Effective Sustainability - results from a meetup discussion

post by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-03-29T22:15:10.978Z · score: 9 (12 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 22 comments

Contents

  Related-to Focus Areas of Effective Altruism
  1) Forego consumption. 
  2) Spend more time on optimizing ressources you consume large amounts of.
  3) Spend money on sustainable organisations instead of on everyday products that only give you a good feeling.
None
22 comments

Related-to Focus Areas of Effective Altruism

These are some small tidbits from our LW-like Meetup in Hamburg. The focus was on sustainability not on altruism as that was more in the spirit of our group. EA was mentioned but no comparison was made. Well-informed effective altruists will probably find little new in this writeup.

So we discussed effective sustainability. To this end we were primed to think rationally by my 11-year old who moderated a session on mind-mapping 'reason' (with contributions from the children). Then we set out to objectively compare concrete everyday things by their sustainability. And how to do this. 

Is it better to drink fruit juice or wine? Or wine or water? Or wine vs. nothing (i.e.to forego sth.)? Or wine vs. paper towels? (the latter intentionally different)

The idea was to arrive at simple rules of thumb to evaluate the sustainability of something. But we discovered that even simple comparisons are not that simple and intuition can run afoul (surpise!). One example was that apparently tote bags are not clearly better than plastic bags in terms of sustainability. But even the simple comparison of tap water vs. wine which seems like a trivial subset case is non-trivial when you consider where the water comes from and how it is extracted from the ground (we still think that water is better but we not as sure as before).

We discussed some ways to measure sustainability (in brackets to which we reduced it):

Life-Cycle-Assessment (German: Ökobilanz) was mentioned in this context but it was unclear what that meant precisely. Only afterwards was it discovered that it's a blanket term for exactly this question (with lots of estabilished measurements for which it is unclear how to simplify them for everyday use).

We didn't try to break this down - a practical everyday approch doesn't allow for that and the time spent on analysing and comparing options is also equivalent to ressources possibly not spent efficiently.

One unanswered question was how much time to invest in comparing alternatives. Too little comparison means to take the nextbest option which is what most people apparently do and which also apparently doesn't lead to overall sustainable behavior. But too much analysis of simple decisions is also no option.

The idea was still to arrive at actionable criteria. One first approximation be settled on was

1) Forego consumption. 

A nobrainer really, but maybe even that has to be stated. Instead of comparing options that are hard to compare try to avoid consumption where you can. Water instead of wine or fruit juice or lemonde. This saves lots of cognitive ressources.

Shortly after we agreed on the second approximation:

2) Spend more time on optimizing ressources you consume large amounts of.

The example at hand was wine (which we consume only a few times a year) versus toilet paper... No need to feel remorse over a one-time present packaging.

Note that we mostly excluded personal well-being, happiness and hedons from our consideration. We were aware that our goals affect our choices and hedons have to factored into any real strategy, but we left this additional complication out of our analysis - at least for this time.

We did discuss signalling effects. Mostly in the context of how effective ressources can be saved by convincing others to act sustainably. One important aspect for the parents was to pass on the idea and to act as a role model (with the caveat that children need a simplified model to grasp the concept). It was also mentioned humorously that one approach to minimize personal ressource consumption is suicide and transitively to convice others of same. The ultimate solution having no humans on the planet (a solution my 8-year old son - a friend of nature - arrived at too). This apparently being the problem when utilons/hedons are expluded.

A short time we considered whether outreach comes for free (can be done in addition to abstinence) and should be the no-brainer number 3. But it was then realized that at least right now and for us most abstinence comes at a price. It was quoted that buying sustainable products is about 20% more expensive than normal products. Forgoing e.g. a car comes at reduced job options. Some jobs involve supporting less sustainable large-scale action. Having less money means less options to act sustaibale. Time being convertible to money and so on.

At this point the key insight mentioned was that it could be much more efficient from a sustainability point of view to e.g. buy CO_2 certificates than to buy organic products. Except that the CO_2 certificate market is oversupplied currently. But there seem to be organisations which promise to achieve effective CO_2 reduction in developing countries (e.g. solar cooking) at a much higher rate than be achieved here. Thus the thrid rule was

3) Spend money on sustainable organisations instead of on everyday products that only give you a good feeling.

And with this the meetup concluded. We will likely continue this.

A note for parents: Meetups with children can be productive (in the sense of results like the above). We were 7 adults and 7 children (aged 3 to 11). The children mostly entertained themselves and no parent had to leave the discussion for long. And the 11-year-old played a significant role in the meetup itself.

22 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2015-03-29T23:28:04.059Z · score: 7 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for the write-up, and yes, engaging with the real world is a lot harder than signalling.

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-03-30T15:08:09.000Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Interesting discussion. Since I too am from Germany, I know the environmentalist culture here well. I grew up in it - including what I now think was bordering on propaganda - and in the recent years I somewhat grew apart from it.

