Harrison Durland

Topic Contributions


The Many Faces of Effective Altruism

I wonder if Twitter data (e.g., follows, engagement) would replicate some of these distinctions in terms of clustering, and if it might show areas of common cross-pollination? (Of course, there may be some representativeness issues with some groups, but it’d still be interesting or at least “amusing.”)

Should we call them something other than retreats?

I’ve also had similar thoughts, but haven’t really thought about alternative names until now. Still, I’m not quickly thinking of obviously-great alternatives. Perhaps “EA Workshops” or “Seminars”?

Having said that, it’s worth pointing out that although “retreats” can often be used in religious contexts, there is plenty of usage in the sense of “corporate retreats.” So ultimately the label may not be that bad, it’s more a matter of how it’s framed and whether it involves a lot of people who are new to/unfamiliar with EA.

Should we call them something other than retreats?

To me, summit feels a bit too grand and “culminatory” (or whatever the word is), either because I think of summits bringing together disparate groups of people (e.g., from different universities/countries) or at the end of some project.

U.S. EAs Should Consider Applying to Join U.S. Diplomacy

Many issue areas most prioritized by EA – biosecurity, pandemic response, artificial intelligence – remain neglected within the State Department. If you can introduce a more rational, long termist perspective into an often short-sighted policy process, the marginal impact of your presence can be quite significant.

How easy is it to go against the grain like that? Are there not institutional pressures to focus on short-term considerations?

U.S. EAs Should Consider Applying to Join U.S. Diplomacy

I think it probably makes sense to change the title of the post for efficiency reasons (I.e., “don’t bother reading if you aren’t American”), but not because I think it contributes to EA being a more “globally welcoming and inclusive movement,” which I feel like is a less significant issue/concern here. (Yes, the argument seems to be that without saying “American EAs” the implied assumption is that all EAs are American, but I don’t think that’s a strong vibe; at the very least, I wouldn’t imply that the post shows hypocrisy in EA)

What are examples where extreme risk policies have been successfully implemented?

Setting aside whether or not such risks were actually significant, perhaps planetary protection could be an interesting example of where bureaucracies spent time and money to mitigate unknown risks from e.g., extraterrestrial contamination.

What are examples where extreme risk policies have been successfully implemented?

I'm not exactly sure what you have in mind for the research, but I think it might be interesting to at least draw parallels or have pseudo-benchmarks with policy responses to non-existential low-probability risks, such as 9/11 (or terrorism more generally) and US mass shootings.

Would Structured Discussion Platforms for EA Community Building Ideas be Valuable? (See Prototype Example)

re: "filtering", I really was only talking about "clearly uninteresting/bad" claims—i.e., things that almost no reasonable person would take seriously even before reading counterarguments. I can't think of many great examples off the top of my head—and in fact it might rarely ever require such moderation among most EAs—but perhaps one example may be conspiracy-theory claims like "Our lizard overlords will forever prevent AGI..." or non-sequiturs like "The color of the sky reflects a human passion for knowledge and discovery, and this love of knowledge can never be instilled in a machine that does not already understand the color blue."

In contrast, I do think it would probably be a good idea to allow heterodox claims like "AGI/human-level artificial intelligence will never be possible"—especially since such claims would likely be well-rebutted and thus downvoted.

Yes, de-duplication is a major reason why I support using these kinds of platforms: it just seems so wasteful to me that there are people out there who have probably done research on questions of interest to other people but their findings are either not public or not easy to find for someone doing research.

Is green growth or degrowth the best near-term future? 

This is about to hit part of southern Asia within 50 years and thus 1-3.5 billion - up to 1 in 3 human beings. https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/04/28/1910114117 

To be clear, that article only forecasts that outcome in the "business-as-usual" approach  which seems to mean to them an increase of 5–8 degrees Celsius (figure 2B), which seems like a really high estimate; is that within the standard forecasted range, or is that more like the "assume all progress in renewable energy magically halts and we continue on as if nothing bad is happening" forecast?

1. How much suffering different environmental problems will cause is, as you know, difficult to put numbers on, especially in combination.

I think there is probably a range of decent estimates out there about mortality/DALYs as well as some economic costs under different scenarios (which should not include what I described above, if I understood what was meant by "business-as-usual"). It doesn't need to be precise to be helpful here; even an order of magnitude range could be very helpful, possibly even two orders of magnitude.


2.   Ok, it’s only a 3 minutes text with different aspects, but perhaps like this? Key point: If we continue to have overall GDP growth in rich countries this decade, we will most likely exceed the planetary boundaries even more. Is it worth that? 

