On the Differences Between Ecomodernism and Effective Altruism

In short: an unscalable ecocentrism, an unworkable longtermism, and an impractical anti-institutionalism.

On the Differences Between Ecomodernism and Effective Altruism

For years I’ve interacted with people who seem to agree with me on the issues—the government should fund technology policy, nuclear energy is good, not bad, economic growth can drive positive-sum improvements for humans and nature, environmental activists are kind of full of shit—but who, when pressed, stop short of fully endorsing ecomodernism as a philosophy or a project. And while we at the Breakthrough Institute have done our best to set up ecomodernism as a “big tent,” inclusive of all sorts of ideological backgrounds and merely “ecomodern-ish” folks, many of these people have left me puzzled. Even discounting the fact that most people will not take as enthusiastically to ecomodernism as I do, it just seems obvious to me that many more of these people should get on board than have done so to date.

The emergence of effective altruism has given me more sympathy for the skeptics.

I am an ecomodernist, not an effective altruist. And it’s funny because, over the last few years, I have met many self-identified effective altruists, often themselves quite inclined towards ecomodernism, whose views and habits of mind I also really admire.

Your typical ecomodernist and effective altruist each believe in the liberatory power of science and technology. They are both pro-growth, recognizing the robust relationship between economic growth and human freedom, expanding circles of empathy, democratic governance, improved social and public health outcomes, and even ecological sustainability. Notably, every effective altruist I can recall discussing the matter with is pro-nuclear, or at least not reflexively anti-nuclear. That is usually a litmus test for broader pro-abundance views, which effective altruists and ecomodernists both tend to espouse. Ecomodernists and effective altruists both attempt an evidence-based analytical rigor, in contrast to the more myopic, romantic, and utopian frameworks they are working to displace.

All that said, there are distinctions in both practice and worldview between the two communities that I think are worth grappling with. Obviously, I don’t speak for every ecomodernist out there, and I am writing this partially to my effective altruist friends in the hopes they will validate or invalidate my premises. But broadly speaking, some distinctions come to mind:

  • Ecomodernists are anthropocentric deontologists, while effective altruists embrace a kind of pan-species utilitarianism.
  • Ecomodernists are more meliorist, while effective altruists are more longtermist.
  • Ecomodernists are institutionalists, while effective altruists evince a consistent skepticism of institutions.

Despite the commonalities and opportunities for collaboration, I think it would be a mistake for ecomodernists to overlook these gaps. Buying into what even effective altruists call the more fanatical commitments of their movement risks abandoning what makes ecomodernism necessary in the first place: reinforcing the role of human institutions in democratically creating a better future for humans and nature.

The Lives of Animals

Anthropocentrism is one of the primary characteristics distinguishing ecomodernism from conventional environmentalism. Whereas conventional environmentalism imagines humans in harmony with some pristine, delicate non-human nature, ecomodernists understand that nature is dynamic and not “pristine,” that humans have a unique agency and stewardship over nature, and that “decoupling” from non-human nature is the best way to protect both humans and nature.

As the late, great Hans Rosling put it, “We have never lived in harmony with nature, we die in harmony with nature.”

In “An Ecomodernist Manifesto,” the authors write, “​​we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.” Think of it as a kind of anthropocentric deontology.

Effective altruists, on the other hand, seem to embrace a kind of pan-species or ecocentric utilitarianism that shows up most obviously in their work on animal welfare.

Take the classic effective altruist view of livestock. Given the hundreds of millions of cows and pigs, billions of chickens, and trillions of fish killed each year, the amount of suffering that could be avoided by scaling back or abolishing animal agriculture is immense. There may be marginal gradations in the moral weight of different animal lives, based on the number of neurons in the brain or whatever, but these distinctions are swamped by the absolute number of animals we kill.

An anthropocentric deontology would characterize the human-animal relationship differently, recognizing that humans have domesticated, bred, and engineered animals for our purposes, giving us dominion but also duties over the lives of animals. That’s not fully incompatible with utilitarianism. Most ecomodernists are as enthusiastic about fake meat as effective altruists are, and while there is disagreement among ecomodernists over how to think about factory farms, the long-term decoupling of human protein consumption from live animal livestock systems is totally commensurate with ecomodernist ethics.

Where effective altruism’s utilitarianism goes off the rails, for me, is in some of their thinking on wild nature. Because if a broiler chicken’s life is miserable and not worth living, then how much better is the life of a wild gopher, or a bobcat, or a tarantula? Most wild animals live short, brutish, Hobbesian lives from the perspective of human beings, and if we’re meant to extend our moral and experiential preferences to the animal kingdom, then why would those lives be worth living or protecting?

