession’. 

Capitalism can also be understood as systematically racist, a concept arising from Black Radical thought (see Melamed, 2015). Here, racism refers not only to skin colour or phenotypic difference but to any intergroup difference, such as income or religion. Scholars like Cedric Robinson (1983) and Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2007) argue that intergroup difference becomes the site of marginal advantage which one group then exploits. As the gap between the two group widens due to capital accumulation by the initially dominant group, this reifies racialized discourses, and makes continuing exploitation and inequality easier to justify.

Feminist critiques of capitalism highlight how capitalism is intertwined in this manner with patriarchy. Patriarchy allows (white, heterosexual, middle-/upper-class) men to unevenly accumulate and intergenerationally transmit wealth on the basis of the unpaid or inadequately remunerated female domestic labour, which socially reproduces men and their descendants (e.g., Federici, 2004; Vergès, 2021). At a global scale, colonialism operated, and continues to operate, as a profit-accumulation strategy which was justified through the racial valuation of some bodies, land, and resources as empty ('terra nullius'), rape-able, and exploitable (e.g., Wynter, 2003; McKittrick, 2006; Brynne Voyles, 2015; Simpson, 2017). Postcolonial theorists acknowledge that capitalism is far from seamless, full of resistance and frictions that make another world possible (see Gidwani, 2008), but viewing capitalism as a totalizing system is one way to understand its pernicious material and epistemic reach. 

Decolonial theorists argue that the wealth accumulated through capitalism accrues in one place at the expense of another’s degradation, exhaustion, and eventual destruction. Similarly, one person accrues capital through the destruction of many other people’s capital. Viewed metabolically, as Marx pioneered (see Swyngedouw, 2006), economic growth requires continually ingesting, digesting, and excreting ever larger quantities of resources, which must be extracted from somewhere. Typically, these resources are located in land and people of the Global South. From the mid-1960s onwards, numerous Global-South scholars have advanced the term ‘underdevelopment’ to explain how colonizing powers and extractive corporations actively produce impoverished, so-called ‘undeveloped’ conditions through their extraction of materials, labour-power, and knowledge from the Global South (e.g., Frank, 1966; Rodney, 1972; Hickel, 2017). This body of theory highlights that the Global North’s development was never endogenous or teleological; it derived from negative externalities elsewhere.

Today, a major legacy of franchise colonialism is the unequal currency exchange between the Global North and Global South (i.e., the North has greater purchasing power). In a paper published this year, Eswatini-born economic anthropologist Jason Hickel and his team calculate that the Global North drained the South of $10.8 trillion per year (constant 2010 US dollars) between 1990 and 2015, extracted through these price differentials in international trade (Hickel et al., 2022). Outrageous, yet hardly known, unfairly exploited materials and labour from the Global South constituted 25% of the Global North’s GDP ($242 trillion) through this period. As Global-South scholars have decried for decades, the wealth of the Global North is literally built on the dead and enslaved bodies of people of colour, and the ravaged, toxified environments of the Global South (e.g., Williams, 1944; Mbembe, 2003; McKittrick, 2006; Brynne Voyles, 2015; Vasudevan and Smith, 2020).  

 

4. EA as consequence, form, and facilitator of capitalist accumulation:

With this dissection of capitalism in place, I now explore how EA participates in capitalist accumulation. I build out from Michael Nielsen’s recent definition of EA as “Using evidence and reason to figure out how to benefit others as much as possible, and taking action on that basis". 

 

i) EA as a consequence of capitalism: 

Firstly, without the underdevelopment, high income inequality, enclosure, militarism, incarceration and financial rigging in favour of the Global North that undergird capitalism, EA probably would not need to exist. Without impoverishment, alienation from custodial resources, and reliance on the market, people in the Global South would probably not need much outside aid. For instance, Hickel et al. (2022) calculate that, each year, the Global North extracts from the South enough money to end extreme poverty 70x over. The monetary value extracted from the Global South from 1990 to 2015 - in terms of embodied labour value and material resources - outstripped aid given to the Global South by a factor of 30. 

Please let these statistics sink in. 

Almost all of EA’s occupations are attempts to plug gaps that are the consequence of capitalism. These include extreme poverty and income inequality; escalating warfare (which is intimately tied to securitizing profit accumulation); factory farming; climate change; and the short-termism induced by capitalism’s race-to-the-bottom. In other words, EA never actually tries to solve capitalism’s fundamental crisis, its quest for infinite growth on a finite planet. Instead, EA abets the reproduction of capital by making the system seem just a little less rapacious, a little less short-term, a little less brutal. 

 

ii) EA as a form of capitalism: 

Simultaneously, EA is also a form of capitalism because it is founded on a need to maximize what a unit of resources like time, money, and labour can achieve (the ‘as much as possible’ aspect of EA). EA practitioners then execute an action based on evidentiary identification of marginal difference. Like capitalism, EA might never achieve maximum efficiency, but what matters is that EA has maximization as its goal and tendency. EA shares an economistic epistemology with capitalism: it makes decisions based on comparing two or more quantified entities and executing the more efficient option. EA may identify massive margins, but what matters epistemologically is that it is propelled forward by the constant search for any margin.

On the surface, given EA focuses on maximizing social good, such as lives saved, rather than profit, it might seem opposed to capitalism. However, critical theorists have long viewed capital in extra-monetary terms. Capital is simply value made fungible and exchangeable, whatever that value is, human life, bitcoin, or livestock. Depending on your inclination, you could view EA’s maximization of good-quality human life as maximized future labour supply or as maximized productivity through healthfulness. EA is as easily about monetary efficiency as maximal good. 

I’m not trying to be cynical or conspiratorial here. Of course, humans all deserve to be healthier and happier. Nonetheless, because EA’s route towards greater healthiness and happiness operates through identifying and reifying marginal difference, EA renders the action of making people healthier and safer a site for capital to accumulate. EA is a form and technology of capitalist accumulation. 

The rest of the essay deals with this argument.

 

iii) EA as a facilitator of capitalism:

According to the Colombian-American anthropologist Arturo Escobar (1998), the concept of ‘development’, as promulgated by the Global North, operates as a discursive blindfold on how centuries of pillage, colonialism, and neo-colonialist extractivism have underdeveloped – and continue to underdevelop – the Global South. The North-sponsored global aid movement therefore acts as a legitimizing project to prop up the racial capitalist order, to whitewash capitalists as benevolent profit-makers and value-adders, without addressing the root causes of exploitation that led to the Global South’s underdevelopment in the first place, including South-North debt, unequal currency differentials, neo-colonial extraction, brain drain, and civil wars instigated or abetted by colonial-capitalist governments. Hence, Escobar argues that discourses of developmentalism reinforce and entrench advanced capitalism as the norm towards which ‘undeveloped’ countries must teleologically strive (see also Fabian, 1983). Moreover, they quietly operate as strategies to open up new markets that will later secure capitalism’s next spatial fix through mass consumerism. Although well-meaning people within the Global North truly care about reducing extreme poverty, developmentalism is an ideological project with the goal of protecting capital accumulation. 

I argue that the EA movement offers a new fig-leaf for developmentalism through the discourse of efficiency. EA makes it easier for the capitalist system to obscure the real causes of its crises. It is the new, cleaner face of developmentalism, with shiny credentials and metrics displayed in places like Our World in Data that quantify progress. 

This progress has saved millions of lives, but ultimately the EA community must face up to its role in creating a tool through which capitalism can apply the most efficient sticking plasters to its wounds. The situation recalls the tragic expansion of food banks across Britain: foodbanks may efficiently give people much-needed food, but this doesn’t address why people need the food bank in the place (e.g., see here). It should be little surprise that some of the richest people in the world, having accumulated vast fortunes but left vast externalities in their wake, laud a community that allocates the most minimal amount of money per unit externality to clear it all up. Indeed, applying the feminist critique of social reproduction, the volunteer, grassroots, and public-funded elements of EA can be understood as free sites from which billionaires can source marginal gains in clear-up efficiency. 

