Co-founder of the Lead Exposure Elimination Project (https://leadelimination.org/)
This was a fantastic post Jenny. Very insightful. Thank you!
Interesting list! One important cause area that I think may have missed is preventing/avoiding stable longterm totalitarianism. Toby Ord and Bryan Caplan have both written on this - see "the Precipice" for Ord's discussion and "The Totalitarian Threat" in Bostrom's "Global Catastrophic Risks" for Caplan's.It may be worth adding these to the list as it seems that totalitarianism is fairly widely accepted as a cause candidate. Thanks for the post as well, lots of interesting ideas and links in here!
Thank you for these interesting answers. Do you think the creation of new fields is also subject to diminishing returns? e.g. are new fields harder to find as well? Or do you think that only technologies are subject to diminishing returns?
On this note, do you think progress is likely to be open to us indefinitely, or would you expect that eventually we will reach a level of technological maturity where all meaningful low-hanging fruit (be they individual technologies or S curves) have been picked and there is little further technological progress? If so, why? If not, why not?
Thanks very much Pete!
Ah! I can definitely see how that might have been confusing, thanks for letting us know. I'll make sure that this is reworded to be as clear as possible. Good catch!
And that sounds fantastic. It's likely we'll seek to hire a dedicated operations staff member as we scale, perhaps in our second or third year. In case you'd like to keep an eye out for when such positions crop up, all future job postings for LEEP will be announced on our website, in our newsletter, and on the 80,000 Hours Jobs board.
The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph Tainter is fantastic. It tries to establish a general theory behind past civilisational collapses. It looks at economic factors which lead societies into decline and argues that diminishing returns are a predictor and cause of collapse.
Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond is very good too. It focuses on case studies of societies which have collapsed for ecological reasons.
Hi Misha! I totally agree. Tractability could make a significant difference on the expected cost-effectiveness of a particular country. In the coming weeks we’ll be having a full blog post on our site unpacking our country selection in detail, but I can give you a quick summary here.
To identify the most viable target countries we’ve assessed every country worldwide (with more than 300,000 births in the last 5 years), and ranked them on a number of factors. These factors included size of lead burden, absence of lead paint regulation, stability (which works as a loose indicator of tractability - or at least of intractability in extreme cases), and neglectedness by other actors. Based on this, our other top tier countries included Madagascar, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Burkina Faso, Niger, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Hi Linch, Great question. Probability estimates about the future are always difficult - we can give you some loose indications of what we expect, though these should be taken with a grain of salt. 1. A two month timeline may be hard to estimate, as things can often run more slowly when starting in a new country. However, we can give more confident estimates on a three month timeline (which offers some buffer room). We’d attach a reasonably high probability to having enough information to make these decisions within the next 3 months (~80%). Our decision-relevant data gaps at the moment are a) about the level of lead paint use in Malawi, and b) about the tractability of meeting with Malawian politicians. However, we have ways to test both of these things, and identify whether they should be a disqualifying factor, and have strong leads on the connections required to get this information.2. Our probability of piloting in Malawi is also quite high, as the early indicators of burden and tractability seem quite strong. We’ve managed to find a 2017 study on the level of lead in paint in Malawi which indicates that this country would be highly promising to target. The study found that 56% of paint tested in Malawi had more than 90ppm, and 37.5% had more than 600ppm - this makes us think that it is quite likely that lead is a significant contributor to the overall burden of lead poisoning in Malawi. On the tractability side, making contacts within Malawi has also been much easier than expected. This makes us think that our probability of piloting in Malawi is better than even, around 60%.3. Good question. This intervention has the potential to have very large-scale benefits, and very high cost-effectiveness, but I don’t think I could attach a reasonable probability estimate that I’d trust this far out.
Hi Matt, thanks for your comment! We haven’t looked into this, but if we do we’ll let you know. As yet, we have not focused on water as a source of lead exposure because it is less of a contributor in lower-income countries where lead burdens are highest.
Hi Brian! Thanks for commenting. Here is a link which lists countries which do not currently have lead paint regulation. We didn’t come across any ranking of most promising countries to target, but we have collated this information ourselves. We’ll be publicly releasing our country selection spreadsheet in the coming weeks and this will likely provide you with the information that you need.Until then, I can pass on some relevant information about our findings. From our research, we found that the Philippines does currently have legislation (as you mentioned), and is not currently neglected by other actors (EcoWaste Coalition and IPEN are active there).
We found that there are still significant levels of lead poisoning in the Philippines (see annex), but we are not confident that this necessarily indicates that the current legislation is not well enforced. It could be an indicator that there is significant exposure to lead from other sources, or it could just be that the effects have been delayed because legislation takes time to have impact. Paint bans need to be in effect for a few years before health impacts can be noticed.
On the other hand, it could well be an enforcement issue. Controls were introduced in 2015 to ensure that paint has lead levels below 90ppm, but in 2017 it was found that the Philippines still had 23% of their paint with lead levels exceeding 90ppm, 16% of their paint with lead levels exceeding 600ppm, and 12% of their paint with lead levels exceeding 10,000ppm. That might imply that the controls aren't being followed perfectly. However, it’s also been three years since that study was done, so things may have changed.
Hope this was useful!