Effective Altruism Isn’t Unworkably Longtermist or Anti-Institutionalist

Understanding how the social movement really operates shows where it and ecomodernism can be complementary

Effective Altruism Isn’t Unworkably Longtermist or Anti-Institutionalist
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As someone who previously worked at the Breakthrough Institute, learned a lot from ecomodernism, and is now deeply involved in effective altruism’s work on climate, I was very happy to come across Breakthrough Deputy Director Alex Trembath’s recent essay attempting to describe how ecomodernism and effective altruism relate and differ.

However, reading the essay, I found many of Trembath’s observations and inferences in stark contrast to my lived experience, so I am taking him up on his invitation to explain what he got wrong—to clarify, add nuance, and promote an accurate mutual understanding of the similarities and differences of two social movements.

Beyond longtermism in effective altruism

There is much in the original essay to agree with. It is, indeed, clear that there is a difference in how most effective altruists think about animals and how ecomodernists and other environmentalists do. And this difference is well characterized in the essay.

Now, the disagreements:

Longtermism—whether it works or not—is only a small part of effective altruism. In August 2022, arguably EA’s most longtermist moment, an estimate from available grant data from major effective altruist groups put funding for longtermist projects at less than a third of the total. The majority of the work done by the movement, then, falls entirely outside of Trembath’s critique.

As for longtermism, Trembath describes it as unworkable because of the “knowledge problem”— the limitations to reliable knowledge about the future. This knowledge problem is, of course, well-known in effective altruism. And the movement tries to grapple seriously with its implications, as in discussions around the epistemic challenge to longtermism and cluelessness.

Indeed, I would wager that many effective altruists who share a longtermist moral commitment (future beings matter as much as current ones) would cite a version of the knowledge problem as a reason to focus on present beings or to focus on longtermist work that doesn’t suffer the knowledge problem.

For example, it is no coincidence that most of effective altruism’s longtermist work is focused on reducing extinction risks. These are longtermist issues that are both of great import but also sufficiently near-term to make tractable and robustly good actions potentially knowable. As the philosopher Sam Harris synthesized, finding artificial general intelligence to be an extinction risk requires minimal and weak assumptions that are very likely to be true. Similar arguments can be made about dangers from engineered pathogens, or from nuclear war. These are all issues where large future risks can be identified by extrapolating from current trends (AI power, cost of bio-tech) or base rates (of pandemics, risk of great power war). In other words, despite the knowledge problem, there is much we can usefully infer about civilizational risks in the near future.

To take a point from Trembath, we do not need to know precisely how the world looks in 2100, or the preferences of interstellar metahumans in 21000, to do important longtermist work. And this is precisely what most longtermists are doing when they seek to reduce extinction risk, which is by far the largest part of the longtermist effort.

Effective altruism is not anti-institutionalist

My central disagreement with Trembath, though, is his argument that effective altruism is inherently anti-institutionalist.

He hangs this point on two main pieces of indirect evidence:

  • Effective altruists’ anti-institutionalism made them more likely to be excited about crypto philanthropists.
  • We can explain the causes effective altruism choses to focus on by invoking anti-institutionalism.

This is weak evidence that falls apart on closer inspection. On the first point, Trembath writes, “That’s why I’ve grown increasingly queasy over the last few years as these ideas [from effective altruism] have been associated most strongly with crypto-philanthropists, and intellectual leaders who I thought were dangerously enthusiastic for crypto-heavy funding. And the unfortunate conclusion I’ve come to is that the risible crypto-philanthropists and the admirable effective altruism practitioners have something foundational in common: a disdain for institutions.”

I am not one of the intellectual leaders he is writing about, but it seems clear that, from what those leaders have said publicly, they now see being so optimistic about crypto donations as a mistake. The question here, though, is whether this mistake was made more likely by “foundational anti-institutionalism”?

I am quite skeptical of this argument for three reasons:

First, if there is one force in American politics that is committed to institutionalism, then it is President Biden’s Democrats fighting against populist challenges, threats to electoral integrity, and other challenges to American institutions, and seeking to address societal problems through an increased role of public policy. Bankman-Fried, the fallen crypto entrepreneur, was the party’s second-largest donor.

Is the party then anti-institutionalist? Clearly, such an inference seems unjustified.

Second, prominent effective altruists, such as Rob Wiblin, have been publicly critical of crypto’s contribution to society—and well before crypto, Bankman-Fried, and FTX tanked.

Third, I have never heard a prominent effective altruist argue for decentralized block chain technology—or decentralized social forms more generally—as a key solution to any of the problems that effective altruists tend to care about. Thus, while crypto enthusiasts might indeed have an anti-institutionalist bias that makes them excited about decentralized solutions, effective altruists seem unexcited about those solutions.