We must also analyse how pledging money to EA allows ultrawealthy individuals to consolidate and grow their wealth over time. Here, it is helpful to turn to the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1979), who influentially argued that extra-monetary forms of capital, like social and cultural capital, exist, which enable further monetary accumulation. Prosaically, consider how someone might spend money on a coffee with a work colleague to increase their social capital and career prospects, despite an initial financial expense. The same idea applies to ultrawealthy philanthropists.

Through anticipatory philanthropic pledges, the ultrawealthy gain social capital. For instance, philanthropy allows the ultrawealthy to socialize in new business circles. They and their companies get more media screentime and headlines, which is free marketing. They gain public respect and trust, boosting their sales. They get tax breaks. Thus, by accruing social capital through philanthropy, the ultrawealthy secure and growth their fortunes. (For a rare quantitative and ethnographic study of this phenomenon, see Farrell, 2021). Sociologists argue that this ‘philanthrocapitalism’ perpetuates inequality, concentrates power in the hands of mega-foundations and charities (something EA is rather guilty of), and encourages familial dynasties to cohere around a trust fund, leading to greater intergenerational wealth retention (see Harvey et al., 2011; MacIean et al., 2021; Sklair and Gluksberg, 2021).

Most problematically, philanthropic pledges justify the benevolent existence of billionaires. A wealth cap would be one of the most important pieces of progressive legislation for reducing income inequality and climate breakdown, because it removes the incentive and ability of the ultra-wealthy to pollute and accumulate (see Monbiot, 2021). In contrast, EA provides the ultrawealthy with an ideologically compatible shield to deflect critiques of private wealth, thus sanctioning the existence of massive income inequality. (See, for instance, 80k hours’ ‘earning to give’ career option.) Ben Todd estimated in July 2021 that the EA movement has amassed some $46.1 billion, mainly through Sam Bankman-Fried, founder of the FTX cryptocurrency exchange, and Dustin Moskovitz, co-founder of Facebook. Add to this total Bill Gates’ fortune, Mark Zuckerberg’s, and the other signatories of The Giving Pledge, whose money the EA community would like to access. The EA community must ask whether it is happy to perpetuate greenwashing and whitewashing environmentally and socially destructive capitalists. 

So far, I have outlined how EA is a consequence, form, and facilitator of capitalist accumulation. If the EA community is serious about self-critique, it must therefore ask the following questions:

  • What forms of oppression, destruction, and violence does EA participate in by abetting capitalism?
  • How much potential for good does EA ignore and suppress by not challenging the exploitative foundations of capitalism? 
  • How does quantifying the negative externalities embedded within the money given to EA-backed philanthropy, such as greenhouse-gas emissions and high income inequality, alter the net effectiveness and net good of an EA intervention?

 

***

 

5. Positionality, and EA’s other epistemological blind-spots

A reasonable response to my argument so far might run a bit like this: ‘Your utopian impulses are all very well, but we live in a capitalist world system, and we therefore cannot escape capitalist accumulation. We must be pragmatic. Given resources are scarce, surely EA still offers the most effective, tried-and-tested route to reducing suffering and existential risk?’

I agree that pragmatism is a virtue. I’ll praise EA for helping make dents in extreme poverty and mortality, and for operating more effectively than many other developmentalist charities. I also recognise that I am a hypocrite. I’ll still be consulting EA advice on how to give money well. The definition of a totalizing system is that we must live within it. 

However, the problem with a rebuttal based on pragmatism is that it exculpates EA from soul-searching questions about power dynamics, questions about who has a voice to suggest what truly counts as effective. The invocation of dying children becomes a get-out-of-jail-free card. As I explore below, I believe EA’s lack of attention to its epistemology (‘how it knows what it knows’) leads the community to be dangerously disingenuous about the efficacy of its movement, dismissive of what it cannot quantify, and colonial in its epistemology. Whilst the EA community widely interrogates epistemic certainty (i.e., the confidence weighting to attribute to a piece of EA-admissible evidence), it rarely interrogates which evidence it admits in the first place.

EA is grounded in using “evidence and reason” to establish the most effective use of scarce resources. This seems straightforward and sensible. However, one of the most important contributions of critical theory has been to dismantle the idea that objective evidence exists. The French philosopher Michel Foucault (1970, 1980) developed the enormously influential theory that truth is not something that exists in the world, but is instead a product of power – specifically, the power to control discourse (the way that words have interpersonal meaning by virtue of their societally agreed reference points). Foucault argued that truth is actually normative discourse: ‘power/knowledge’ that everybody within a society has been socialized within, internalizes, and reproduces. As much as any other part of society, power/knowledge shapes academic research. Through repeated citation, certain truths are sedimented whilst other, viable, alternative knowledges are side-lined or erased. 

For example, Foucauldian analysis unpicks how EA’s notion of resources as scarce is not a self-evident truth about reality, but instead a discursive norm made hegemonic and real by capitalist power. Scarcity is reproduced when capitalists search for an ephemeral margin. In contrast, in worldviews where value lies outside growth and accumulation, in things like joy, community, and non-human life, the world is full of radical abundance (see Hickel, 2018). Foucauldian theory highlights that EA accesses its own power/knowledge by enmeshing itself within discourses like scarcity, meaning EA thus has a role in reifying scarcity as something that actually exists in the world. 

Feminist philosophers of science have extended Foucault’s work to argue that the location of a researcher - in terms of the epistemic culture in which they work; their identity, including gender, race, religion, sexuality etc.; their funding, or lack thereof; their professional status, and other intersecting factors – always shapes the knowledge they are able to produce, consume and promote (Harding, 1986; Haraway, 1988). No piece of knowledge can escape the positionality of its producer(s), whether published in Nature or on a blog. Positionality does not undermine the validity of a given piece of research per se, and it is not about being anti-data. Instead, feminist philosophers of science are emphasizing that all research design and conduct contains non-objective influences. For instance, the choice of research question in the first place follows the researcher’s passion and/or their funders’ priorities. Research methodologies choose certain field locations over others and only admit certain research subjects (e.g., many clinical drug trials only involve men; see Criado Perez, 2019), which determines research outcomes. In short, acknowledging partiality embedded in all research undermines the normative ‘truth’ of the Western scientific method, showing it, and the evidence it produces, to be specific choices normalized by powerful gatekeepers and reproduced by legions of schools, universities, and academic journals. 

Given the situatedness of knowledge, it therefore makes sense to talk about knowledge-production having a geopolitics - a concept proposed by the Argentinian decolonial scholar Walter Mignolo (2002). The geopolitics of knowledge describes how certain knowledges are conferred greater epistemic value as a result of where they were produced. For example, research from elite universities tends to be trusted more than that from an activist NGO, even if both were to publish the same document. Research from the Global South is often seen as more parochial than Global-North-produced knowledge. Likewise, non-English-language research is less cited than English publications on similar topics (Di Bitetti and Ferreras, 2017; Neimann Rasmussen and Montgomery, 2018). The key point is that plenty of knowledge and data will be dismissed, never published, and/or never encountered by the people with funding to effect change (such as EA grant-makers) simply because of its producers' position within the geopolitics of knowledge. 

As the Bengali postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1988) has influentially argued, the epistemic problem runs deeper than merely a lack of translators or too much stuff to read. Spivak highlights that in order for non-hegemonic knowledge to pass the first hurdle of being legible to academic gatekeepers, it must be phrased within the terms of the dominant epistemic culture. The issue, however, is that many arguments cannot even be recognised as meaningful utterances when expressed or translated into the terms of the dominant epistemology. For instance, if an Indigenous claimant in a settler-governed country wants to assert their ancestral land-rights, they must use settler legal constructs like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘ownership’, which inflict violence on Indigenous cosmologies and judicial systems which do not contain notions of ownership. Spivak calls this process ‘epistemic violence’: non-hegemonic knowledges and the lifeworlds they sustain are marginalized, silenced and/or rendered unthinkable within, and by, the hegemonic epistemic culture. Thus, whilst assimilating together diverse knowledges and sources of data might sound like a wonderful solution, decolonial theorists stress that assimilation is always on the terms of the dominant epistemic community. Assimilation operates as a technology of epistemic violence and appropriation – of accumulation, in other words.