Some random thoughts:

It was also mentioned humorously that one approach to minimize personal ressource consumption is suicide and transitively to convice others of same. The ultimate solution having no humans on the planet (a solution my 8-year old son - a friend of nature - arrived at too). This apparently being the problem when utilons/hedons are expluded.

I don't think that's it. There are two other problems:

  1. If you care about utilons/hedons, you can't ignore wild-animal suffering. Assuming humans and arguably domesticated animals experience better lives than wild animals, and/or at different resource-per-experience-second ratios, a world without humans can contain more suffering and/or less pleasure (however, the possibility of space colonization probably dominates this question) Beware the idyllic view of nature that underlies a lot of environmentalism.

  2. No more humans would mean the ultimate unsustainability of human culture and civilization. The question then is, what exactly it is you want to be sustainable, and to what end.

For mere resource consumption (where the prices are internalized by the consumers), most people here will probably assume The Market will take care of it. If resource X becomes rare, prices will increase and substitutes will be more attractive. This is often not reflected in German environmentalism, which tends to see capitalism as somewhat evil. Of course, this is not true of factors that are not internalized in the prices, such as climate change, but even then most people here would probably see it as a lower priority as other existential risks.

It's useful to remember that German environmentalism comes with a baggage of traditional biases.

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2015-03-30T15:17:36.683Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What might happen to the calculation if you include wild animal pleasure?

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-03-30T15:47:14.339Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

It looks better, of course. The defenders of wild-animal pessimism usually point to r vs. K selection strategies, population dynamics and the relative asymmetry between peak sufferings and peak pleasures. Some of them are also negative or negative-leaning utilitarians.

But let's say you value animal pleasure and want to maximize it. Even then, there should be only a relatively small margin where untouched nature is most efficient (when it overlaps with other interests, such as political concessions to deep ecologists, ecosystem services, aesthetics and tourism etc.)

Because if someone really wanted to maximize pleasure, they would try to be more efficient at it.

If someone wants to maximize nonhuman animal pleasure, they could set up a foundation to breed the perfect pleasure animal - which could never survive in the wild - and then give it existence donations.

This is true for other values as well: Some say they value biodiversity - but none of them has suggested to set up a foundation for rapid artificial speciation + existence donations to a small number of individuals per new species. Instead they have associations of lush forests and beautiful wild megafauna in their heads.

Most humans don't actually try to maximize X, for any formal definition of X. They are scope insensitive by default, and come with a background of memes and associations that often are carried from early childhood onward.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-30T17:17:28.808Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

When people devise techniques to, for example, propagate orchids in Petri plates (like the ubiquitous Phalaenopsis - it seems to me that those animals you have in mind as more stably happy would be like historically successful houseplants in many respects), what is the actual goal that envision? If there are orchids, but not habitats, do orchids still have any value? They are not sentient. Animals are not sentient. We can rule that their suffering matters, or doesn't matter, but why do you think it is anything other than a totally arbitrary choice?

Intact nature, on the other hand, makes possible the existence of very many relationships between ecosystem components. Suppose, for a moment, that we can simulate a habitat as multidimensional for a given organism, and then, tweaking those variables, find the happiest fit. How much resources would it take to model this for a population (if animals, or even plants, are capable of communication)? How would you decide which species deserves happiness and which doesn't?

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-03-30T17:48:24.400Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I think that precisely because natural ecosystems make possible - indeed require - very many relationships between components, they are not optimal for maximizing something we value, except for values tailored to their nature (status quo biased environmentalism, deep ecology).

They are unsuitable to maximize anything else, such as happiness, pleasure, even biodiversity. At least compared to what a technological civilization could implement, given enough dedicated resources.

As an example, take rodents, who have relatively high number of offspring but require stable populations in their niche most of the time (due to fixed carrying capacity). If you have 5 or more offspring, all capable of feeling pain, fear, starvation, thirst etc., and only 2 can survive to reproduce successfully, you have a strong prima facie argument for a suffering surplus.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-03-30T18:02:35.145Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

compared to what a technological civilization could implement, given enough dedicated resources.

That's a fully general argument against anything existing in reality right now.

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-03-30T18:13:09.349Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Perhaps, except for sustaining and improving the technological civilization we have now, as well as all efforts to push against opposing values... that contains a lot of what humans do. (The rest is due to the fact that humans usually don't really maximize anything systematically.)

And as I said, there is probably a margin where nature is optimal; we want clean water, air, resilience of food production, tourism etc. anyway. But that margin is finite and it becomes smaller as technological know-how increases.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-03-30T18:35:07.519Z · score: -1 (3 votes) · LW · GW

except for sustaining and improving the technological civilization we have now

Your position supports the argument that it could be a good thing -- it is inadequate for supporting the argument that it will be a good thing.

as well as all efforts to push against opposing values

"All efforts"..? It's pretty easy to get unreasonable here.

a margin where nature is optimal; we want clean water, air, resilience of food production, tourism etc

A "technological civilization" with enough resources can implement much better versions of all of these.

