SoniaAlbrecht

Electrical Engineering Student @ University of California, Davis
Pursuing an undergraduate degree
65Davis, CA, USAJoined Jan 2021

Bio

I'm interested in a career designing electronics that combat climate change.  I also lead the prayer group for EA for Christians. I've been part of EA since January 2021, and donate primarily to The GiveWell Maximum Impact Fund.

How others can help me

I want to learn more about what area of climate tech would have the highest counterfactual impact, and what electives, projects, and undergraduate research I should pursue to prepare for that career. 

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Great article. I’m a devout Christian who believes rewards in the afterlife are based on morality not religion, and I feel the article missed something important about Christianity. According to this 2021 Pew poll, only 44% of American Christians believe that people who don’t believe in God cannot go to heaven.

https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/11/23/views-on-the-afterlife/

I also want to mention that for me and many other devout Christians, the afterlife is relatively unimportant. What matters most is trying to glorify God on earth. That essentially means living with the values EAs aspire to: expanding our moral circle, overcoming cognitive biases to be more productive, and making sacrifices to help people. We know very little about the afterlife, but we know a lot about how God called us to live. We should want to glorify God because we love him, not because we expect a reward. I don’t have statistics on how common this perspective is, but according to that Pew poll 8% of Christians don’t believe in heaven at all.

I think biodiversity loss probably does warrant its own cause area. Animal welfare isn't a particularly compelling cause area for me personally, so I'm making this statement purely based on the risk biodiversity loss could pose to the world economy. 

Is it Important?

Our economy is so heavily dependent on wild ecosystems that last year The Economist ran a special report that claimed "Loss of biodiversity poses as great a risk to humanity as climate change".  People havn't built the models necessary to make that statement quantitatively, but the qualitative arguments and disturbing results from modeling biodiversity loss in smaller ecosystems seem strong enough that we should prioritize building these models to see what we find. For example, in one study discussed in The Economist, scientists studying diverse ecosystems around the world found that once 80% of plant life was gone, entire food chains began to collapse and could not be rebuilt by simply restoring the plants. More than 75% of global food-crop types are pollinated by animals [1]. Could we irreversibly lose a food chain these crops depend on as we dramatically eliminate vegetation to accommodate our growing population and wealth? I don't want to find out the hard way. Perhaps there are ways of replacing the food chains our economy depends on, but perhaps there are not, or the costs of preservation are dramatically lower than the costs of replacement. Scientists still haven't figured out what causes Colony Collapse Disorder despite how important bees are to our economy [2]. This makes me nervous about our ability to promptly find a replacement if it comes back much worse or another ecosystem we depend on collapses.

Is it Neglected?

Lots of people seem to care about biodiversity, but they rarely seem do so using the analytical EA approach. Research and outreach that makes it easier for them to target their efforts towards the most effective options as we've done in global health and development could be very high impact. 

Is it Tractable?

One reason biodiversity models are so far behind climate models is the difficulty of the problem, but researchers do seem to be chipping away at it, so maybe more researchers and funding would chip away at it faster. Furthermore, improvements in AI and sensors have made this problem substantially more tractable in recent years. 

The Economist argues that one of the most important interventions right now would be just organizing all the data we're collecting into central hubs so that researchers and other people interested in using it to help can access it. That seems very tractable compared to many problems in EA.

Whether biodiversity is more high impact than other EA cause areas is beyond my ability to determine. But this special report in The Economist does make it sound similar.

[1] https://www.economist.com/technology-quarterly/2021-06-19

[2] https://www.epa.gov/pollinator-protection/colony-collapse-disorder#why%20it%20is%20happening

Excellent post thank you! I want to add a couple things.

  1. While focusing on things besides economic growth sounds very important, I’m not sure focusing on these things at the expense of economic growth would be good. Some of the proposals for increasing happiness in this post such as job security sometimes decrease economic growth. Decreasing the rate of economic growth negatively upends people’s expectations in the ways recessions do, producing the kind of decrease in happiness observed within business cycles. According to the Congressional Budget Office, real median household income in the US increased by 64% between 1979 and 2018. Yet for many people this was not enough to compensate them for the loss of the faster rate in increase in incomes of the postwar period. I don’t have a statistic on the faster rate of increase in incomes during the postwar period, but the difference has been cited by enough economists such as Duflo and Banerjee to make me confident it was larger. People often cite this loss when explaining their support for populist candidates like Trump and Sanders.

  2. As we search for better things to focus on than growth, I want to caution that very different solutions could be better in different countries. I read in my economics textbook that the average American would be only 85% as well off if they lived in the average Western European country, accounting for the value Americans place on income, income inequality, and health (but sadly they didn’t measure the value Americans put on economic mobility, which according to a talk I went to by the UN is typically better in Western Europe). This casts doubt on the idea that expanding the welfare state substantially would increase American’s happiness.

Thanks so much! So helpful. I just connected with you on LinkedIn, but it wouldn’t let me include an introduction message for some reason, so here’s a reminder of how we met.

Following the academic research closely as EAs often do produces many perspectives that are surprising to traditional activists. I'm a student at University of California Davis. Here my frugality is essential to getting my peers to take my perspectives on effectiveness seriously. If it wasn't for the frugality, they would dismiss me as not altruistic because I'm a moderate democrat instead of a socialist. I'm frugal because I believe it's the right thing to do (for me at least), not because of the optics. I don't know what the best answer is overall, but believe we should be particularly cautious about abandoning frugality in very left wing environments. Perhaps very different levels of frugality will be best in different communities.  

I'm a 3rd year undergraduate double majoring in electrical engineering and economics at University of California Davis. I have a 3.7 University of California Davis GPA. After looking through EA articles,  I've decided to get a PhD in economics after graduation so I can be a development economist for an influential think tank or global development organization.  I do need to continue living in the United States, although plenty of travel is fine. 

Is there any preparation I should be doing for a career in development economics without going into academia beyond the standard career advice for getting into an economics PhD program?

What are some good schools for development economics?

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I'm a 3rd year undergraduate double majoring in electrical engineering and economics at University of California Davis (about 2 hours from the San Francisco Bay Area).

I've been thinking about effective altruism concepts all my life, but just discovered the community in December 2020. After reading many EA articles and double checking with my economics professor, today I've decided to switch my post-graduation career plans from a masters degree in electrical engineering to a PhD in economics so I can work on global priorities research. 

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Thanks for this article! So helpful.

I’m a junior electrical engineering major who just learned about the advanced AI risks. I plan to do two senior years and a masters degree so I have time to change direction if I need to.

Do you think it would help the world more to go into one of the career paths in this article, or another career path one could do with an electrical engineering major that is less related to AI?

What are some of the career paths I could take with an electrical engineering major that have less risk of contributing to AI happening faster than we are able to handle it? Of those career paths, are there any that stand out as particularly helpful to society? I’m not interested in careers that require a PhD.