Let’s apply this to EA. 

EA’s elite location within the current geopolitics of knowledge inevitably sets criteria on the evidence it admits, as described by words like: quantitative, peer-reviewed, stress-tested, red-teamed, meta-analysis, randomized control trial. EA-admissible data therefore only captures a small fraction of total ideas, and may often be misled (see Gabriel, 2016, for examples of this in relation to EA). This seriously limits EA’s ability to know what intervention will be most effective from the theoretical buffet of all possible interventions.

Of course, all epistemic communities have boundaries and necessarily only admit certain voices and certain evidence. This is not a problem in itself. The problem is when an epistemic community located in the upper echelons of the geopolitics of knowledge does not recognise its positionality, when it cites data to legitimize itself, and when its actions are administered on people lower down the current geopolitics of knowledge. 

Put differently, EA’s interventions are only the most effective options according to the priorities and epistemology of its gatekeepers. They are not necessarily the most effective interventions according to the people who receive them. Effectiveness is fundamentally relative to positionality. I do not believe that EA has recognised this, nor that maximal effectiveness is not universally desired. Yes, the people receiving EA’s interventions may agree they are most effective and exactly what they want too, but the crux of my argument is that EA lacks guarantee that they are. 

To be clear, I am not criticizing the importance of using evidence within EA. Instead, I’m asking: Whose “evidence and reason” counts? Who arbitrates? Whose voices get to contribute to the list of most urgent problems and solutions? 

Without recognising that effectiveness depends on positionality, EA thus ignores the following set of blindspots:

  1. Many Global South perspectives on problems, solutions, and sources of evidence will be inadmissible or even un-hearable within EA because they conflict with capitalist epistemology. Global South perspectives are the global majority.
  2. Issues and solutions unamenable to quantitative, capitalistic comparison are dismissed, regardless of where they are produced.
  3. To become recognisable and admissible within EA, knowledge which does not share a capitalistic epistemology may be forced to undergo epistemic violence or some form of distortion.
  4. By not consulting these knowledges, EA may be inflicting epistemic violence, imperialism, and coloniality (colonial knowledge-structures and ways of living; see Quijano, 2000) through the solutions it funds and research design it undertakes.
  5. Collectively, these issues mean that the EA community cannot know whether the interventions they advocate are most effective from the perspectives of the people they are trying to help, or the interventions that the recipients would choose.

EA’s refusal to contend with its positionality is a serious concern because the gulf between the lived experiences, epistemic practices, and power of these communities is especially large. Impoverished people in the Global South are located at the bottom of the current geopolitics of knowledge and future generations have no epistemological sovereignty whatsoever, whilst EA’s gatekeepers, advocates and researchers who arbitrate effectiveness are located in high-income, Anglophone, often elite university settings.

Here, a helpful analogy is to the discipline of anthropology, which realised in the 1980s that its supposedly dispassionate tool of observation told its ethnographers more about Western priorities and biases than it disclosed accurate about people under study in the Global South. Anthropological ethnography supported the colonial project and further disenfranchised its research subjects; Indigenous peoples’ knowledges only counted when mediated by a white ethnographer. EA research is not quite this extreme, but neither is it an unhelpful analogy when we consider how population-health research and long-termist research define and bring into being the populations they advocate interventions over (another of Foucault’s insights; Foucault, 1978). In defining research subjects, researchers foreclose participants from sovereignty over their own affiliations and over what would best address their needs. Even when research is fully participatory, the research write-up and dissemination lie in the hands of epistemically elite researchers in the Global North, who have funders to convince and satisfy. In short, EA’s coloniality is dangerously undertheorized.

 

6. Tropical rainforest conservation example:

To draw the strands of my argument together, let’s imagine that a billionaire philanthropist contacts a grant-maker in the EA community and says, “I want to conserve a patch of rainforest as efficiently as possible.” Pause to consider how the EA grant-maker should respond. 

I’d surmise that grant-maker might try to redirect the billionaire to a more neglected, higher impact, more tractable problem, such as micronutrient deficiency in low-income countries. This is consistent with EA trying to identify marginal gain in terms of where to commit resources. Quantifying the benefit of micronutrient deficiency may be difficult, but in comparison to quantifying the benefit of saving 1000 hectares (ha) of tropical forest, it is far simpler.  

Difficulties in quantifying the value of conserving 1000 ha of rainforest are manifold. Firstly, there is the question of biodiversity (genetic and species-level) and what economic value to attach to the ecological services, like the air purification, cloud production, water absorption, flood control and medical provisioning, that biodiversity provides. Next, there are spatial questions: forest patches are non-fungible due to the varying importance of certain species in habitat connectivity and ecosystem integrity (see idea of keystone species). Given ecological communities are structured nonlinearly (Meron, 2015) and tipping points in complex systems are difficult to predict, the value of conserving one particular 1000 ha patch is practically unevaluable without a major scientific fieldwork and modelling campaign. (For forests as complex adaptive systems, see Chazdon et al., 2013; Simard et al., 2013; Ibarra et al., 2020). Likewise, how should we downscale the basin-scale and global-scale consequences of deforestation (e.g., in terms of carbon budget) to quantify the value of protecting this 1000 ha of forest? Finally, perhaps the most important limit to quantification is that, for the Indigenous community living within it, this forest patch is part of their cosmology, lifeway, and cultural heritage. Trying to quantify ancestral land-rights would inflict huge epistemic violence on Indigenous people.  

Together, these reasons help explain why the EA community appear to have largely ignored the problem of biosphere collapse. For instance, the 80k hours website does not mentions ecological collapse as a major risk or challenge in its own right. In contrast, a paper published in Nature Climate Change this year estimates that the Amazon rainforest is approaching a tipping point in terms of vegetation dieback (Boulton et al., 2022), which could lead to its conversion into savannah, massive forest fires adding billions of tons of carbon emissions to the atmosphere, mass extinctions, and a possible climate-system tipping cascade (see Wunderling et al., 2021). Yet, preventing the Amazon’s collapse hardly seems on EA’s agenda because it is hard to quantify, hard to know what will be effective, and therefore hard to identify all-important marginal gains.

When the grant-maker and the billionaire meet, the grant-maker explains how they have examined the literature on carbon offsetting and rainforest conservation. “The deforestation would probably just move elsewhere,” the grant-maker states (see Schwarze et al., 2002; Delacote et al., 2016). “You’ll probably have far more impact elsewhere”. The billionaire philanthropist is insistent, however. “I have climate goals within my business portfolio, I want to be seen to be doing my bit, and I genuinely want to help,” they reply. “Find me the most effective action”. The grant-maker concedes, begins to explore the literature on ecological service valuation, and makes the calculations as best as possible from the English-language, quantitative, scientific literature. 

Here, we are watching epistemic violence unfold. Quantifying the value of something currently unalienated and held in commons (like a tropical rainforest species) is often the precursor to commodifying it. When common pool resources are attributed monetary value, they become ontologically fungible and enclosable. Many of today’s commons remains uncommodified because their value is difficult to quantify, financialize and speculate on. Even if EA does not act upon its research, the act of bringing the rainforest in line with capitalism is likely to inflict further colonial violence and dispossession on its Indigenous custodians. 

