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A major goal of Effective Altruism is to study in-depth the rational arguments for funding different projects and assign probability estimates for their effectiveness in comparison to others and thus make better funding decisions. Yet EA appears to have a blind spot with regard to the environmental aspects - and even the human health and safety aspects - of what it funds. This can lead to negative unintended consequences - sometimes even catastrophic ones - both for humans and the environment.

Unintended Environmental and Health Consequences

Let’s take the Against Malaria Foundation’s (https://www.againstmalaria.com/) much-lauded distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito bed nets project for starters. This was hailed as one of Effective Altruism’s funding successes at the recent EA Global 2022 Conference (https://youtu.be/olX_5WSnBwk). Yet any environmentalist worth their salt could immediately list off the top of their head a number of reasons why distributing fine mesh plastic mosquito nets soaked in insecticide in biodiversity hotspot wetland areas, for example, where they can be abused as fishing nets (Implications of Insecticide-Treated Mosquito Net Fishing in Lower Income Countries,  Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 129, No. 1: https://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/doi/10.1289/EHP7001) or end up in unregulated landfills that affect the groundwater, might be a bad idea. Research shows that not only could these nets lead to a collapse of fisheries, and also to the decimation of many other species due to the enormous bycatch of them because of the much smaller mesh size than that typically used in fishing nets, the insecticides used can also affect human health, leading to neurocognitive disorders.

Habitat Loss = Biodiversity Loss 

We are in the middle of the Sixth Mass Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, 2015, Picador; https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/what-is-the-sixth-mass-extinction-and-what-can-we-do-about-it), comparable to the asteroid strike that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs. But this time, we humans are the ‘asteroid’. One of the major causes of this biodiversity loss is the loss of habitat. So is it really a good use of our resources to enable even more human incursion on wetlands, which are biodiversity hotspots, by distributing bed nets? Should we not rather be encouraging settlement away from these areas? Also, a major component of the Sixth Mass Extinction is the Insect Apocalypse, which threatens our food security too, since insects are the irreplaceable pollinators of our food crops. Do we really think that pouring more insecticide into these fragile environments is in either the planet’s or our interest?

Insecticide resistance, carbon emissions, and microplastics pollution

Indiscriminate use of insecticides also increases mosquitoes’ resistance to them, and therefore reduces our ability to combat future global pandemics that may be transmitted by this vector. Not to mention the effect of fossil-fuel-based plastic production for the nets’ fabric on climate change, or the danger of microplastics after they are discarded to human, animal and fish health (Microplastics: A Threat for Male Fertility: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7967748/). Additionally, where is the Life Cycle Analysis of these bed nets? How do they fit (or fail to fit) into the sustainable circular economy? (Using life cycle assessment to achieve a circular economy: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11367-020-01856-z; WHO recommendations on the sound management of old long-lasting insecticidal nets: https://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/handle/10665/338356/WHO-HTM-GMP-MPAC-2014.1-eng.pdf)

A recent article in Nature (Maps and metrics of insecticide-treated net access, use, and nets-per-capita in Africa from 2000-2020, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41467-021-23707-7) also describes some (but not all) of the above drawbacks, but more research from an EA viewpoint is needed.

The twin x-risks of infertility and immune suppression

Let’s now cast the net (no pun intended) of unintended consequences of funding this project a little wider: during the past decades, the massively increased toxic load of (forever) chemicals is leading to a reduction in the human immune response (The Capacity of Toxic Agents to Compromise the Immune System (Biologic Markers of Immunosuppression): https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK235670/ ) and human fertility (Environmental Toxins and Infertility: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6396757/), both of which are existential risks if they go so far as to reduce our ability to survive pandemic viruses and if our ability to reproduce dips below a certain tipping point. How do we quantify the contribution of insecticides from bed nets as a proportion of that toxic load, and those twin resultant problems of immune response suppression and infertility?

Millions of lives saved now vs. megatrillions of future lives lost through insecticide-induced extinction event?

I can imagine some of the readers here thinking, 'Yes, these are all good points – about pesticides’ negative effect on fish stocks and human health and all the rest – but all those lives saved, all those lives positively impacted, by mosquito nets is a very heavy weight on the other side of the scales' (https://www.science.org/content/article/malaria-preventing-bed-nets-save-children-s-lives-impacts-last-decades). The problem here is that lives saved and positively impacted by nets in the near term is relatively easy to quantify, but:

  1. quantifying the partial contribution of the toxic burden of the nets’ insecticide and differentiating that from all the other chemicals in the cocktail that we are steeped in
  2. and estimating the possibility of this toxic burden causing us to go extinct due to insecticide-induced infertility or reduced immune response (rendering us more susceptible to pandemics)
  3. then calculating the megatrillions of possible future lives lost in that extinction event
  4. and weighing up the near-term positive impact and lives saved against this possibly extremely negative/catastrophic future impact

is extremely difficult, to say the least. 

There seems to be an inherent tension here between various branches of the EA movement – those focussed more on altruistic actions in the here and now, and those focussed more on longtermism, future generations, and existential risks. What matters, I feel, is that the dialog is kept open and the most recent science listened to. It is neither helpful nor rational to become so invested in a solution that we cannot pivot away from it when the science changes or becomes clearer. One GiveWell blog post from 2015 felt that a New York Times article that was reporting on the then recent science on insecticide-treated bed nets and the dangers to fish stocks was ‘unbalanced’. The blog post also negated the negative effect of the pesticides on human health (https://blog.givewell.org/2015/02/05/putting-the-problem-of-bed-nets-used-for-fishing-in-perspective/). The more recent science cited in this EA blog post you are now reading, however, upholds and strengthens the view of the multiple problems posed to human and environmental health, and to our food security, by bed nets – not just from the ever-increasing toxin burden, but also from microplastics.