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-03-30T21:45:12.795Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Your position supports the argument that it could be a good thing -- it is inadequate for supporting the argument that it will be a good thing.

You're right; perhaps there will be e.g. more suffering than the whole thing is worth.

A "technological civilization" with enough resources can implement much better versions of all of these.

Yes, that's why I'd expect the value of nature to decrease as technology progresses. If you look to science fiction, the Star Trek Federation certainly had no need for any untouched nature for any purpose other than sentimentality.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-03-31T00:04:30.886Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

If you look to science fiction

That's a bad place to look to, in this particular context :-)

comment by dxu · 2015-03-31T00:32:52.913Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

So where would be a good place to look?

comment by Lumifer · 2015-03-31T05:27:08.408Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Reality.

For example, human technology has progressed a lot during the last century, for example. Has the value of nature decreased?

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-03-31T15:08:29.508Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Relatively speaking, yes. We have invented and/or improved water filtration and desalination techniques, hydroponics, synthetic pharmaceuticals, and many technologies to capture, store and use energy without photosynthesis. We even replaced horses in transportation with automobiles.

It's easy to imagine more efficient versions of many of these in the future. (I mentioned Star Trek because of its iconic production and energy technologies, especially the replicator.)

We also replaced a lot of nature, which tends to make the remaining nature more valuable, but this is relative.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-30T17:57:00.043Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

But dead rodents become food for many [soil] invertebrates, and so happiness is greater. (I think.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2015-04-02T14:03:08.488Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What do you do if you want to maximize wild animal pleasure at something resembling current levels of technology?

comment by HedonicTreader · 2015-04-02T17:07:33.331Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

First, I would question if it's the most effective thing (on the margin) someone could to to maximize pleasure. If not, prioritize other things.

Second, I would question whether the suffering outweighs the pleasure in wild animals. Reasonable activities here could be research and awareness raising.

Finally, there's a level of activities many professions are already engaged in, such as maintaining and monitoring deer populations when their natural predators have been displaced by humans, or welfare-related activities in dedicated wildlife parks. Other ideas are vaccinations for some wild animals, or research into softer ways to control wild animal populations, e.g. affordable depot contraceptives. David Pearce has even suggested a welfare state for elephants. I think costs are a limiting factor here.

I personally am pessimistic that suffering causes like live predation can be outweighed by wild animal pleasure; I think it would probably be easier to make human lives better (e.g. better painkillers) and more humane (better vegan food), and then make more of them. Or just make happier domesticated animals. But I'm sure if you're looking you'll find something of value. I'd also keep an eye on Animal Ethics

comment by [deleted] · 2015-04-02T16:38:22.811Z · score: -2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Shoot poachers. ETA: and pool together subspecies (like some rhino subspecies) which in isolation will certainly go extinct, since there's not really any point in them suffering without company and probably a hope of cross-breeding. There was a story about European/American bison crosses that were later all killed to prevent 'genotype pollution', but from the poi t of view of minimazing suffering it always striked me as stupid.

Also, bees and some related species experience a decline nowadays; it is not technologically impossible to plant most suitable plants to support their existence (instead of just importing the most fashionable species.)

But as long as about 20 people out of 1000 would swerve to make a snake completely flat, I would continue to think that the highest returns here can be obtained only through strict prohibition. Think of Madagascar. Heck, a party of 500 salamanders dried out within hours of confiscation in the Boryspil aeroport once, because there is not even a room to keep confiscated animals! Many animals are too stressed by capture to survive transportation, which is why 'to raise a reptile' means for experienced batrachologists 'to keep it alive until you obtain F2 of it', for example (here I mean my own biology teacher.)

Or, you can make 3D images of animals to replace all those zoo sufferers...

(I also agree with that downvote. I should have thought past my knee-jerk reaction.)

comment by Good_Burning_Plastic · 2015-03-31T10:05:18.454Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

For mere resource consumption (where the prices are internalized by the consumers), most people here will probably assume The Market will take care of it.

Unless said resources are subsidized.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-03-30T22:35:01.251Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's useful to remember that German environmentalism comes with a baggage of traditional biases.

No doubt that's why we focussed on measuring sustanability first instead of choosing utility (what might be the natural choice for a societies valuing indidual experssion highly). But we didn't exclude preferrences because we considered them irrelevant but because we wanted to separate them out. That's a valid approach. We just may not forget to plug it in later.

comment by Lumifer · 2015-03-30T17:24:04.799Z · score: -4 (8 votes) · LW · GW

Agent Smith: I'd like to share a revelation that I've had during my time here. It came to me when I tried to classify your species and I realized that you're not actually mammals. Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment but you humans do not. You move to an area and you multiply and multiply until every natural resource is consumed and the only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. Do you know what it is? A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet. You're a plague and we are the cure.

:-D

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2015-03-31T16:01:15.589Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Every mammal on this planet instinctively develops a natural equilibrium with the surrounding environment

Really?