All the while, the EA researcher is probably likely to miss what the people living in the rainforest are advocating for, either because their solutions are unquantifiable or incomparable, or because they are intersectional and indirectly addresses deforestation among other forms of oppression. For instance, one effective solution to deforestation involves ensuring Indigenous people have legal recognition and sovereignty over their land rights (see Garnett et al., 2018; Fa et al., 2020). Another might involve reducing poverty, and providing clean energy technology to address subsistence charcoal burning. Another might involve campaigning for a degrowth agenda that tackles capitalism head-on. Another might involve helping re-install socialist governments that can protect Indigenous rights. These solutions would involve EA giving money to Indigenous people, to left-wing political lobby groups, and to female-run clean energy cooperatives to spend as they see fit. 

As a white, English, armchair commentator, I cannot know which of these solutions will be most effective – and that is precisely my point. Different solutions will work most effectively in different places. It is colonial for EA to believe that it can know what will be most the effective solution for people in the Global South, without even consulting them, especially when EA does not recognise the power/knowledge and artificial scarcity wielded within its capitalistic epistemology. 

Consequently, I suggest that EA is trapped within a paradox. On the one hand, EA misses some of the most urgent problems it should be tackling, which are tractable, but their tractability is not expressible or rank-able within capitalist epistemology. In my example, this corresponds to biosphere collapse not being a major EA priority. Secondly, EA may miss the most long-term impactful solutions because these are either unquantifiable, operate indirectly, or conflict with capitalist epistemology and funders’ priorities. This corresponds to solutions like degrowth (see Schmelzer et al., 2021) or Indigenous-rights advocacy. Assisting social movements that stand against capitalist exploitation may exert a greater net good per unit of resources than the currently most effective EA-advocated solutions. On the other hand – and this is the bind – EA cannot apply its epistemology to find these solutions, either because the effectiveness of these solutions is impossible to quantify or know ante facto, or because ranking effectiveness would inflict epistemic violence on the solution itself (e.g., quantifying the environmental benefit of Indigenous sovereignty). 

 

7. Conclusion:

Put bluntly, I argue that EA cannot claim to offer the most effectively altruistic solutions. Either EA attempts to explore terrains beyond capitalism and ends up undercutting their radical potential by making them a site of capitalist accumulation; or EA doesn’t examine their marginal difference, thus definitionally short-circuiting itself (because it is no longer a maximizing epistemology). This is why the charge of pragmatism with which I opened the second half of the essay falters. EA’s claim that it offers the most pragmatic solutions so far identified only makes sense when we ignore that effectiveness depends on positionality. EA only has a guarantee of effectiveness from the perspective of a narrow elite group of people in the Global North. They, and their donors, can accumulate capital through EA and have not yet interrogated how EA’s solutions participate in oppression and colonialism. 

We still need EA in the same way that, sadly, we need foodbanks in Britain: to give relatively efficient, vital support to people eaten up and spat out by capitalism. But the urgent task for the EA community is to see how EA, like foodbanks, does not challenge capitalism itself. EA instead is a consequence, form, and facilitator of capitalism. The profound challenge for the EA community is that it must work towards its own extinguishment. EA practitioners must widely reflect upon and interrogate their own positionality, whilst accepting that they will never be able to know its full impact, and therefore acting with caution and humility (Rose, 1997). The skills, ideas, and research capabilities of the EA community could enrich intersectional, decolonial, and degrowth social movements, bringing an important quantitative lens. However, until EA recognises its intimate imbrication with capitalism, it will remain myopic, colonial, and disingenuous about its effectiveness. 

 

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Comments19
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Thanks for taking the time to write this up. I have a few reactions to reading it:

EA as a consequence of capitalism

I just want to call out that this in itself isn't a valid criticism of EA, any more than it would be a valid criticism of the social movements that you favour. But I suspect you agree with this, so let's move on.

EA as a form of capitalism

Simultaneously, EA is also a form of capitalism because it is founded on a need to maximize what a unit of resources like time, money, and labour can achieve

I think you've made a category error here. I hear your comment that 'critical theorists have long viewed capital in extra-monetary terms', but whatever resource we're talking about, the kind of capitalist system you're describing is people trying to grab as much of that resource as possible for themselves. That's what the 'maximization' is all about.

EA is not trying to use time, money, and labour to maximally hoard resources, it's using them to try and maximally improve the long-term future/alleviate suffering/avoid extinction risks/etc. 

I would expect any social movement you care about to be doing something similar with regards to its own goals. I do hear that you have concerns about focusing too hard on efficiency/optimization, but I don't agree that this is the property of capitalism that causes harm, rather its lack of a means to incentivise optimizing for public (vs private) goods.

EA as a facilitator of capitalism

I would really like concrete examples if you're going to make this argument. My impression is that people tend to make this case without providing any, and as a result I'm highly sceptical of the claim.

Can you show me a couple of case studies where an EA-backed aid program plausibly thwarted meaningful political change that would otherwise have occurred in some area of the world? Without that, I don't think we can have a productive conversation on this point.

I accept that aid is sometimes used to disingenuously manipulate public opinion, but I do not think the correct response to this is to stop trying to help people! (I think this would be true even if most aid was given in bad faith). 

I also think the idea that EA funds help bad actors to better disingenuously manipulate public opinion doesn't make sense. I think most of the public would consider EA funds a pretty weird place to put money, and even if some bad actor could claim they saved 100x as many lives and EA had helped them do it, our cognitive biases around large numbers mean this probably wouldn't play significantly better in terms of PR. The extra 99x lives saved, however, would remain saved.

Finally, I am strongly against any line of thinking that implies we should deliberately be more neglectful so people in need get angry and revolt, ultimately making things better in the long run. You don't go this far in your piece, but I think you get pretty close. 

There are many reasons I think this kind of idea is wrongheaded, but for a start I think it's disrespectful to those in suffering to act like they somehow need to be 'prodded' into realizing things could work better than they do, and doubly so to try and do this by deliberately abstaining from helping them when it's within your ability to do so. I hope we can agree on that!

Foucault, Critical Theory, etc.

one of the most important contributions of critical theory has been to dismantle the idea that objective evidence exists

I actually spent some time at university in the post-Kantian philosophy space. There was a point when I really liked it, but now I find it problematically navel-gazey.

For example, claiming a worldview that values 'joy, community, and non-human life' would somehow 'de-reify' scarcity as something that actually exists in the world seems completely unhelpful to me. Scarcity pretty straightforwardly predates capitalism and feudalism (see starvation), and I think having a joy- and community-based value system comes nowhere close to building the structures that will let us avoid it.

That said, 'EA-admissible data therefore only captures a small fraction of total ideas' is correct, and I tend to agree with you that EA should act a lot more like it (post here). I just encourage you not to push this to the point where you're making statements like 'objective evidence doesn't exist'. Even if they are in some sense true, they are totally impractical, and so are (rightfully, I think) offputting to most people.

I think you mostly bring critical theory up in the context of deciding what evidence to act on. For all of its flaws, including, as you say, that it inevitably falls short of being fully inclusive, focused and quantitative approaches have yielded some pretty amazing results. 

What pushed me over into the EA consensus here is Philip Tetlock's Superforecasting. There's something about being able to consistently predict the future better than everyone else that I find pretty convincing, and Tetlock's background is also in the humanities. I really recommend reading it.

I agree it is very important that people get to work on projects in areas without pre-researched interventions or randomized control trials they can use to argue their ideas will work, because I think your observations relating to diversity and bias in who gets to have those things funded are correct. I just don't think there's anything wrong with an ecosystem that decides to focus on areas where the RCTs do already exist.

Finally, I care about a method of change's track record, and I'm not particularly convinced by critical theory in this area (you might want to look into Martin Heidegger's politics). I want to take their insights around how atypical and underleveraged it is to listen to diverse viewpoints, use that to update very hard on the views of people with different experiences and backgrounds to my own, and then get to work. 

In the volunteering that I have done, no other part of the critical theory you cite throughout your piece has proven particularly useful. It's worth noting that unions and social movements predate critical theory!