EIAs, HSAs and LCAs must form integral part of EA funding approval process

From this brief outline of some major unintended consequences of a single project it has funded, I hope that Effective Altruism realises that it urgently needs to employ environmental experts, health and safety experts, and circular economy experts to conduct EIAs, HSAs and LCAs as an integral part of its funding approval process. Perhaps also it needs other experts from an interdisciplinary perspective to provide a 360-degree all-round view, hopefully therefore bringing more of the x-risk ‘unknown unknowns’ into the light. When the very future of humanity is at stake, and when the risk of making bad, ecologically unsound funding decisions increases along with the almost exponentially increasing amount of funding that EA is projected to receive, to not do so would run counter to EA’s founding imperative. Instead of doing the most good it could unintentionally do the most bad.

Retrospective analyses of funding effectiveness?

Finally, and more concretely, with respect to the bed nets project, a retrospective analysis of the effectiveness of this funding should include at least:

1. The quantification and assessment of the effect of insecticide leaching into water bodies on the insect apocalypse (The insect apocalypse, and why it matters: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0960982219307961 ) and the funding of countermeasures to cancel out this negative consequence of EA funding.

2. The quantification and assessment of the carbon emissions of the plastic of the bed nets and appropriate funding of anti-climate change/carbon emission reduction projects proportionate to these emissions. 

3. The quantification and assessment of the adverse consequences of inappropriate disposal of used nets, e.g. by burning in the open air, which causes highly toxic dioxin emissions, and funding appropriate measures for their disposal/regulation of the waste stream, and for removal from the atmosphere of dioxins already emitted due to the number of bed nets funded that have been disposed of inappropriately. 

4. Consider funding effectiveness for more sustainable, long-term solutions for combatting malaria, e.g. by adjusting building design to make them mosquito-proof (How house design affects malaria mosquito density, temperature, and relative humidity: an experimental study in rural Gambia: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanplh/article/PIIS2542-5196(18)30234-1/fulltext). How do the costs (including environmental ones) of bed nets that last for only three or four years, and protect one or two people at most, weigh up against those of mosquito-proof buildings that last much longer and protect many more people?

5. Since EA was following WHO advice on the distribution of bed nets impregnated with insecticides (LLINs) to combat malaria, and the WHO also does not seem to have sufficiently considered the environmental and other human health and safety implications of them, EA could fund and encourage more joined-up thinking across disciplines at global organisations to improve institutional decision-making. 

The way forward: sustainable and truly longtermist EA project funding

This list, as you might imagine, could be extended to include many more points. Sadly, as this one example demonstrates, doing good is a lot more complex than it appears. And when doing good leads to unintended consequences, cleaning up the subsequent mess may prove many times more costly, in the long run, both in terms of money and in human lives negatively affected, than if one had done nothing. So let us bow our heads in epistemic humility, taking the medical profession as our example, and inscribe this oath on our effectively altruistic hearts: “First, do no harm.” 

I have been told that there are a lot of Effective Altruists who would accept some degree of environmental harm, at least if the payoff in terms of human lives saved was great enough. (And I’ve also seen this tendency in some of the members of the EA courses I have been attending.) This attitude is rooted in a mindset, however, that is the cause of many of our problems in the first place: the idea that we humans are somehow separate from nature, and can do with it what we will. Many of us, even if we do not consciously espouse a religion, are still conditioned by monotheistic ideas of humans as the pinnacle of Creation, set above it and in dominion over it. Instead of being just a bipedal ape species among millions of others. But we are thoroughly and completely entangled with the natural world. There is ultimately no distinction between us and nature (https://theconversation.com/humanity-and-nature-are-not-separate-we-must-see-them-as-one-to-fix-the-climate-crisis-122110). Even the very word ‘environment’ meaning ‘that which surrounds us’ is misleading. And if we don’t transform our sapioseparatist mindset then this literally will be the end of us.

So secondly, let us think and fund at the meta-level to increase impact - find the best and most robustly safe leverage points. ‘Quick and dirty’ solutions like LLINs might be appealing on the surface, giving an instant dopamine hit of altruistic gratification, but more patient and considered efforts, like the funding of mosquito-proof building designs, are likely to be far more sustainable and longtermist.

Lastly – for the story isn’t over yet (when is it ever?) – hopefully this post will spark a discussion on the environmental implications of other EA projects. There has been some debate in this forum on EA and environmentalism (https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/dmrLcaYGk6yhJa2mZ/effective-altruism-environmentalism-and-climate-change-an#do5MJj8M6qcssC6e2), and attempts have been made to link the Effective Altruism movement more to the environmental one (https://www.effectiveenvironmentalism.org/). But Effective Environmentalism (EE) at present only focuses on dealing effectively with climate change. Environmentalism encompasses so much more than this one topic, however (see e.g. Rockström et al., 2009, Planetary Boundaries: Exploring the Safe Operating Space for Humanity: https://www.jstor.org/stable/26268316?seq=1). Perhaps it’s time for more joined-up EA-EE thinking. Cross-fertilisation between Effective Altruism and Expanded Effective Environmentalism could even be the topic of one of the next EA Globals. I look forward to reading your comments - and please include your vote on that last suggestion 😊!


