Thank you for this work. I appreciate the high-level transparency throughout (e.g what is an opinion, how many sources have been read/incorporated, reasons for assumptions etc.)!I have few key (dis)agreements and considerations. Disclaimer: I work for ALLFED (Alliance to Feed the Earth in Disasters) where we look at preparedness and response to nuclear winter among other things.1) Opportunity Costs
I think it is not necessary for work on either preventing the worst nuclear conflicts or work on preparedness/response to be mutually exclusive with preventing nuclear conflict in general.
My intuition is that if you are working on preventing the worst nuclear conflicts then you (also) have to work on escalation steps. And understanding of how wars escalate and what we can do about it seems to be very useful generally no matter if we go from a war using 0 to ~10 nukes or from a war escalating from 10 to 100 nukes. At each step we would want to intervene. I do not know how a specialization would look like that is only relevant at the 100 to 1000 nukes step. I know me not being able to imagine such a specialization is only a weak argument but I am also not aware of anyone only looking at such a niche problem.
Additionally, preparedness/response work has multiple uses. Nuclear winter is only one source for an abrupt sunlight reduction scenario (ASRS), the others being super volcanic eruptions and asteroid impacts (though one can argue that nuclear winter is the most likely out of the 3). Having 'slack' critical infrastructure (either through storage or the capacity to quickly scale-up post-catastrophe) is also helpful in many scenarios. Examples: resilient communication tech is helpful if communication is being disrupted either by war or by say a solar storm (same goes for electricity and water supply). The ability to scale-up food production is useful if we have Multiple Bread Basket Failures due to coinciding extreme weather events or if we have an agricultural shortfall due to a nuclear winter. In both cases we would want to know how feasible it is to quickly ramp up greenhouses (one example).
Lastly, I expect these different interventions to require different skillsets (e.g civil engineers vs. policy scholars). (Not always, surely there will be overlap.) So the opportunity costs would be more on the funding side of the cause area, less so on the talent side.
I agree that the cause area as a whole is neglected and share the concerns around reduced funding. But within the broader cause area of 'nuclear conflict' the tail-risks and the preparedness/response are even more neglected. Barely anyone is working on this and I think this is one strength of the EA community to look into highly neglected areas and add more value per person working on the problem. I don't have numbers but I would expect there to be at least 100 times more people working on preventing nuclear war and informing policy makers about the potential negative consequences because as you rightly stated that one does not need to be utilitarian, consequentialist, or longtermist to not want nukes to be used under any circumstances.
and 3) High uncertainty around interventions
Exactly because of the uncertainty you mentioned I think we should not rely on a narrow set of interventions and go broader. You can discount the likelihood, run your own numbers and advocate your ideal funding distribution between interventions but I think that we can not rule out nuclear winter happening and therefore some funding should go to response.
For context: Some put the probability of nuclear war causing extinction at (only) 0.3% this century. Or here is ALLFED's cost-effectiveness model looking at 'agriculture shortfalls' and their longterm impact, making the case for the marginal dollar in this area being extremely valuable.
In general I strongly agree with your argument that more efforts should go into prevention of any kind of nuclear war. I do not agree that this should happen at the expense of other interventions (such as working on response/preparedness).
4) Premise 1 --> Civilizational Collapse (through escalation after a single nuke)
You write that a nuclear attack could cause a global conflict (agree) which could then escalate to civilizational collapse (and therefore pose an xrisk) even if no further nukes are being used (strong disagree).
I do not see a plausible pathway to that. Even in an all out physical/typical explosives kind of war (I would expect our supply chains to fail and us running out of things to throw at each other way before civilization itself collapses). Am I missing something here?
Tongue in cheek related movie quote:
A: "Eye for an eye and the world goes blind."
B: "No it doesn't. There'll be one guy left with one eye."
But I do not think it changes much of what you write here even if you cut-out this one consideration. It is only a minor point. Not a crux. Agree on the aspect that a single nuke can cause significant escalation though.
5) Desensitizing / Language around size of events
I am also saddened to hear that someone was dismissive about an India/Pakistan nuclear exchange. I agree that that is worrisome.