General comment on the idea that EA is opposed to social change

EA is not opposed to social change movements. I donate to Sunrise Movement on the recommendation of https://www.givinggreen.earth/ , there is also https://www.socialchangelab.org/

I regularly hear criticism along the lines of 'EA by its very structure cannot question the dynamics of power, it can only work within the existing political system', and I think this is straightforwardly false. 

Political system change certainly isn't a focus of EA from what I've seen, but that is mostly because EA folks tend to like numbers and statistics, which can't be leveraged in quite such interesting ways when working with grassroots organizations. The typical elite background of EAs probably also makes grassroots organization unappealing on some aesthetic level too to be fair, which seems more problematic.

That said, this says something about the personal preferences of the EA community, but it does not render EA opposed to other communities doing grassroots work. In specific cases where EA gets in the way of another community, of course they should communicate and try to resolve the issue, but generally I think the best solution is pretty clearly to live and let live. 

Some people like doing good with statistics, some people like doing good with organizing, those preferences lend themselves to different cause areas, and I am very grateful to both groups of people.

Tropical rainforest example

I want to hear more about this, as based on what you've written it sounds like a great cause to prioritize. (I acknowledge that you're worried EA cause-prioritizing the amazon will lead to commodifying the amazon, and hopefully I've explained why I disagree with that above).

Hi tcelferact, 

Thank you for taking the time to engage so deeply with my essay. I apologise for the delay in replying. I’ve been on holiday since I posted, and unfortunately I’ve been unable to reply as fully as I wanted until now. I’ll offer some thoughts and responses I have after reading your valuable comments. 

 

EA as a form of capitalism:

I agree that EA does not try to hold onto the material resources that pass through its actors. I also agree that all social movements must accumulate extra-monetary forms of capital, such as knowledge, social capital and political buy-in. 

What I want to question, however, is how the EA movement processes its resources in ways that facilitate and mimic capitalism. You state that incentivising for public goods is the core problem under capitalism. I concur, but my argument is that EA makes it easier for their disincentivization because it tries to make the process of addressing externalities as efficient as possible, conducted privately. EA plugs the gaps caused by structural economic inequality (like unequal currency exchange or the lack of reparations for centuries of slavery), rather than centring these as the fundamental issues at stake. System-wide problems cannot be fixed overnight, and I agree there is a moral duty to alleviate suffering most efficiently. Yet, my concern is that EA becomes myopic because of its intense focus on the latter. 

 

EA as a facilitator of capitalism:

The major thrust of my piece is to argue that the aid movement is structurally embedded within capitalist priorities of the Global North, even if it aims to be as effective as possible within this paradigm. I do not argue that aid is being used to disingenuously manipulate public opinion or that EA is a better vehicle than any other for hoodwinking the public. Critical theory is not about conspiracy, but about providing tools to unpick the naturalization of power.

Throughout my piece, I am also clear that we should never neglect people in need. I argued that we still need EA’s insights, just as people in food poverty need food banks in the Global North, but this should not neglect us from trying to work towards identifying the structures underpinning suffering. Nor do I suggest that deprivation would somehow prod people in the Global South into action. Indeed, my argument is the converse: people in the Global South are full of ideas and solutions – yet the EA community needs prodding towards creating the epistemic architecture to listen to more of these. 

Unfortunately, concrete sociological examples of the behaviour of ultrawealthy people are rare. It is a highly under-researched field, due to difficulties accessing this secretive, exclusive population and researcher biases towards studying more oppressed groups. One example I am aware of is Justin Farrell’s (2021) book Billionaire Wilderness, which is an ethnographic and quantitative study of philanthropocapitalism in Teton Country, Wyoming, the richest county in the US. Farrell quantitatively traced how his contacts socialized with each other, donated to local environmental and educational charities, as well as examining their attitudes through in-depth interviews. Farrell found clear evidence that philanthropy acted as “a valuable form of social currency in the community” with an emergent status market. He documents how the influx of great wealth created a greater need for this local charity, due to its inflation of the local real estate market. He argues, on the basis of this data, that there was a “strong tendency towards politically safe projects that reinforce the status quo” and preserve social philanthropic networks (p.g.160). This philanthropic field is very different to EA’s global, evidence-backed philanthropy. However, I’m inclined to agree with Farrell’s conclusion that “most rich philanthropists are neither entirely good Samaritans, giving altruistically for the purity of a cause, nor are they entirely evil colonialists with hidden self-interest or ideas of self-aggrandizement”. 

 

Foucault, critical theory, etc. 

I think critical theory can often appear “problematically navel-gazey” because it asks that people with greater privilege interrogate the way in which they participate in structures of power, which is something they are unaccustomed to, even if they are inclined to scrutinize evidence. Social scientists call this ‘reflexivity’, and it can be unsettling and difficult. For instance, it can be uncomfortable to appreciate how Western science facilitated colonialism and how it remains suffused with coloniality (see: Livingstone [2003] Putting Science in Its Place: Geographies of Scientific Knowledge; Saini [2019] Superior: The Return of Race Science; Poskett [2022] Horizons: A Global History of Science; Raja et al. [2022] Nat. Ecol. & Evol. 6, pp.145-154). 

Talking about privilege in ways that foment white fragility, guilt or paralysis doesn’t help anyone. However, if people can recognise and then steward their privilege – for instance, as a grantmaker, admitting non-normative perspectives and problems – then I think this is how communities work towards undoing racism and inequity. It is also worth remembering that Foucault’s understanding of power is as much generative as disciplinary. EA wields power productively, by defining a population over which health interventions can be administered, to improve overall wellbeing.

 

On scarcity:

Without a question, not everyone has the resources they need to live a healthy, happy, fulfilled life. However, my point is that what the most powerful epistemic actors discursively label as scarcity creates what we perceive as scarcity in society (Althusser called this ‘interpellation’). Therefore, the first step to overcoming how capitalism exacerbates inequality and interpellates scarcity is to disentangle what constitutes a lack of resources that 8 billion humans genuinely need from what resources are scarce because capitalism convinces us we need them to get ahead. So, whilst I entirely agree that many people lack the bare necessities of life (i.e., they are scarce), I want EA to realise how it participates in the discourse of scarcity that forecloses the possibility of other economic frameworks, built on the wealth found in community, joy and other non-material forms abundance. 

 

Quantitative approaches:

I’ll be sure to read Superforecasting by Tetlock - thanks for the recommendation. Quantitative approaches have brought big strides in progress; all I’m asking is that EA does not neglect what cannot be quantified accurately, or what, if quantified, might pave a road towards commodification. 

 

Methods’ track records:

I think your comment about critical theory not having a good track record misunderstands the systemic nature of the geopolitics of knowledge. We need to listen to diverse viewpoints and include diverse voices, but that alone is insufficient to challenge how non-hegemonic knowledge can only be admitted, heard, and acted upon if it submits to the terms of the dominant epistemic culture. So, yes, we can get to work and update our perspectives, but the most valuable work is to challenge the knowledge architecture of the movement in the first place. This is what social movements and unions try to do. Critical theory is merely the route that admits this into the academy via continental philosophy and citation patterns – aka, expressed within the dominant epistemic culture.

 

General comment on the idea that EA is opposed to social change:

Thanks for flagging these charities and movements to me. 

EA can question the dynamics of power, and I agree that it does; my essay is focused, however, on the structures of power that EA may not realise it is participating within, such as its sanctioning of massive private wealth by encouraging billionaires to join EA-backed philanthropy. I’m arguing that this may be an impediment to EA seeing what is most effective or engaging other social movements, which dislike EA’s lack of attention to power and oppression.

You’ve phrased this very nicely: “Some people like doing good with statistics, some people like doing good with organizing, those preferences lend themselves to different cause areas, and I am very grateful to both groups of people.” Both areas should cross-fertilize each other, and accept different epistemic norms, and this requires engaging non-antagonistically with different admissibility criteria for evidence. 