Postscript, July 3, 2022: An increase in x-risks (however small) must constitute exclusion criterion for EA project funding

In addition to the assessments described above, it must surely go without saying that, before being funded, any EA project must also be assessed for any existential risk it might cause or contribute to - let’s call this an X-Risks Assessment (XRA). Any increase in x-risks completely negates the number of lives saved in the short-term, since it may put an end to the whole human enterprise, reaching far into the future and involving therefore possibly megatrillions of lives.

We have seen in the example given above (and in the comments/references below) of insecticide-soaked mosquito nets that they not only contribute to the x-risk of the presently unfolding Insectopalypse, with the ensuing threatened collapse of our food systems and famine, they also demonstrably contribute to the total toxic burden on humans in the biosphere, thus exerting a downward pressure on human fertility. If the trend continues and eventually crosses the x-axis (no pun intended), we become extinct.

It is a natural human psychological tendency to discount risks we perceive as small. We are an innovative, risk-taking, entrepreneurial animal. But in the case of x-risks we cannot allow ourselves to do this. We must discipline ourselves NOT to discount them. In the world’s current complex risk scenario of multiple interacting x-risks, the only projects which should be approved are those which we are 100% certain will actively reduce x-risks rather than contribute to them. And if this means that the approval process takes longer and/or fewer projects are funded, then so be it. Considering what we risk losing - all the glory and joy of human life and culture (and possibly that of all other life forms on this blue jewel, Earth), consigning them to the dark silence of an infinite emptiness - it is irresponsible to act otherwise.


Heartfelt thanks to the facilitator of our recent EA In-Depth Learning Program, Will Horan, for his insightful feedback on an early draft of this post.





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Thanks for sharing. I suspect a lot of people here will disagree, particularly on the assumption that biodiversity is of comparable importance to immediate human suffering. But this seems good faith and well sourced, deserving of a discussion or at least a rebuttal.

There's a few arguments here I really like, alongside others I disagree with. 

The best one in my opinion is that GiveWell should include the carbon cost of producing bednets in its cost-effectiveness analysis of the Against Malaria Foundation. After spending 10 minutes estimating that cost, it seems like it might increase the cost of saving a life by a few hundred bucks: 

  • How much carbon does a bednet produce? I can't find any sources on the carbon footprint of a single bednet, but the carbon footprint of a plastic bag is 1.58kg. Let's use that as a baseline.
  • How many bednets does it take to save a life with AMF?  GiveWell's CEA says each bednet costs ~$5. (It's unclear whether this is the cost of purchasing a bednet or the cost of purchasing + distributing. I'll assume the latter because otherwise we'd need to guess the latter, though this assumption increases the estimated carbon footprint.) Saving one life costs $3900 - $9000 depending on the country, so that means saving a life with AMF takes roughly ~1,000 bednets.
  • What is the carbon footprint of saving a life with AMF?  Given the assumptions above, saving a life with AMF would produce 1.58 tons of carbon = 1.58kg * 1,000 bednets.
  • What is the social cost of carbon?  This recent study estimates the social cost of a ton of carbon as $112. This is a central estimate, not a high-end estimate. More importantly, it incorporates annual time discounting of 3%, where longtermists would advocate 0%.
  • What is the social cost of saving a life with AMF?  Given the assumptions above, saving a life with AMF would create a social cost of carbon of $178 = 1.58 tons * $112 SCC / ton.
  • This calculation implies that the cost of saving a life with AMF is 2% - 4% higher than reported by GiveWell after accounting for the carbon cost of producing bednets. If true, this seems important enough to include in GiveWell's CEA. However, this comes with the extremely strong caveat that this calculation makes several large assumptions which could be improved upon with more research.
  • Apparently this group is working on making bednets from recycled material, which would reduce the carbon footprint and could reduce this already-small impact.

The author also recommends quantifying the impacts of fishing with bednets (on wildlife and human health) and improper disposal of bednets (burning them can release microplastics into the air, link to discussion of impact). These both seem more speculative and difficult to quantify, and while I'd welcome attempts to do so, I don't really fault GiveWell for excluding them. 

during the past decades, the massively increased toxic load of (forever) chemicals is leading to a reduction in the human immune response (source) and human fertility (source), both of which are existential risks if they go so far as to reduce our ability to survive pandemic viruses and if our ability to reproduce dips below a certain tipping point.

This would be very important if true, but I'm skeptical without a stronger affirmative case.

There seems to be an inherent tension here between various branches of the EA movement – those focussed more on altruistic actions in the here and now, and those focussed more on longtermism, future generations, and existential risks. What matters, I feel, is that the dialog is kept open and the most recent science listened to. It is neither helpful nor rational to become so invested in a solution that we cannot pivot away from it when the science changes or becomes clearer.

This is a great nod to the problem of moral cluelessness in this context. Some interventions that are near-term beneficial but long-term questionable, making cost-effectiveness analysis very difficult. You point to some inherently long-term environmental harms, and it's worth thinking about those kinds of long-term harms even if they're tough to quantify. 

