Interview with Dewi Erwan, postgraduate risk student and enthusiastic President at the Effective Altruism Durham Society. EA Durham is a student-run society consisting of Durham students across a range of subjects, who try to unravel what the biggest problems in the world are and what they can do to help.
1. What is Effective Altruism, and what does an ordinary EA session look like?
Effective Altruism is a social movement that tries to determine the best way we can act that will improve the world and make the world a better place, be that in maximizing the amount of pleasure in the world or reducing the amount of suffering. That includes humans in the present and in the future, non-human animals, essentially anything that has the capacity to suffer or to feel pleasure – including even aliens, but don’t mention that!
Each week, we have a range of different sessions. We have predominantly had discussion seminars, whereby a student will introduce a certain topic such as biotechnology, climate change, animal suffering, artificial intelligence, etc. They will present an overview of that topic, and then we will invite members of the audience to discuss them by asking philosophical questions relating to that topic. In the breaks, we also have lovely free vegan pizza! We started to have more regular pub-located podcast discussions too, as well as starting an EA mentoring scheme.
2. Australian wildfires, plastics in whales’ stomachs, increasing social injustice in developing countries… Which are the biggest issues our societies should be dealing with right now?
My greatest fear is biotechnology (Interviewer’s note: this interview was conducted before the novel coronavirus outbreak). I am mostly worried about genetically engineered viruses that are capable of infecting the majority of the human population by spreading very quickly, as well as killing most people who catch that virus. I think this is probably the largest risk we face as a society over the coming decades. This technology is developing very quickly, and some biologists are now capable of genetically engineering very virulent viruses to be airborne transmissible between humans.
Other large fears include the future of artificial intelligence, which is a big question mark at the moment, but subject-matter experts are very worried. Then, there is the obvious climate change, however, given it’s received so much attention in the past few years, it’s less neglected so it’s no longer as high-impact a career as working on more neglected risks. Another thing to worry about is the fact that a billion people are still malnourished, which is quite frankly appalling in the world that we are currently living in, given that we have so much abundance. The suffering of animals in factory farms, potentially 70 billion land animals each year without even considering fish, is also something that worries me immensely.
3. You are thinking about the state of the world daily. How do you cope with it and stay positive?
I am naturally a very positive individual, however, I also have many habits that ensure that this remains the case: having cold showers, meditation, exercise, eating healthily, getting enough sleep, having close friends who support me, journaling - you know, all these various things that promote good mental health. Although I certainly don’t do these things as regularly as I’d like to - it’s a work in progress.
In terms of thinking about the largest problems in the world, I am not just thinking about what the problems are, but what we can do to improve the situation. The framework that effective altruists use to determine which focus areas they ought to be working on are scale, tractability and neglectedness. How large is the problem, how many people or sentient beings does the problem affect? Can we, as individuals or as a community, actually do something to improve the situation? And how neglected is the area, does it already get loads of attention? I am thinking about solving the issues, as well as the problems themselves. That allows me to remain positive, because I am envisioning best-case futures and learning from other people who are implementing solutions.
4. What is the strength of our generation?
Interesting question! People our age have grown up with the internet, we have grown up with a huge access to information and the ability to have fairly good critical analysis. We do not just assume things are correct, because we can see counterexamples all the time if we want to on the Internet. We have abundant access to information, and we know how to access that information. Although I would not claim that we’re all entirely rational and not prone to conspiracies, there is a huge amount of work still to be done here in promoting rational thinking and transparent information.
A good thing about young people all over the world throughout time is that we are willing to take risks that older people are not. We are willing to critique old ideas, whereas the older you get, the less likely you are to do so, because you have a lot more responsibility and you’ve lived a certain way all your life. Being young also means that you can more effectively prioritize your career pathways, as the older you get, the more committed you are to a certain path and it’s harder to pivot away if you realise your career isn’t as high-impact as it could be.
5. What can one do, on an individual basis, to be an effective altruist?
I don’t think we should be dogmatic about what it means to “be an effective altruist,” but in terms of what can you do to have a large positive impact in the world, I would say that the first thing you could do is to learn more about the biggest problems in the world. Go into your learning experience with an open mind, be willing to challenge yourself, learn about how you do not know things that you previously thought you knew. It is also important to recognise cognitive biases in your thinking when you are considering hard questions.
And then, in terms of your daily life, the classics are trying to reduce your personal contribution to suffering. The easy ones there are to stop eating animals. More long-term approaches are to go into a career that has a high social impact or that contributes to the prevention of the extinction of humanity, such as working in a high impact NGO or in government helping to develop or implement effective policies. Or you could donate a significant amount of your income to charities (at least 10% is a frequently suggested figure - check out Giving What We Can) that are very impactful and cost-effective in terms of their ability to reduce suffering per pound spent.
To summarize, I would suggest: go into a high impact career, donate money to charity, and stop eating animals.
6. Can anyone from any field in terms of degree join the EA movement and EA Durham?
Absolutely! All the world’s biggest problems these days are interdisciplinary. They require all kinds of different perspectives and an understanding of the world that is greater than one person, one culture, language or gender. We need a diverse set of people in order to better understand what the problems are, so that we do not have incorrect assumptions about what we are doing and how our solutions may play out. In order to make good predictions, we need diversity of thought, both within an individual in terms of your ability to be ideologically flexible, and within a group of people and their ability to have a wide range of perspectives. If you’re interested in making the world a better place, the EA community is a great place to be.
If you want to learn more about Effective Altruism, I’d highly recommend you check out Peter Singer’s TED Talk and the 80,000 key ideas page, and hopefully we’ll see you at one of our events soon!
By Elise Wolff