Trembath’s second argument tying effective altruism to anti-institutionalism is the movement’s selection of causes. Anti-institutionalism, he writes, “does explain why effective altruism is mostly concerned with ‘low-hanging fruit’ development problems and highly uncertain existential risk, and mostly not with climate change, agricultural productivity, public education, inequality, policing and crime, violence and war, ‘cost-disease socialism,’ or all the other difficult, wicked problems that require governance and institutions to address.” (Ironically, many EAs believe that fixing any of these highly uncertain risks will require institutional change!)

But such arguments misunderstand how the movement prioritizes its efforts. To explain, I’ll focus on the work I am most familiar with: climate.

Much of the first-order prioritization that effective altruists tend to engage in is done through the so-called ITN framework, evaluating causes in terms of their importance (I), tractability (T), and neglectedness (N).

On these metrics, the strongest argument many effective Altruists make against prioritizing climate is its lack of neglectedness. Simply put, problems of similar importance to climate receive far less attention, both by philanthropy and by society at large. Everything else being equal, the more neglected problems should be the first priority for additional effort. For example, reducing risk from nuclear war receives about 1/100 of the philanthropic attention as climate, and societally we seem to fail at mobilizing resources to address biorisks, despite an abundantly salient warning shot in the form of COVID-19.

One might disagree with effective Altruists’ estimates on problem importance. But in years of interacting with effective Altruists, I have yet to encounter someone making a serious argument for not prioritizing climate because of institutional messiness (in other words, a lack of tractability). Indeed, when we compare climate to other catastrophic risks, climate’s high tractability—it is clear what to do and there is a massive societal response that can be leveraged through well-targeted advocacy—is the central argument in its favor.

Zooming out, it isn’t even the case that effective altruism has avoided wicked problems in particular. In fact, effective altruism does not engage in most causes because the movement is still small and has to focus its limited resources where it believes it will make the most difference. And the issues it focuses on, particularly the longtermist ones, are as wicked as they come.

In short, on closer inspection, Trembath’s points of evidence about effective altruism’s supposed anti-institutionalism don’t hold water. Rather, I would like to argue that the mode in which effective Altruists engage is, in fact, often heavily institutionalist. And this wouldn’t make sense if the movement as a whole indeed held strongly anti-institutionalist beliefs.

The movement and the donors

In my day job, as the lead on effective altruism’s largest philanthropic effort on climate (the Founders Pledge Climate Fund), my team and I find and fund organizations that seek to improve societal response to climate through advocacy that makes our collective response less myopic, more risk-aware, more technology-inclusive, and more focused on global emissions.. This is no different than the institutionalist strategy Trembath describes for ecomodernists.

My colleague Christian Ruhl, who runs a fund on reducing global catastrophic risks, has likewise not received the anti-institutionalist memo. He counsels policy makers in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, consults an extensive network in the national defense community, and seeds new organizations such as the Berkeley Security Risk and Security Laboratory— partially motivated by the team’s track record of working with the bureaus at the Department of State, the National Laboratories, and with the UN Institute for Disarmament Research.

Open Philanthropy, effective altruism's largest grantmaker, is heavily institutionalist as well. Not only did it commission its own research on evaluating the value of policy-oriented philanthropy and of field-building they are also executing on this strategy across all areas they engage in.

For example, much work on risks in advanced intelligence is focused on increasing awareness of the risk by policymakers and building adequate institutional responses, most notably the EA-founded Centre for the Governance of AI, but also the Future Society, and the Future of Life Institute. Indeed, effective altruism has arguably built the field of AI safety with major publications, and initial conferences bringing together relevant actors from academia and industry. This kind of field-building and mainstreaming strategy would make no sense if EA had a fundamental disdain for institutions.

Effective altruism, like ecomodernism, already understands that engaging with institutions is at the core of improving the outcomes we care about.

I think what Trembath is picking up on, then, is not anti-institutionalism within effective altruism, but rather anti-institutionalism within a particular donor class—crypto donors and, oftentimes more broadly, tech donors. And that is a challenge that both ecomodernism and effective altruism need to grapple with. Both movements must ensure that the good these donors seek to achieve in the world is not limited by those donors’ idiosyncratic beliefs.

Ecomodernism and effective altruism in practice

There are real differences between ecomodernism and effective altruism in scope and approach, and this is how it should be. To me, ecomodernism seeks to answer the question “how much mileage do we get from applying a humanist, pro-technology, density-is-beautiful vision to broadly environmental issues?”. Effective Altruists, meanwhile, seek to find the most effective ways to improve the world as much as possible—a much broader project.

The latter project necessarily requires tools that ecomodernism does not require, such as a methodology to prioritize amongst issues, strategies to engage in the world, and relatedly an explicit method for dealing with high-uncertainty situations. The latter project also requires weaker assumptions as it operates around a wider set of potential causes. For example, I would feel uneasy describing effective altruism as “pro-technology” given that three of the top concerns effective altruists worry about are artificial general intelligence, engineered pathogens, and nuclear weapons.

The work can be complementary, but we should be clear about the real strengths of and differences between the movements. Effective altruism is more than unworkable longtermism. And the differences are not at all related to attitudes toward institutions and institutional change.