Final meta point: You mentioned that you wrote this post as part of an EA fellowship. I'm really glad the fellowship is fostering such thoughtful engagement with the EA community. While you might not agree with every EA view, I would hope that EAs can convince you of their arguments over time, and can learn something from you as well. I really don't appreciate the downvotes without discussion on this substantive post from someone who seems new to the community, and going forwards I hope you find this site to be a kind and constructive place for discussion. Cheers. 

Thank you for your kind remarks. It was very hard for me to put this out into the forum, knowing that it would probably attract some serious pushback, but I felt I had to.  

Here are some more references for you to further substantiate the problem of infertility and immunosuppression and the thereby associated x-risks. (There is an awful lot of research out there on this topic, this is just a rough selection.) Since the harm of extinction (in this particular case via toxin burden-induced infertility and/or reduced immune response) can generally be considered many orders of magnitude higher than the harm of any other risk, due to the enormous number of future lives lost, anything which can be considered an x-risk must be thoroughly researched and quantified before it can be dismissed out of hand.


PFAS Environmental Pollution and Antioxidant Responses: An Overview of the Impact on Human Field 


Due to their unique properties, perfluorinated substances (PFAS) are widely used in multiple industrial and commercial applications, but they are toxic for animals, humans included. This review presents some available data on the PFAS environmental distribution in the world, and in particular in Europe and in the Veneto region of Italy, where it has become a serious problem for human health. The consumption of contaminated food and drinking water is considered one of the major source of exposure for humans. Worldwide epidemiological studies report the negative effects that PFAS have on human health, due to environmental pollution, including infertility, steroid hormone perturbation, thyroid, liver and kidney disorders, and metabolic disfunctions. In vitro and in vivo researches correlated PFAS exposure to oxidative stress effects (in mammals as well as in other vertebrates of human interest), produced by a PFAS-induced increase of reactive oxygen species formation. The cellular antioxidant defense system is activated by PFAS, but it is only partially able to avoid the oxidative damage to biomolecules.


Distribution of persistent organochlorine contaminants in infertile patients from Tanzania and Germany, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10815-006-9069-6


Purpose: To test whether environmental pollutants could affect fertility in humans.

Methods: 31 women and 16 men from Tanzania and 21 couples from Germany were included (n=89). Pesticides and polychlorinated biphenyls were measured in serum, follicular fluid or seminal plasma by gaschromatography and related to sperm quality and pregnancy rates.

Results: Higher concentrations of DDT+DDE and dieldrin in Tanzania and higher concentrations of PCBs in Germany and in men were detected. All compounds showed higher concentrations in serum and lowest concentrations in seminal plasma. A lower pregnancy rate in German women with high serum concentrations of DDT+DDE was observed. The toxins had no impact on sperm quality.

Conclusions: The distribution of toxins between agricultural and industrial countries is different. Seminal plasma seems to be inert against chemicals. In patients with high serum concentrations of DDT and DDE pregnancy rates were impaired.



Global Catastrophic Risks by Chemical Contamination


Abstract: Global chemical contamination is an underexplored source of global catastrophic risks that is estimated to have low a priori probability. However, events such as pollinating insects’ population decline and lowering of the human male sperm count hint at some toxic exposure accumulation and thus could be a global catastrophic risk event if not prevented by future medical advances. We identified several potentially dangerous sources of the global chemical contamination, which may happen now or could happen in the future: autocatalytic reactions, exposure to multiple subthreshold sources, and long-term unintended consequences, arising from both natural and bioengineered sources. We list several especially dangerous chemicals—dioxin, organiс compounds, and toxic heavy metals. We also discuss the features of such dangerous chemicals—molecules that can stay in the biosphere for a long time and affect it over time. We explore several social processes and scenarios where global chemical contamination becomes possible: large natural catastrophe like meteorite impact, supervolcano eruption, new ways of predicting properties of the chemicals via machine learning and their manufacturing via synthetic biology, uncontrolled “capitalistic” economic development with a corresponding large waste production, quick adoption of many chemicals with unknown long-term properties and unintended side-effects. These are all low probability, so work on other global catastrophic risks should be prioritized, but chemical risks could exacerbate other types of catastrophe contributing to social collapse 




Environmental Security and Ecoterrorism


Impact of Pesticides as Organic Micro-Pollutants on the Environment and Risks for Mankind



Because of health concerns, persistence, and long-term environmental effects, the impact of pesticides on agriculture and public health has been the subject of considerable research. Organophosphorus pesticides exert their acute effects by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase in the nervous system with subsequent accumulation of toxic levels of acetylcholine. Herbicides have widely variable toxicity. In addition to acute toxicity from high exposures, there is concern over possible carcinogenicity as well as other long-term problems. Improper use of herbicides may damage crop plants, especially if too large a dose is used, or if spraying occurs during a time when the crop species is sensitive to the herbicide. There are also apprehensions about the toxicity of some herbicides, which may affect people using these chemicals during the course of their occupation. The use of herbicides and other pesticides carries risks to humans through exposure to these potentially toxic chemicals, and to ecosystems through direct toxicity caused to non-target species, and through changes in habitat. People exposed to pesticides had over a fourfold increased risk to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma (NHL), neuroblastoma, child brain development defects, Parkinson’s disease, prostate cancer, leukemia in children, male infertility and miscarriage.



