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I discuss something similar to that a bit on page 41, but mainly focusing on whether depletion could make it harder for civilisation to re-emerge. Ultimately, it still looks to me like it would be easier and faster the second time around. 

I agree!

I didn't want to get too distracted with these complication in the piece, but I'm sympathetic to these and other approaches to avoid the technical issue of divergent integrals of value when studying longterm effects.

In the case in question (where u(t) always equals k v(t)) we get an even stronger constraint the ratio of progressively longer integrals doesn't just limit to a constant, but equals a constant.

There are some issues that come up with these approaches though. One is that they are all tacitly assuming that comparing things at a time is the right comparison. But suppose (contra my assumptions in the post) that population was always half as high in one outcome as the other. Then it may be doing worse at any time, but still have all the same people eventually come into existence and be equally good for all of them. Issues like this where the ratio depends on what variable is being integrated over don't come up in the convergent integral cases.

All that said, the integrating to infinity in economic modelling is presumably not to be taken literally, and for any finite time horizon — no matter how mindbendingly large — my result that the discounting function doesn't matter holds (even if the infinite integral were to diverge).

For what it's worth, my working assumption for many risks (e.g. nuclear, supervolcanic eruption) was that their contribution to existential risk via 'direct' extinction was of a similar level to their contribution via civilisation collapse. e.g. that a civilisation collapse event was something like 10 times as likely, but that there was also a 90% chance of recovery. So in total, the consideration of non-direct pathways roughly doubled my estimates for a number of risks.

One thing I didn't do was to include their roles as risk factors. e.g. the effect that being on the brink of nuclear war has on overall existential risk even if the nuclear war doesn't occur.

Thanks Danny! 

For those who are unaware, Benefit Cost Analysis (BCA) is the main form of quantitative evaluation of cost-effectiveness in the US, UK, and beyond. Two of the biggest problems with it as a method are its counting of the value of a dollar equally for all people (which leads to valuing people themselves in proportion to their income) and a high, constant, discount rate. So the action on both of these are big improvements to quantitative priority setting in the US!

Yes, I completely agree. When I was exploring questions about wild animal welfare almost 20 years ago, I was very surprised to see how the idea of thinking about individual animals' lives was so foreign to the field.

While I only had time to quickly read this piece, I agree with much of what I read and think it is a great contribution to the literature. 

To clarify my own view, I think animals matter a great deal — now and over the longterm future. The focus on humanity in my work is primarily because we are the only moral agents we know of. In philosophical terms, this means that humanity has immense instrumental value. If we die, then as far as we know, there is nothing at all striving to shape the future of Earth (or our whole galaxy) towards what is good or just. It is with humanity in this role as moral agent, rather than moral patient, that I think the case for avoiding existential risk to humanity is at its most powerful. I don't know whether the lion's share of intrinsic value we create over the longterm future will be in the form of human flourishing, animal flourishing, or something else, and welcome much more discussion on that, with your paper being a good example.

As well as avoiding existential risk, I think that work to avoid locking in bad values or practices could also be very important on longtermist grounds, and that values connected to animals are good candidates.

I focused on what could happen to animal species rather than individual animals in those particular passages, but much of my thinking on animal ethics is in terms of individuals. 

Like most people, I'm not sold on the idea that wild animal suffering makes the biosphere have negative overall value, such that ecosystem destruction would be good instead of bad (and so forth). But nor am I claiming that we should introduce animals to other planets. My point in those passages was to sketch the magnitude of the kinds of things humanity could achieve in terms of the environment and animal life. What to do with that power raises very big and very uncertain questions. My main claims were that we should protect our potential, and then think very long and hard about how best to fulfil it.

Thanks Shakeel! This is an excellent post. There are so many big wins in the EA community that it can be hard to see the big picture and keep them all in mind. We all strive to see the big picture, but sometimes even for us, the latest drama can quickly drive the big successes from our memory. So big picture summaries like this are very useful.

Indeed, summaries of the whole period of EA achievements, or summaries that include setbacks as well as wins would also be good.

Very exciting news! Welcome Zach — this is making me feel optimistic about EA in 2024.


Thanks so much for writing this, and even more for all you've done to help those less fortunate than yourself.

I'm glad I did that Daily Politics spot! It was very hard to tell in the early days how impactful media work was (and it still is!) so examples like this are very interesting.

Thanks so much for all your hard work on CEA/EV over the many years. You have been such a driving force over the years in developing the ideas, the community, and the institutions we needed to help make it all work well. Much of that work over the years has happened through CEA/EV, and before that through Giving What We Can and 80,000 Hours before we'd set up CEA to house them, so this is definitely in some sense the end of an era for you (and for EV). But a lot of your intellectual work and vision has always transcended the particular organisations and I'm really looking forward to much more of that to come!

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