Will MacKaskill makes this precise argument in his acclaimed recent book What We Owe the Future, writing, “if we asses the lives of animals as being worse than nothing on average, which I think is plausible (though uncertain), then we arrive at the dizzying conclusion that from the perspective of the wild animals themselves, the enormous growth and expansion of Homo sapiens has been a good thing.”

This is only plausible in a remarkably flat moral hierarchy, in which the “perspective of the wild animals” is interchangeable with the perspective of human beings. The way this interchangeability is usually established is by asking a human whether she would want to be reincarnated as a squirrel, or whatever, and concluding that, since the life of a squirrel is not worth living from the perspective of the human, it is also not worth living from the perspective of the squirrel, and that the squirrel’s life has no existence value to humans.

As I see it, this is the Achilles Heel of pan-species utilitarianism. Even putting aside the bottomless difficulties in comparing the lived experience of a human being with that of a chicken or a shrimp, human beings are the agents establishing the moral hierarchy. Anthropocentrism—in both the uniqueness of humanity’s preferences and the centrality of our species’ decision-making—is unavoidable.

Maybe it’s possible to stop short of the extremist conclusion and still maintain a coherent pan-species utilitarianism that demands we abolish animal agriculture while allowing wild nature to exist and thrive. But I don’t see how. The philosophical commitment doesn’t scale. In contrast, anthropocentric deontology flexes and scales. It’s compatible with our existing relationship over animals, but also with attempts to engineer and improve livestock systems to reduce animal suffering and, indeed, with efforts to end animal agriculture altogether.

Against Longtermism

Much has been made of effective altruists’ penchant for “longtermism,” which could have a couple of overlapping meanings. One is simply that society should try and ensure its own long-term future. Another, more provocative and prominent these days, is the belief that the aggregate welfare of the potentially hundreds of trillions of unborn future humans is so morally massive that it justifies otherwise controversial actions and investments in the present.

This framework has been criticized as being blinkered to the tradeoffs inherently associated with the kind of expected value maximization it entails, and as being philosophically unnecessary since investments to prevent the eruption of supervolcanoes or the hegemony of general artificial intelligence are entirely justifiable within shorter-term timeframes. And while the logic of longtermism absolutely leads to an “ends-justify-the-means” framework, most longtermists insist that, actually, it doesn’t, begging the question of what longtermism is supposed to stand for in the first place.

But I want to focus on the “knowledge problem” as the core flaw in longtermism, since the problems associated with projecting too much certainty about the future are something effective altruists and conventional environmentalists have in common.

The instantly infamous downfall of Sam Bankman-Fried and the attendant collapse of organizations like the Future Fund have revealed the limitations longtermists face when doing expected value calculations in the short term, let alone the very long term. This was completely predictable to adherents of Hayek, who criticized economic central planning as an attempt to consolidate “knowledge of the kind which by its nature cannot enter into statistics and therefore cannot be conveyed to any central authority in statistical form.”

Hayek argued that compiling the near-infinite assemblage of knowledge required for central planning was impossible in the present. His critics have countered that he overstates the practical difficulties of planning, especially with computational capabilities that developed after his writing. Either way, the “knowledge” being assembled is literally available today. Assembling and assigning value to “knowledge” from the far-distant future compounds the knowledge problem beyond comprehension.

Notably, the knowledge problem confounds both longtermists and climate catastrophists, who are usually at odds with each other.

Longtermists like Nick Bostrom and Toby Ord tend not to fret that much about climate change, which for whatever its risks, will not plausibly cause the literal extinction of humanity nor destruction of the planet in the same way a supervolcano or a planet-killing asteroid would, a possibility that Ord assigns a 1-in-6 chance of occurring this century. For this, longtermism has come under withering criticism from climate advocates who insist that Earth will become “uninhabitable” beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius of global atmospheric warming (or 2 degrees, or whatever threshold).

Whether it’s the conspicuously precise odds of the apocalypse (1 in 6!) or the conspicuously precise physical thresholds in the atmosphere (450 parts per million carbon dioxide equivalent!), we should treat all such confident pronouncements about the future with extreme skepticism. We simply have no idea how likely it is that an asteroid will collide with the planet over the course of the next century, nor do we have any idea what civilization will exist in the year 2100 to deal with the effects of climate change, nor do we have any access to the preferences of interstellar metahumans in the year 21000. We do not need to have any idea how to make rational, robust actions and investments in the present.

This is the essence of meliorism, the fundamental small-L liberal commitment to pragmatically improving humanity’s lot through small-D democratic institutions.