Journal of Immunotoxicology 

Volume 7, 2010 - Issue 3 

Immunosuppressive effects of triclosan, nonylphenol, and DDT on human natural killer cells in vitro


Human natural killer (NK) cells are a first-line immune defense against tumor cells and virally-infected cells. If their function is impaired, it leaves an individual more susceptible to cancer development or viral infection. The ability of compounds that contaminate the environment to suppress the function of NK cells could contribute to the increased risk of cancer development. There are a wide spectrum of compounds that significantly contaminate water and food that are consumed by humans, leading to accumulation of some of these compounds in human tissues. In the current study, we examined the ability of three such compounds to diminish the function of human NK cells. Triclosan (TC) is an antimicrobial agent used in a large number of antibacterial soaps. Nonylphenol (NP) is a degradation product of compounds used as surfactants and as stabilizers in plastics. 4,4′-Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) is a pesticide that is mainly used to control mosquitoes. The compounds were examined for their ability to suppress NK function following exposures of 1 h, 24 h, 48 h, and 6 days. Each agent was able to substantially decrease NK lytic function within 24 h. At a concentration of 5 µM, both TC and NP inhibited NK lytic function by 87 and 30%, respectively; DDT decreased function by 55% at 2.5 µM. The negative effects of each of these compounds persisted and/or intensified following a brief (1 h) exposure to the compounds, indicating that the impairment of function cannot be eliminated by removal of the compound under in vitro conditions.



Endocrine-Disrupting Chemicals and Infectious Diseases: From Endocrine Disruption to Immunosuppression 


Endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) are hormonally active compounds in the environment that interfere with the body’s endocrine system and consequently produce adverse health effects. Despite persistent public health concerns, EDCs remain important components of common consumer products, thus representing ubiquitous contaminants to humans. While scientific evidence confirmed their contribution to the severity of Influenza A virus (H1N1) in the animal model, their roles in susceptibility and clinical outcome of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) cannot be underestimated. Since its emergence in late 2019, clinical reports on COVID-19 have confirmed that severe disease and death occur in persons aged ≥65 years and those with underlying comorbidities. Major comorbidities of COVID-19 include diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, cancer, and kidney and liver diseases. Meanwhile, long-term exposure to EDCs contributes significantly to the onset and progression of these comorbid diseases. Besides, EDCs play vital roles in the disruption of the body’s immune system. Here, we review the recent literature on the roles of EDCs in comorbidities contributing to COVID-19 mortality, impacts of EDCs on the immune system, and recent articles linking EDCs to COVID-19 risks. We also recommend methodologies that could be adopted to comprehensively study the role of EDCs in COVID-19 risk.

I'm certainly no expert, but a quick look at AMF says the bednets are treated with Pyrethroid, which is" usually broken apart by sunlight and the atmosphere in one or two days" (Wikipedia) This is let's me be skeptical of whether incorporating the environmental and health effects really make a big difference. Furthermore, though again this is just my intuition, agricultural farming involves much worse doses of insecticides that contaminate streams and so far we have not observed any large-scale effects of environmental collapse or infertility that would justify questioning the cost-effectiveness of AMF. (I'm not questioning that our use of insecticides very likely leads to the decline of insects and diminishes fertility though, I just think that AMF is a tiny factor in this.)

Please do not cherrypick your facts regarding pyrethroids. The full information provided by your source is as follows:

“Pyrethroids are toxic to insects such as bees, dragonflies, mayflies, gadflies, and some other invertebrates, including those that constitute the base of aquatic and terrestrial food webs.They are toxic to aquatic organisms including fish.


Pyrethroids are usually broken apart by sunlight and the atmosphere in one or two days, however when associated with sediment they can persist for some time.

Pyrethroids are unaffected by conventional secondary treatment systems at municipal wastewater treatment facilities. They appear in the effluent, usually at levels lethal to invertebrates.”

See also:



Malaria is a serious global health issue, with around 200 million cases per year. As such, great effort has been put into the mass distribution of bed nets as a means of prophylaxis within Africa. Distributed mosquito nets are intended to be used for malaria protection, yet increasing evidence suggests that fishing is a primary use for these nets, providing fresh concerns for already stressed coastal ecosystems. While research documents the scale of mosquito net fisheries globally, no quantitative analysis of their landings exists. The effects of these fisheries on the wider ecosystem assemblages have not previously been examined. In this study, we present the first detailed analysis of the sustainability of these fisheries by examining the diversity, age class, trophic structure and magnitude of biomass removal. Dragnet landings, one of two gear types in which mosquito nets can be utilised, were recorded across ten sites in northern Mozambique where the use of Mosquito nets for fishing is common. Our results indicate a substantial removal of juveniles from coastal seagrass meadows, many of which are commercially important in the region or play important ecological roles. We conclude that the use of mosquito nets for fishing may contribute to food insecurity, greater poverty and the loss of ecosystem functioning.”

Sorry for cherry-picking there. Seems like the insecticides really do have unintended consequences.

I am still skeptical of the effect though since Holden Karofsky says here that fishing with the nets seems pretty rare.

I think my point still stands though. While there will be some environmental damage from the nets, it's very unlikely to outweigh the human lives saved.


I think the strongest point here is that it's not at all clear whether the organisms in the streams that may be killed by the insecticides have net positive lives. See "How good is the life of an insect"


In any way, I encourage you to make a detailed investigation here to prove your point. I think there is a ~5% probability I would update that malaria nets are a lot less good than I thought.