I think that Nuclear Autumns (up to ~25 Tg (million tons) of soot entering the atmosphere) still pose a significant risk and could cause ~1 billion deaths through famines + cascading effects, that is if we do not prepare. So dismissing such a scenario seems pretty bad to me
Thanks for writing this up and sharing your experiences and thoughts. It is clear (to me) that you went into this very observant and that you engaged with the ideas.
Brief disclaimer: While reading your post I had a few ideas. Below is written more loosely in a conversational style as I am afraid if I don't comment something of lower quality now while in the flow I will not comment at all.
I see a few concerns related to this. I think there are some important memes within the Effective Altruism movement that help it have a positive impact. Some of those memes are around scientific basics and rigour. Comparing estimates (Shut up and multiply) and trying to have the better arguments win, not the most emotional compelling ones. Will briefly explore this below with an example*. I am concerned that having the community grow too fast will dilute these ideas and eventually replace this carefully shaped culture.
Especially among SJW I see a lot of rage (which is understandable). My current understanding is that the revolutions SJWs are aiming for would most likely be extremely terrible. It is not clear to me that something better will necessarily emerge when something is being destroyed (talking about systems and institutions here). Having less abrupt change, an evolution, seems to be a strategy with less risky downsides. This is surely a onesided view that you could add nuance to. It is just that I have seen a lot of hate coming from these meme-spheres that was not tied to a positive future vision.
And yeah aiming to doing the most good one can accomplish is challenging. And I would be very surprised that the actions that are intuitively correct are also the most impactful ones (relevant: Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately). So to repeat myself - I am careful around introducing strong heroic emotions into careful complex work. But yeah sometimes I do too feel a need for some of the heroic sagas. Will share some at the end of this comment**.
But you are not alone in wanting the community to expand. Both WillMacAskill and Scott Alexander (2 prominent figures) have advocated adjacent ideas. Will has spoken out in favour of community building (even more than the current baseline - can't find the source right now - it was probably in the latest 80k podcast episode with him) and Scott advocated to open up the EAG conference and have the next one host 10k people without admissions.
*Example of unintuitive charities having a large impact:
Okay, say you (a western person on a median income) care about Education because it is Empowering and lifts people out of Poverty. As a result you want to support a school project. You have already bought into the fact that your support goes a longer way in a developing world so you are looking at projects to support overseas. How do you help? Donate or buying books and writing materials -- crowdfund to build an additional class room -- or pay to hire an additional teacher ---- or go there in person and teach for a few months. These might be $10 - $100 - $1,000 -- and $10,000 contributions. And all of these feel right (at least to me).
But what if I told you that you could buy years of schooling for a kid for just a few dollars by deworming them. This was the finding of one of the deworming charities years ago. Idea is as follows: it costs between $0.5 and $1.5 to deworm one kid for one year. If you do this consistently by the time they have grown up they have had an additional year of school attendance because they simply got sick less (worms coming through unsafe drinking waters). This is unintuitive. This is unsexy. But pretty effective.
(Numbers are not exactly correct. Is has been awhile since I read about this cause area of effective global health / development projects to fund. Here a post by GiveWell which I quickly found and skimmed.)
And yes you can totally make the argument that someone needs to crowdfund a school first before (dewormed) kids can attend it, to which I argue that the former is more likely to get attention and funding from the average person (with spare income) than the 'sit down and multiply' type of results that bring us deworming projects. So we need a world in which both happen. And I expect the neglected parts to be the unintuitive ones.
Also talking about donations and contributions. I slightly got the impression that you think there needs to be more Walk and less Talk. Might have misread you here. I just want to emphasize that I think there is a very decent amount of Walk. Lots of people donate 10% of their income and people start non-profits and change their careers. Just this EAGxBerlin I also had the opportunity again to speak to many bright and motivated young-ish people who were asking about career advice. And changing your career seems like a pretty big commitment to me.
**Lastly on Art and Narratives
I agree there could be more. I am exploring this myself a bit. I think aesthetics and art are currently undervalued on average in the community. But the trend is going in the right direction. With the community's capacities growing (more funding, more people) we also see more prices being offered for creative writing contests.