The estimated reading time on each post is only a loose estimate, and in this case it definitely was not a 3-minute read for me since I had to re-read multiple things to get a clear picture of what you were vs. weren't claiming + I had to read about some of the mentioned concepts, such as "planetary boundaries." Ultimately, it's just a good practice to have a tl;dr up front that summarizes your main points in 2–4 sentences.

As to the summary in this case, I would again re-emphasize my points above: I'd like to see actual rough estimates as to the potential costs of not pursuing degrowth, because "exceed the planetary boundaries" means basically nothing to me (and even what I briefly read was not very persuasive, especially if we're already exceeding the boundaries and not facing mass starvation/heat exhaustion/etc.)


we should prioritize the environment and other central societal goals and then GDP will be what it becomes. But we don't have a common word for that?

We don't have a term for "Environmental protection"?? That sounds like a failure of imagination. Even an acronym or "no catchphrase at all" seems better to me than "degrowth," which really seems like a counterproductive label.


4. Absolutely in some areas for a limited time, but on a global level we only see some relative decoupling between GDP and climate emissions, no absolute decoupling. Both climate emissions and GDP are globally higher than ever. When it comes to GDP and material footprint we see no global decoupling at all. See figure 1 about this paragraph: 

To be blunt, that's a rather shallow, self-confirming collection/interpretation of data, especially since it doesn't even grapple with the ideas of the EKC: you shouldn't expect an aggregate/global decoupling when you have numerous developing countries with massive population sizes (China and India) as well as many other developing countries going through the low-income industrial/manufacturing stages currently. A more dispassionate review of the data would look at things with a more granular lens, which is what I did with some WorldBank data for a class paper a few years ago, producing the following graphs:

"With each point representing a country, the result in both years is a strong correlation between countries’ GDPpc and CO2pc levels, displayed in the given trendlines." Note, however, that the relationship between GDP per capita and CO2 emissions substantially changes between the two time periods to become "more efficient" (GDPpc/CO2) in 2013 vs. 1990.


"In the diagram, each country’s changes are represented by a series of data points. The sources for the data are the same as the previous section’s. The countries listed include the BRICS countries, various Western-aligned countries, and a few others such as the United Arab Emirates (ARE), Mexico, and Hungary." Note how some countries' relationship actually "bends backwards"—i.e., the CO2 emissions per GDPpc begins decoupling or outright decreasing in some industrialized countries as the countries become richer.


When something becomes more efficient, we buy more instead of choosing more free time (rebound effect). Of course, it’s not impossible that it will be different in the future, but we need to drastically reduce our environmental impact now, otherwise we’re exceeding more tipping points that can’t be reversed, like losing most of the Amazon rainforest.

Counterpoint: If you replace coal plants with solar or other renewables (e.g., hydroelectric), you don't just adjust your consumption patterns so drastically as to make solar/etc. pollute as much as coal.

More broadly, it just seems like you aren't familiar with the research/argumentation on the EKC. If that's true, I would strongly encourage you to learn more about it if you are planning to focus on environmental concerns. The EKC is certainly debatable in terms of how powerful it is and whether it will act fast enough, but the theoretical evidence is very strong for some activities (i.e., replacing coal with renewables or at least natural gas), and some shallow review of the data (e.g., above) partially supports the idea (with some potential exceptions, such as with oil-producing economies).

Is green growth or degrowth the best near-term future? 

A few points:

  1. There needs to be more quantification—even if only loose quantification—of the impact of environmental harms in this post. I was unclear what the problem we’re trying to avoid is: it felt a bit like hand waving, saying “we might miss these goals/targets” but without making the impact of that clear.
  2. Could you try to summarize the post more clearly up front and/or use headers for different sections? (Or use bolding for key statements). The analysis felt a bit windy, which slowed down and undermined my reading/understanding.
  3. My view is that “degrowth” is just a (politically) terrible catchphrase/policy label. Who even invented the term? An oil lobbyist? At least at the label level, the focus should not be on “let’s kill growth,” it should be on “[what do we want to achieve?]”—especially given the next point.
  4. Many of the simplistic assumptions I’ve seen regarding the relationship between “growth” and environmental damage are wrong: arguments related to the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC) illustrate that regardless of whether the EKC is true on balance, there are definitely ways in which economic growth can also involve reducing pollution (e.g., developments in renewable energy) and economic growth makes environmental standards/health effects more important for some people.
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