Thanks for tackling the quantification/estimation of carbon footprint costs! 

The problem of moral cluelessness in the context of longtermism is definitely always on my mind in any EA discussion topic. It would certainly seem more research is needed to quantify the long-term harms.

Sorry for being 2 years late to the discussion.

There were also points I agree and disagree with after reading the post and the comment session. EAs tendency to quantify things and run BOTECs are probably the reason this post did not receive its deserved attention. WIth some footnotes and cavaets to this can better express the author's opinion.

While I generally agree with the comments made by aogara and timunderwood. I have to highlight my agreement with Deborah of "Do no harm" oath, however, I would frame it as a ratio of "Doing loads of good/Doing minimal harm", as the cases in the comments that some externalities maybe unavoidable let alone, LCA might also have blind-spots in identifying all the non-obvious externalities. But the missing "Doing loads of good/Doing minimal harm" is often missing as an epistemic status in EA thinking in favour of quick and brash utilitarianism BOTEC calculation instead of exploring the complexities as explored by Doing EA Better.

I thought the marginal damage of bednets chemically leaking is dangerous and contributes to the extinction event is probably under-assessed, although I have no expertise in commenting on chemical contamination. [Epistemic status: low]. One could potentially argue that this is an intermediate solution before the arrival of the Malaria vaccine, which on 2023 update is coming soon, then I suspect that AMF efforts is justifiable despite the environmental externalities. However, in light of this, I hope this is true and therefore will actually redirect most of AMF funding to rapidly speed-up and accelerate the vaccine trials and distribution like we had in COVID. This could be done to minimise the AMF externaliites. In a general scope, we wish near-termist charities to eventually disappear because this is a sign of a progressing human civilisation. We want less charities not more, more charities is an indication of problems becoming bigger.

I initially thought that the point on insect pesticide resilient was a good point and probably the most dangerous scenario until I considered Guy point, the number of mosquito in contact with the bednet in comparison to spraying is fair. 

I also think that climate change as not part of the x-risk funding scheme is although epistemically mistaken, however due to less-neglectedness aspect, I can see why this was the case.

One contradiction in the movement when considering longtermism (I work on nuclear risks X AI) is that we use future humans as part of the moral justification on a flourishing future, yet we do not account for them suffering-risks and future living organisms in the 6th mass extinction. Yes, nature hangs in the balance and that if you ever visited a tropical forest, it is a constant life and death battle, but surely the shear number of species drop and their potential offsprings up to an equilibrium balance has not been seen in our past BOTEC calculations. While we only account them when we talk about near-termism risk in animal farming. I thought this might be misguided and more in-depth evaluation shall be done here.

About sapioseparatism: 

I suppose this is naturally what I'll want to push back hardest on, since it is the part that is telling me that there is something wrong with my core identity, assumptions about the world, and way I think. Of course that implies it is likely to be tied up with your core emotions, ways of thinking about the world, identity and assumptions -- and hence it is much more difficult for any productive conversation to happen (and less likely for conversation, if it becomes productive) to change anyone's mind.

So a core utilitarian (which is not identical to EA) idea is that if something is bad, it has to be bad 'for' someone -- and that except in exceptional cases, that badness for that someone will show up in their stream of subjective experiences. 

Now certainly mosquitoes, fish, elephants, and small rodents living in Malawi are all someone's whose subjective wellbeing should have some weight in our moral calculations. But I suspect that I'm wired in a particular way such that I could never care very much about anything that happens to 'nature' without affecting anybody's subjective experiences. This probably goes back to intuitions that cannot be argued with, though possibly they can be modified through prompting examples, social pressure, or by shifting the salience of other considerations and feelings.

At the very least, to the extent that biodiversity (as opposed to individual animals), and nature (as opposed, again, to individual animals) is viewed as important, I'd like to see a greater amount of argument for why this is important for me or for the EA community generally to care about. 

Now, I personally would prefer a green earth full of trees, but nothing with brains to a completely dead planet, and I'd prefer more weird species of animals, to every ecological niche being filled with the same type of animal. But this isn't a very strong preference compared to my preference for a long happy human future -- and it is a presence which is not at all prompted by my core utilitarian value system.


A comment on insecticide treated insect nets:

It seems like impregnating bed nets with insecticide is the exact opposite of indiscriminate use of insecticide (ie spraying just about everywhere with it), and as a result I would be very surprised if the quantity is enough to cause substantial ecosystem effects.


On environmental impact assessment:

Obviously the numbers should be run -- at least to the extent that it is not prohibitively expensive to do the study. Research, calculations, checking additional fringe possibilities, etc is not free, and should only be done if it seems like there is a reasonable chance they will tell us that we were making a mistake. However trying to figure out the size of environmental damages from using nets for fishing, burning, from the insecticide messing with children's hormones etc seems like it would be fairly easy to get a decent guess on how big the effect is at a cost that is reasonable in the context of a program that has so far distributed 400 million dollars worth of nets.

However, based on my priors, I would be fairly surprised if any of these numbers changes the basic conclusion that this is a cheap way to improve the well being of currently living human beings, and that it has a vanishingly small chance of contributing to a plastics driven extinction event caused by fertility collapse. 

I suppose my question here is, to what extent are you actually thinking about these issues as something where that whole set of concerns might in actual fact be irrelevant, and to what extent would you resist having your view on the importance of environmental concerns be changed by mechanics level explanations for why a particular bad outcome is unlikely, or by numerical assessments of costs and benefits? 