Some pieces that are adjacent to the EA community that I love: [Existential Hope (for positive futures], [The Dragon Fable (for epic and heroism], [Rational Animations for cute alien doggos], [Wisdom Age by Roote (this one visualises beautifully the difference attitudes and approaches from different communities such as SJW, EA, capitalism, post-capitalism etc. ]
Related to fire raves:Would you join community organized (fire) raves, say after-parties from EAG/EAGx or burner-style events? (Winking at the amazing EA Berlin community ;) )(Or do you see a potential PR risk? Or would you not enjoy it as much with the attention you are getting? Would you join a masked (fire) rave?)
I appreciate the kind words. I am glad the analogy works for you!
Overall I would guess this took 12 hours of active work and probably some thinking sprinkled over 2-3 weeks. This is how it went down:I woke up after 1.5 hours of sleep with clarity about this 'obligation' part above. Eg. why do I feel pressure to improve. Quickly grab my laptop to take some notes with the plan to go to bed again. Start writing. Feel more clarity than ever before - I can put my thoughts into words. Get into flow state. 80%-90% of the post above were done after 3.5 hours of this. Writing roughly 600-700 words per hour (which would put me into top writer category if I could do this frequently). Spend 2 more hours on formatting, doing the graphs, fixing typos, adding headlines, moving some sentences around, adding emphasis, etc. Reach out to ~5 friends and people in the EA community to provide feedback. Go to bed after 6 hours of still sitting in bed with laptop.Then I received very helpful comments over the next ~5 days. Grammar improvements, clarifying questions, word change suggestions, and recommended readings. Concept of 'Slack' got added through the discussions in the comments and the emphasis on how noisy your energy/capacity can be. This was another ~3 hours. Then I didn't do anything on the post for 2-3 weeks. Occasionally small comments would trickle in. I would read over the draft a couple times. Having it at the back of my mind.
To be honest - At this point my motivation to finish it was low. In a way I already got the exchange with people in the community and my friends. And writing it out helped me understand certain thought patterns. But I got the feedback that it was useful to some people who have read the draft. And I liked the idea of sharing something + experimenting with blogging + improving my writing (through exposing it).
The last wrap-up took probably another 3 hours till I hit 'publish' here on the EA forum. This included linking to more resources. Including some more feedback. Redoing the graphics because there are some small formatting issues when copying over from google-docs to the forum. And it included the decision to not improve the section 'Problems that arise when you are aiming at the facilitative stress zone:' . Even though I think it contains most of the value, it is a barely structured list. But I didn't want to spend 80% of the time optimizing the last 10-20% of work. So I just went with it.
Yes, ALLFED does since this year (see our annual report or webpage: https://allfed.info/donate )
Thank you very much for this offer. Would this also apply for people who will be accepted. Are travelling in January. And after living for one week do the calculations and see that the expense for ~6 month would be too much?
I am personally surprised by the debate around cost of living but I am also aware that I come from a naive perspective because I can live/survive of less than 1,000 $ per month (including rent and food) in Berlin, Germany.
Disclosure: I applied.
I would like to hear your thoughts on Generalist vs Specialist debate.
Yes, we are looking into cellular agriculture. Right now we have 2 papers in peer-review, which are covering single cell protein from bacteria that either feed on hydrogen or methane. One of these projects was announced in the report above:
The project will investigate using hydrogen-eating single-cell protein as a food source in catastrophes. The hydrogen would be obtained by electricity splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, or by gasifying (heating without oxygen) solid fuels such as wood, coal, or peat.
And yes we are in contact both with Solar Foods and the Good Food Institute. Even though these forms of food production currently cost more than conventional agriculture they are interesting for ALLFED's mission for 2 reasons:
1) They don't rely on the sun. So these are feasible ways to produce food in a nuclear or volcanic winter.
2) These technologies might help with specific nutrient requirements. Given a scenario in which we would be quickly scaling up the most promising 1-3 solution(s) to meet our caloric demand we might be at risk of malnutrition because not all micronutrients are being covered.
Thank you for those links. I will add them in the foodsystemshandbook.org