 

Tropical rainforest example:

My argument is not that EA would commodify the Amazon per se, but that it may be impossible for EA to identify the most effective strategy from the perspective of Amazonian residents. EA’s quantification process may participate within forms of carbon colonialism, even if this is never intended. Again, the power of critical theory is to unpick mechanism of power/knowledge which are otherwise naturalized. 

 

Thanks again for your engagement, and I hope my comments are useful. 

This reads (at least to me) as taking a softer line than the original piece, so there's not as much I disagree with, and quite a lot that's closer to my own thinking too. I might add more later, but this was already a useful exchange for me, so thanks again for writing and for the reply! I have upvoted (I upvoted the original also), and I hope you find your interactions on here constructive.

Edit: One thing that seems worth acknowledging: I agree there is a distinctive form of 'meta-' reflection that is required if you want be meaningfully inclusive, and my reply didn't capture that with 'listen to diverse viewpoints, use that to update very hard...'. I think your 'challenge the knowledge architecture' phrase is fuzzy but is getting at something useful, as the process definitely involves updating your heuristics around what sorts of contributions are valuable (versus e.g. just listening to people from different backgrounds for contributions that you consider valuable). I am inclined to credit social movements and not critical theory with figuring out how to do this though, and participating in social movements with being the best way to get better at it yourself!

I actually think that the fact that they used critical theory in a non-moral context is very serious evidence that this article is a hit piece, and the claim that there is no objective evidence is a favorite claim of people who's beliefs wouldn't stand up to the objective evidence that doesn't favor their argument.

Essentially, what this post is done is come in with an argument against EA and capitalism with the bottom line precomputed already, then denies that objective evidence can exist, probably because the evidence that is there doesn't support his thesis that capitalism is bad, and supports the opposite thesis that capitalism is good. It's a hit piece against EA.

See these links for more details: A note is that if we consider all sentient beings, the curve of welfare does turn severely negative for animals under capitalism thanks to factory farming and habitat destruction, and without massive change the conclusion that capitalism has harmed sentient life outside humanity would probably hold. I do think there will be massive change, but unfortunately this century may not change much. https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/089533003769204335 https://www.cold-takes.com/has-life-gotten-better-the-post-industrial-era/

From the mid-1960s onwards, numerous Global-South scholars have advanced the term ‘underdevelopment’ to explain how colonizing powers and extractive corporations actively produce impoverished, so-called ‘undeveloped’ conditions through their extraction of materials, labour-power, and knowledge from the Global South (e.g., Frank, 1966; Rodney, 1972; Hickel, 2017).

I'm curious, how do such scholars explain why "colonizing powers and extractive corporations" failed to produce ‘undeveloped’ conditions in places like South Korea and Japan, whereas places that definitively kept out "colonizing powers and extractive corporations" such as China (from about 1950 to 1980) and North Korea were/are nevertheless afflicted with ‘undeveloped’ conditions?

Hi Wei, 

Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry for the delay in my response. I’ve been on holiday since posting, and wanted to wait until I could reply fully. 

There is an important distinction is between the terms ‘undeveloped’ and ‘underdeveloped’. Undeveloped is a normative contrast made between low-income, poorly socially provisioned areas and high-income, well-provisioned areas. In contrast, ‘underdeveloped’ is an activist term to refer to how an area’s level of development is actively reduced to facilitate development of an area elsewhere. 

You ask about East Asian countries in this context. I’m no expert, but it’s important to bear in mind that the US financed a massive economic recovery programme in Japan during its occupation and later relationship with Japan, which intersecting with growth via the military-industrial complex during the Korean War. See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japanese_economic_miracle#Overview 

In other words, it is not so much about teleology or whether a country was colonized in the past, but what the ongoing forms of extractivism look like. Typically, these have followed centre-periphery, colonizer-colonized relationships of neo-extraction, but they don't always. For instance, the US allowed Eastern Europe and Japan control over their own economies, governments and protectionist policies following WWII, leading to a rapid return to high income levels and social provisioning, whereas in the 1980s huge swathes of the newly ‘independent’ countries of the Global South were forced to accept Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) by the IMF and World Bank when they entered recessions. SAPs were massive free-market austerity programmes that eviscerated government civil services and social programmes, removed protectionist policies to develop domestic industry, burdened countries with massive infrastructure projects that indebted them to the Global North, and inflicted massive poverty. Simultaneously, socialist reformers such as Burkinabe president Thomas Sankara who threatened debt cancellations and reparations were assassinated or deposed through Western-backed coups. Good sources to learn more about this are: Dowden (2014) Africa - see chapter on Uganda; Slater (2004) Geopolitics and the Post-Colonial: Rethinking North-South Relations. 

So, what matters is the form of the extractive relationships, rather than past colonized status per se. 

Hope this clarification helps! 

Here's an interesting (admittedly quite old) paper discussing trends in global poverty: https://pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/089533003769204335

The paper points to a great deal of research highlighting that economic growth and strengthened property rights have a strong correlation with the well-being of the poorest.

I would agree that capitalism leads to some seemingly outrageous outcomes, but the question is not one of whether capitalism is fair, but whether there's a better alternative. I'm yet to see compelling evidence that there is (feel free to prove me wrong though!).

The difficulty capitalists face, however, is that this marginal difference is not constantly assured: the resources to produce the commodity will deplete, the commodity may saturate its market, or some externality (such as labour costs or pollution) will become too onerous for the commodity to maintain its advantage.

You have a misunderstanding of what externalities are. Labor costs are not an externality. Pollution can be an externality, but that by definition cannot make a commodity less profitable. Coal power plants are bad for society and the world precisely because pollution is an externality and does not reduce the profitability of coal, so the producers of electricity can earn profits by burning it and the consumers of coal power benefit from low prices but neither group suffers the cost of the pollution, which is borne by people breathing the smoggy downstream air or impacted by global warming. If there were any externality tax, then pollution would make coal less profitable, but it would no longer be bad to operate a coal power plant (we'd do it if and only if the benefits of the electricity exceeded the harms of the pollution).

That's also not the main difficulty faced by capitalists - rather, it's competition from other capitalists.

[anonymous]7mo4
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"These spatial fixes leave climate and ecological breakdown, mass poverty and extreme income inequality in their wake." This is empirically false. If you think that capitalism started in 1800 and gradually took over the world over the following 200 years, then you will notice that mass poverty has not in fact increased. In fact, capitalism brought literally the first sustained increase in living standards ever. Living standards increase by more than all prior human history combined, on any objective measure of welfare. Global income inequality also declined after east Asia went capitalist after WW2. 

You say that capitalism is the cause of patriarchy and racism. Over the last 200 years which you and Marx posit as the period of capitalist dominance, patriarchy has declined enormously, and the welfare of women has  increased enormously. Capitalist societies are much less patriarchal than pre-capitalist societies and non-capitalist societies. Sexual violence is much lower in capitalist societies than in pre-capitalist societies. 

The welfare of non-white people in Asia has also increased enormously since they went capitalist. Capitalist societies are also much less racist than societies in the pre-industrial period. 

You attribute environmental degradation to capitalism. There is some truth in this to the extent that capitalism increases consumption, which sometimes (not always) causes increased environmental damage. However, a lot of fossil fuels are owned by governments not private capitalists. Environmental management is worse than in capitalist countries, along many dimensions. 

I'd like to spend more time digesting this properly, but the statistics in this paragraph seem particularly shocking to me:

"For instance, Hickel et al. (2022) calculate that, each year, the Global North extracts from the South enough money to end extreme poverty 70x over. The monetary value extracted from the Global South from 1990 to 2015 - in terms of embodied labour value and material resources - outstripped aid given to the Global South by a factor of 30. "

They also seem hard to reconcile with each other. If the global north extracts every year 70 times what it takes to end extreme poverty (for one year or forever?), and from 1995-2015 the extracted value per year was only 30 times bigger than the aid given per year, then doesn't it follow that the global north is already giving in aid more than double what is needed to end extreme poverty (either at a per year rate or each year it gives double what is needed to end poverty for good)? What am I missing?