You seem to be saying that environmental concerns have a high chance of convincing us to stop giving out bednets, which will lead to some children dying --  this is the alternative. While changing house designs to discourage mosquitoes sounds like a very good additional idea, I would be shocked if it can be done at the cost of 1 dollar per year per room, like bed nets can be.

Resources are always limited.

So in that context, it is really important that the good thing that we win by stopping giving out bednets to be just a big and awesome of a win as stopping children from dying miserably from malaria. Perhaps that bar can be met -- some of your concerns (extinction risks, widespread neurological damage, etc), if they are real, might be worth letting children die to avoid.  But those are the stakes that we need to pay attention to.

Thank you for such a comprehensive consideration  (and I'm glad you seem to like my newly-coined neologism sapioseparatism enough to use it, even though you disagree with the concept itself :-) ). 

I'll try to address some of your points. Firstly, there is a very good journal article on utilitarianism and biodiversity that I think you might enjoy reading: Why biodiversity matters: A review of the arguments, and counter-arguments, for the conservation of the diversity of life,  Abstract

The impact of human activities on the biosphere has accelerated rapidly during the last 200 years, and particularly so since the second half of the 20th century consequent upon an exponential rate of population growth combined with scientific and technological developments. Advances in technology continue to facilitate the exploitation of the world's organic resources and the manipulation of its physical environment. This has called for increased efforts towards the conservation of the world's biodiversity so as to reduce the rapid rate of species extinction and decline. This review paper explores the arguments and counter-arguments that have been put forward for the conservation of biological diversity. The ultimate purpose of the review is to broaden the horizon on the value of biodiversity, which will help in diminishing the narrow, humanistic valuation of biodiversity largely responsible for the current biodiversity crisis. Indeed, one of the causes of the accelerated loss of biodiversity has been the utilitarian and human-centred argument that has largely been put forward as justification for the conservation of the world's biodiversity. The major weakness with a conservation system based on economic motives is that most members of the biological community do not have immediate economic value. Therefore, justifying species preservation for utilitarian purposes predisposes many seemingly useless species to extinction. Only a moral or ethical argument for the conservation of biodiversity in which nature is conserved for its own sake, combined with sustainable use, can ensure a more effective conservation of the world's organic resources. 


This paper also has a fascinating discussion of the utilitarian dilemma with respect to the 'existence value' of biodiversity:

Existence value, biodiversity, and the utilitarian dilemma 

Existence value has been argued to be a significant part of the total economic value of some
ecosystems. However, its compatibility with the welfare economic foundations of economic
valuation is very limited – it is difficult to logically conceive of changes in existence. Moreover,
when applied to biodiversity, the concept of existence value gives rise to an instance of a more
fundamental problem of economic valuation, termed here the utilitarian dilemma: it can be
argued conceptually that biodiversity cannot have existence value; yet the results of empirical
studies suggest that people in stated preference studies can be expected to assign existence value
to it. The utilitarian dilemma arises as the analysing economist must deal somehow with
‘erroneous’ preferences. There seems to be no simple solution to the dilemma, but deliberative
monetary valuation has the potential to alleviate it.


I also recommend: Respect for Nature

A Theory of Environmental Ethics - 25th Anniversary Edition

Paul W. Taylor

In the series Studies in Moral, Political, and Legal Philosophy


About this book

What rational justification is there for conceiving of all living things as possessing inherent worth? In Respect for Nature, Paul Taylor draws on biology, moral philosophy, and environmental science to defend a biocentric environmental ethic in which all life has value. Without making claims for the moral rights of plants and animals, he offers a reasoned alternative to the prevailing anthropocentric view--that the natural environment and its wildlife are valued only as objects for human use or enjoyment. Respect for Nature provides both a full account of the biological conditions for life--human or otherwise--and a comprehensive view of the complex relationship between human beings and the whole of nature.

This classic book remains a valuable resource for philosophers, biologists, and environmentalists alike--along with all those who care about the future of life on Earth. A new foreword by Dale Jamieson looks at how the original 1986 edition of Respect for Nature has shaped the study of environmental ethics, and shows why the work remains relevant to debates today.

Author information

Paul W. Taylor (1923–2015) was professor emeritus of philosophy at Brooklyn College, City University of New York.


"When it first appeared, Respect for Nature was at once recognized for the important, groundbreaking work it was. It was deservedly a major influence in the then newly developing field of environmental ethics. Time has only confirmed this first opinion and it is good to have the book back before us."—Michael Ruse, editor of Philosophy after Darwin

"Paul Taylor notes that just as we would not ask 'What is a human being good for?,' so also should we not ask 'What is nature good for?' This is surely right. His Respect for Nature is a systematic working out of the consequences of this observation. It is even more relevant today than when it first appeared twenty-five years ago."—Stephen Darwall, Yale University


[comment deleted]2y1

I think you present some really important ideas here but it's hard to engage with them properly. You could change that by increasing the reasoning transparency of your claims.

If you have the energy, try  stating the risks you are describing more clearly and also say how likely you think they are e.g. "human infertility may be an x-risk under some assumptions, even though it seems unlikely on others" "I think there is a ~5% chance biodiversity loss will be an existential risk"
This way we may be able to have a more fruitful discussion.