It can't be that the figure is 'what it would take to end extreme poverty with no extraction', because that figure would just be zero under this argument wouldn't it?

Hi Toby, 

Thanks for flagging this, and apologies for the delayed reply (I've been on holiday since posting, and wanted to compose a full reply). 

I've double-checked the paper and I believe I am reporting it accurately. I trust this journal, but I'm not a specialist in economics. I'd encourage you to check out their paper and methodology, for more details.

Here's part of their abstract for clarification: 

"Our results show that in 2015 the North net appropriated from the South 12 billion tons of embodied raw material equivalents, 822 million hectares of embodied land, 21 exajoules of embodied energy, and 188 million person-years of embodied labour, worth $10.8 trillion in Northern prices – enough to end extreme poverty 70 times over. Over the whole period, drain from the South totalled $242 trillion (constant 2010 USD). This drain represents a significant windfall for the global North, equivalent to a quarter of Northern GDP. For comparison, we also report drain in global average prices. Using this method, we find that the South’s losses due to unequal exchange outstrip their total aid receipts over the period by a factor of 30." 

Here's the relevant explanation section on extreme poverty: 

"This drain represents a significant loss for the South. For perspective, $10.8 trillion would have been enough to end extreme poverty 70 times over in 2015; i.e., with reference to the poverty gap at $1.90 per day in 2011 PPP, which is expressed in roughly the equivalent of Northern prices (World Bank 2021). It is worth noting that this result is larger than previous estimates of drain through unequal exchange (e.g., five times larger than in Hickel et al., 2021). This is because the footprint data we use here captures not only traded goods but also the upstream resources and labour embodied in the production of traded goods, which results in a larger North-South price differential (d)."

Here's the section on aid:

"Our results show that net appropriation by DAC countries through unequal exchange from 1990 to 2015 outstripped their aid disbursements over the same period by a factor of almost 80 (Table 5, fourth column). In other words, for every dollar of aid that donors give, they appropriate resources worth 80 dollars through unequal exchange. From the perspective of aid recipients, for every dollar they receive in aid they lose resources worth 30 dollars through drain....the empirical evidence on unequal exchange demonstrates that poor countries are poor in large part because they are exploited within the global economy and are therefore in need of justice." 

"The key point is that plenty of knowledge and data will be dismissed, never published, and/or never encountered by the people with funding to effect change (such as EA grant-makers) simply because of its producers' position within the geopolitics of knowledge. " This is terrible. And I believe EA does care about solving it, though maybe not as much as it should.

"As much as any other part of society, power/knowledge shapes academic research." Science is not the same as social media, but we are in full agreement that it is subject to influence and bias. I would say EA is highly interested in decreasing that power/influence dynamic.

"EA may be inflicting epistemic violence, imperialism, and coloniality through the solutions it funds and research design it undertakes." Aid is optional and voluntary. Even so I believe indigenous ways of thinking and living will be unintentionally damaged and lost by charitable efforts. I believe this is acceptable if the good is greater than the harm, though we may be unqualified to determine the extent of the harm.  I don't think simply consulting and asking how indigenous peoples want to be helped would address your critique? The alternative, as I understand it, is to operate via their ways of being, (if it is even possible) which is unclear how to speak their language, absorb their morals, understand their lives, and do this all efficiently so as to provide the most benefit. We already recognize that giving directly and cash transfers are some of the most effective ways to assist.

"When common pool resources are attributed monetary value, they become ontologically fungible" Its necessary to compare values and prioritize actions. Without trying to estimate value and compare across them, we resort to the art of acting based on general principles and we risk worse imbalanced actions. I am open to alternative methods but I maintain they need to be as universal and grounded in truth as possible. This is because we are acting for the world, and all its cultures. While I am sympathetic that we often steer wrong -- for example by favoring legible metrics over unquantifiable unknowns and often asking the wrong questions -- we at least acknowledge these problems and are making efforts to combat known dangers. Again, as far as I know, there are no better alternatives in other cultures. We all struggle with this.

"It is colonial for EA to believe that it can know what will be most the effective solution for people in the Global South, without even consulting them" - This is why EA starts with "saving lives" as it seems to be universally valuable. And EA does consult with the global south, as shown by give directly, cash transfers, and many other EA efforts. (Because it works according to measured outcomes, not because it avoids neocolonialism.)

"Through anticipatory philanthropic pledges, the ultrawealthy gain social capital. " Are you saying the world is worse off every time massive donations are made - it does more damage than benefit? I assume you are not going that far. If all donations stopped, I think the ultrawealthy would still gain social capital from their wealth in other (worse) ways. Even if I agree capitalistic systems are a horrible trap, I'm not sure that altruistic donations have that much to do with perpetuating capitalism. I don't think capitalism would be closer to falling apart or be revealed as a scam. I don't think charitable giving especially subverts judgement of societies/cultures/systems. Its an observed rate of donations. We can compare it to rates of charitable effort under other systems/cultures/situations/regulations. If its better, its better. If its worse, its worse. 

Hi EcologyInterventions,

Many thanks for your engagement with my work. I apologise for the delay in replying; I've been on holiday since posting, and wanted to wait until I could compose a full response. 

Let me offer my thoughts to each of yours.

  1. EA missing and ignoring knowledge: I agree, the current geopolitics of knowledge production and consumption represents a terrible state of affairs – and a systemic one, not limited to EA. The core question is whether EA’s epistemic architecture (in terms of what perspectives and evidence-sources it admits) allow EA to see the most urgent problems and effective solutions? I’m arguing that the EA community needs to do some serious soul-searching on this point, and discuss the systemic blind-spots that follow from its epistemic architecture around maximization and efficiency.
  2. 'Overcoming' power/knowledge: Glad we agree on this! The challenge, nevertheless, is that power/knowledge is not something that can be overcome per se. Whilst positionality can be recognised, mitigated against to some extent, and the most egregious cases of bias within scientific research must be called out (see Caroline Criado Perez's work, for instance), power/knowledge will always persist, simply in a mutated form. Attempting to strive for objectivity is like striving to become a god (Donna Haraway [1988] calls it a ‘god-trick’). Perhaps what I'm asking from EA is a little more humility and self-reflection?
  3. & 5. Coloniality: You summarise the issue I’m raising really well with your clause: “we may be unqualified to determine the extent of the harm”. An EA policy intervention in the Global South may be the least harmful available, but an EA researcher in the Global North cannot know this. In response to your point #5, this is what makes EA epistemologically colonial: even if EA does consult with the Global South, because the ranking of interventions takes place via the global North, it remains suffused with coloniality. Let's celebrate that EA gives cash directly; I’m not disputing that this is a really important, effective way to assist people and materially address some of the injustices of extractivism. However, what I want to highlight as potentially colonial is that EA only backs this intervention because it performs well in peer-reviewed ‘measured outcomes’. In other words, it’s the difference between giving a community $1000 in solidarity with them and their own struggles, to spend as they see fit, versus giving the community $1000 because several scientific papers tell us that is most effective. They might achieve the same thing, but there is a major epistemic difference between the two.
  4.  Prioritization: I agree that we need to prioritize actions, to ensure we do not further imbalance the world. Thank you for acknowledging that EA may miss unquantifiable unknowns. However, I am concerned by your statement: “This is because we are acting for the world, and all its cultures”. I find the paternalism and omniscience here disquieting, because it sets up a kind of god complex through which the EA community can believe it has a duty to know on behalf of everyone, and apply its methods universally, forgetting the positionality of the comparatively tiny community that developed its moral code. Why can’t methods of comparison be plural - different methods of comparison for different situations, depending on what is most important to protect or maximize in a given context (e.g., life, happiness, long-term health etc.)?

6.  Ultrawealthy philanthropy: I’m saying that, firstly, massive donations are a major way through which extreme wealth inequality is normalized as a benevolent thing, and secondly, that we need to consider the net good of any EA intervention, adjusted on the basis of the negative externalities contained within that money. (Net good may remain positive, of course - though not as effective, perhaps, as never having that inequality in the first place. Some data here would be useful, I agree). I may have laboured my point about social capital deflecting attention, but I stand behind the argument that philanthropy is an accumulation strategy and justification against policy interventions to end extreme wealth inequality. I’d argue that the most effective thing here would be a wealth gap to more evenly distribute wealth across society.

Thanks again for your comments; I hope my remarks clarify some areas of misunderstanding.

Thank you for your thoughtful response!

1) I'm concerned with our lack of awareness, and obstacles to gaining awareness (our epistemic architecture). I am concerned with the deafening silence in science from many regions of the world.  I am okay with EA restricting its views to those most likely to be universal, but this takes being humble and self-aware.

4) EA only backs this intervention because it performs well in peer-reviewed ‘measured outcomes’. In other words, it’s the difference between giving a community $1000 in solidarity with them and their own struggles, to spend as they see fit, versus giving the community $1000 because several scientific papers tell us that is most effective. 

I am for reduced certainty in the face of so much unaccounted for, and far more respect for autonomy. 

When it comes to relying on measured outcomes, I'm not sure what choice we have.  I often hear that measured outcomes are illegitimate. "Incomplete" I can agree with. Values like equality, representation, evidence, fairness, and prosperity may be arbitrary and colonial, but they are tailored for contexts of populous intercultural conflicts concerning material things.* I'm honestly doubtful that other value systems are better in this context. (but looking for recommendations!) If we do not use measured outcomes, then what do we do instead? 

*EA fails at fulfilling spiritual needs. I think this is because spiritual fulfillment does not transfer between contexts, but I am interested in finding more effective ways to improve spiritual fulfillment. It is highly likely it does not look like EA/colonial systems.

Yes, I am using my value system to legitimize my value system, but the obstacles remains even when following the resounding calls to listen more, transfer sovereignty, lift up etc. We are still using those value systems to legitimize themselves. Nor is it as simple as unconditionally accepting all value systems simultaneously.  Assuming total ignorance is obviously worse: giving equally to powerful and powerless! Instead we must somehow average value systems together. I believe the colonialist science approach was built for the sake of attempting to do that neutrally. Now there might be a much better way to do it, (I think you are suggesting this!) and it would be insanely valuable to have a better method/set of methods. As of now, I'm not sure what it is. I can only heartily agree on the meta-level that we keep searching for something better. Averaging between value systems, trying to jump outside my own value system, looks like measured outcomes as far as I can tell, despite the colonial roots. (-?)

Recognizing our sizable ignorance is obviously correct; our best guess is almost certainly wrong! I think more "methods of comparison for different situations, depending on what is most important to protect or maximize in a given context (e.g., life, happiness, long-term health etc.)" is enormously good and I would say already a core part of most EA efforts! I think we  attempt several in a sort of "insurance" against being wrong.

We ought to promote autonomy and sovereignty way more. I am realizing this more and more throughout this discussion. 

*As a metaphor: if someone is putting their lives at risk when rock climbing, there are times it is right to intervene and there are times it is right to respect their autonomy. There are many points to consider in such complex decisions: your relationship, how well you know them, their age, their history of decisions, their joy from rock climbing, etc etc. I think this is the same with cultures. Sometimes it is right to briefly supersede their autonomy, but only in the most clearly egregious circumstances. Autonomy is so highly valuable as to supersede acting "for their sake" according to our own values of reducing self-harm. This is hard to see. Really hard to see. And I thank you for bring it up and pointing it out. 

4) “This is because we are acting for the world, and all its cultures”. I find the paternalism and omniscience here disquieting, because it sets up a kind of god complex through which the EA community can believe it has a duty to know on behalf of everyone, and apply its methods universally, forgetting the positionality of the comparatively tiny community that developed its moral code.

I do not mean that EA knows best, quite the opposite! EA is only sure that it does not know, so it is trying to take the least assumptive actions which are most likely to be shared, most likely to be true for most people now and in the future. That we A) ought not to shirk the power we have to do good, B) must attempt to work for the sake of all, not just a few. I am not at all comfortable that EA is doing it right.

 

To summarize: 

  • The unknown unknowns, the known unknowns, and the difficult-to-measure values are extremely important and neglected. We should do more to address that, even though it is hard.
  • Assuming ignorance and trying to act on values which are most likely to be shared and future-proof is highly important. 
  • We must remain humble, critical of our methods, and incorporate ever more viewpoints so we may work as universally as possible. 
  • There is not one method that works in all circumstances, but many methods for many different contexts. 
  • Autonomy has great value that supersedes most other values. 
  • This must be taken extremely seriously, even against generally "safe" values like saving lives and reducing disease. 

Thank you for writing this Matthew, I agree that capitalism is the elephant in the room that requires much more active engagement and soul searching by EA. It reminds me of Mark Fisher’s work on ‘capitalist realism’, which he defined as "the widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it." According to Fisher, the quotation "it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism" encompasses the essence of capitalist realism.

From Wikipedia:

“According to Fisher, capitalist realism has so captured public thought that the idea of anti-capitalism no longer acts as the antithesis to capitalism. Instead, anti-capitalism is deployed as a means for reinforcing capitalism. This is done through modern media which aims to provide a safe means of entertaining anti-capitalist ideas without actually challenging the system. The lack of coherent alternatives, as presented through the lens of capitalist realism, leads many anti-capitalist movements to cease targeting the end of capitalism, but instead to mitigate its worst effects, often through individual consumption-based activities such as Product Red.”

This is most evident to me in the AI safety space, which I am still trying to understand (AI is not my expertise, but I have been following the AI safety discourse a bit through the 80k podcast). For all the emphasis on AI existential risks, it seems an entirely open question whether the increased attention (through EA / the FLI letter etc) didn’t contribute to increased investments in Machine Learning/ AI and essentially lead to AI developments accelerating, bringing us closer to the feared outcome? For a movement that is so concerned with doing the most good, shouldn’t avoiding increased hype and investments in a technology that can potentially kill us all, be very high on the list of priorities? At the very least, I would expect much more modesty on the recommendation and investments in this area. 

To me it is clear that a genuine solution to this kind of technologically-induced-existential-risk problem has to focus on the root of the problem, meaning a change to the incentive structure (away from growth at the expense of massive risk to society)/’legal fictions’ that create wealth. I recommend Ezra Klein’s interview with Katharina Pistor on this latter point. Maybe I do not fully understand the weighing of factors here, I would love if someone could explain it to me, because this really baffles me. 

Great piece!

I do believe we need more epistemic pluralism within EA to be robustely effective and these perspectives could really add to that. Specifically making sure that effectiveness is ranked according to the worldview and needs of the people effected (instead of the people trying to ‘help’ them) is of utmost important to be truly effective.

Besides that your worldview clearly contains a lot of theoretical and philosophical background that not everybody will agree with, even upon long and critical reflection. Nevertheless, there should also be options (in addition to the current career paths, and more paths for people from non-theoretical backgrounds) on 80.000 hours that are more in line with different kinds of epistemologies, including feminist, indigenous and decolonial ones

Hi Jitse, 

Thanks for the positive feedback!! 

I couldn't agree more with your sentence: "making sure that effectiveness is ranked according to the worldview and needs of the people effected (instead of the people trying to ‘help’ them) is of utmost important to be truly effective".

I agree that for EA to claim to be truly effective, the EA community must thoughtfully consider feminist, decolonial and Indigenous critiques - though I fear that the epistemic architecture of EA (for reasons I try to unpick in my piece) may make it impossible for these to be voiced, heard and acted upon within EA.

I just wanted to leave a quick note to thank you for writing such a thoughtful and well researched piece on this important topic ❤️

Capitalism is good, actually.