Latest research confirms increasing existential risk of human extinction through chemical-toxin-induced infertility. Dioxins are one toxin mentioned; these are released through illegal burning of used bednets.


Se also:


I have been told that there are a lot of Effective Altruists who would accept some degree of environmental harm, at least if the payoff in terms of human lives saved was great enough. (And I’ve also seen this tendency in some of the members of the EA courses I have been attending.)


This attitude is rooted in a mindset, however, that is the cause of many of our problems in the first place: the idea that we humans are somehow separate from nature, and can do with it what we will. Many of us, even if we do not consciously espouse a religion, are still conditioned by monotheistic ideas of humans as the pinnacle of Creation, set above it and in dominion over it.

Depending on what you mean by this, yes. There is no intrinsically "pure" quality about things that aren't man-made. It is up to us to subdue the earth (and outer space) for the benefit of ourselves and our descendants. 

There is no ultimately no distinction between us and nature (https://theconversation.com/humanity-and-nature-are-not-separate-we-must-see-them-as-one-to-fix-the-climate-crisis-122110). 

What do you mean by this? Your linked post lists a bunch of views like Zen Buddhism and European paganism.

While I agree with you that we owe it to our descendants to make the leap into space, my personal motivation for that is also to ensure that we take as many of the other living creatures of our planet with us (quite apart from the fact that I doubt we would be able to survive in an entirely artificial environment without any other Terran life forms). If the Earth's inhabitability will only last for about another billion years before the sun expands into a red giant and boils off the oceans, etc., then human beings represent the best chance of survival for our planet's other life forms, too. 

That being said, I find the phrase you used, "It is up to us to subdue the earth" quite disturbing. Being a woman, the word 'subdue' has overtones of violence and dominance that, frankly, frighten me. And look at where that mindset has got us: according to Toby Ord, we are at the edge of the precipice of extinction already. In large part, that is the result of people trying to 'subdue' the earth. It's not going to work, though. We as a species need to both recognise the enormous responsibility we bear for making sure life manages to survive beyond the lifespan of our little corner of the galaxy, and exercise humility through recognising the threat that we ourselves pose to the continuance of life on Earth. I hope you would agree with me that that's quite an intellectual and emotional/psychological feat. Like doing the splits :-).

Regarding the - in my view false - distinction between humans and nature: I would argue that human consciousness in its current state of development is highly problematic in that it is one that engenders separateness on many levels, rather than oneness. I am optimistic that we will overcome this state from several angles: with concepts from quantum physics such as quantum cognition (see e.g. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00554/full ); with concepts from biology showing the breathtaking entanglements and co-evolution of e.g. viruses and bacteria with and within humans and human cells, such as the account given by David Quammen in The Tangled Tree ( https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-05827-1 ) - after reading this you will never look at nature or see humans in the same way again, I promise you :-); and experientially, through meditation - during meditation I (and others in increasing numbers) have briefly and occasionally experienced oneness with all other humans and with the rest of the living and non-living world/universe, an experience which appears to take place outside of time and space, which feels utterly real and valid, yet which is impossible to put into words and which carries no scientific 'weight'. Nevertheless, it is this latter experience which gives me most hope for the future of humanity.

You are right that the reference I gave refers to Zen Buddhism and paganism/shamanism. These are schools of thought which are more able to embrace non-duality and have insights on the false dichotomy between humans and nature. For more information on my own 'religion', one which feels that the scientific worldview is not incompatible with a spiritual view of nature, please take a look at the Green Spirit Circle website, which my partner and I created and which contains some of my nature poetry: https://www.green-spirit-circle.org/ 

I agree that externalities should be taken into account in analyses of EA projects, and as as aogara's comment shows, they may be non-negligible (though the order of magnitude in that calculation wasn't changed). I think it's important to raise this point.


  1. The adversarial perspective in this post looks very wrong to me. Environmental effects are one part of the calculation. It's not necessarily good to only do "sustainable" things. E.g. the death of all humans would be much more sustainable, but is something we would fight against.
  2. Moreover, it should be remembered that the people whose children are dying of malaria aren't on this forum. They're poor, and they're already dying in their millions - helping them not die isn't what's causing their presence in wetlands. Should we want everyone to go live in cities? Sure. Is there a cost-effective way to advocate for that? I'm not sure.
  3. Presumably, everything else we do also has environmental impacts. Are those big enough to worry about instead of putting our time, money and effort into e.g. research or advocacy? And are different interventions' impacts very different from each other?

I'm so sorry you find my post 'adversarial'. I do apologise if that is the impression you have received. It was not intended. By way of explanation - I've arrived at Effective Altruism via a path that started with existential risks and then expanded to longtermism, so I suppose I automatically start from a more risk-averse perspective. X-risks and longtermism lead to one thinking more in terms of the negative effects an intervention could have on vast numbers of future people (since a human extinction event would prevent huge numbers of future people from leading happy fulfilling lives up to the habitable limit of this planet, around one billion years, and prevent even huger, barely comprehensible numbers of future people expanding to settle inhabitable planets throughout the universe), and this often seems to conflict with considerations of smaller (in comparison) numbers of people here on this one planet in the short-term. It is a quite horrible moral dilemma, to weigh these up against one another, and one which is very uncomfortable indeed to contemplate or to even attempt to quantify. But we should not shrink from this difficult task, I feel. 

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