Thinking beyond the revealed preference of present-day societies (which is to say, a discounted future) is arguably a core function of those institutions. But while corporations have some capacity to supersede shareholder preferences for short-term gains, and while the state has some capacity to supersede citizens’ short-term economic and social interests, those capacities are limited. Planning for the future in a non-totalitarian way requires prioritizing the preferences of living, breathing humans ahead of those of hypothetical, future humans, whose views and interests we have no access to.

In a recent post on why he is, also, not quite an effective altruist, Sam Hammond described his alternative, a “positive-sum logic of a Pareto improvement.” “Paretieans,” he writes, “start with the bottom-up process of exchange and transaction…moral obligations must be appropriately construed and institutionalized in cooperative social structures, rather than derived from some cosmic standpoint.”

Crucially, this does not preclude investments in low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels, or vaccines to prevent infection by superviruses, or detection of asteroids, or control of general artificial intelligence. Indeed, investments in all of the above are already in place. And while those investments are perhaps not always sized or structured in ways we in the present (or our descendants in the future) might prefer, the only way to improve them is through democratic deliberation, persuasion, and action. The only way out is through.

It’s the Institutions, Stupid

Count me on the team who think the foundational tenets of effective altruism—more generosity to the world’s most vulnerable, more rigor in philanthropy, more awareness for under-resourced causes (including longtermist ones!)—are worth preserving.

That’s why I’ve grown increasingly queasy over the last few years as these ideas 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.

The fundamental case for cryptocurrency rests on the belief that centralized control of the money supply, and regulation of financial exchanges, are an infringement on human freedom. That’s a coherent argument, to be sure, but a deeply flawed and essentially doomed one, in my opinion. As cryptocurrencies stand today, their value reflects little more than speculation on expectations of future trade in…cryptocurrencies. The whole thing is a confidence game with almost no connection to value creation in the real economy. Were cryptocurrencies to replace fiat currencies or securities in any meaningful way, people would demand they be regulated to prevent the radical volatility in value they display now, financial products insured against fraud and theft, and all the alleged virtues of cryptocurrencies removed. Crypto is antithetical to institutions, period.

Of course, existing institutions are flawed, which is the whole raison d’etre for effective altruism in the first place. Existing governments and philanthropy misallocate resources all the time, requiring, arguably (and often convincingly) effective altruists to step in and fund deworming programs, enforcement of rigor in scientific research, preparedness for existential risk, and the like.

Unfortunately, I think it is precisely effective altruists’ preternatural skepticism of existing institutions that led them to embrace the largesse of crypto donors in the first place. To be clear, I mean this as a kind of back-handed compliment. Others charge that all effective altruists have created a belief system simply to reinforce their own personal status and wealth—a claim that I do not endorse.

But this anti-institutionalism 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.

This need not be a fatal problem for effective altruism. Governments and philanthropies do underinvest in treating malaria, and enforcing scientific rigor, and neutralizing supervolcanoes. The investment that effective altruists have poured into those causes has absolutely been an improvement on the status quo ante. At best, perhaps, effective altruism could be incorporated into new and existing institutions, including government, commerce, and philanthropy.

But really scaling the movement will require casting aside the de facto anti-institutionalism that I think has characterized effective altruism to date.

Precisely because we’re focused on the wicked problems of modernity, attention to institutions has been central to the ecomodernist project all along. As the authors of “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” wrote, “Decoupling of human welfare from environmental impacts will require a sustained commitment to technological progress and the continuing evolution of social, economic, and political institutions alongside those changes.”

To be sure, invoking the need for institutions is absolutely something of a philosophical cheat code. It is all too easy to wave off any political or practical problems in the real world simply by invoking the need for “inclusive institutions.” But I also think that the substantial philosophical debates within effective altruism itself reveal that there’s no getting around this need. Outsourcing the messiness of these debates to some cosmic (or crypto) moral obligations will fail. Human institutions are unavoidable if your philosophy or movement is to have any impact at scale.

It is for this reason that we not only launched ecomodernism from a single institution—the Breakthrough Institute—but have attempted to, if not police, then shepherd its growth and evolution over the years. Likewise, we have attempted to focus our policy agenda on empowering or reforming influential institutions: the Department of Energy, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the USDA, the World Bank, et cetera. I don’t think this has meant a status quo bias—the theme of our recent “Ecomodernism” conference was on substantial reforms to the American regulatory state, after all—but, rather, more of an insider game compared to effective altruism’s outsider game.

How is effective altruist institution-building going? It’s hard for me to say. The FTX scandal has possibly over-magnified its shortcomings. From my vantage outside the movement, it has some well-staffed philanthropic organizations, non-fanatical practitioners, regular gatherings, and disciplining from its own effective altru-ish factions: the rationalists, the longtermists, the “progress studies” community. All signs of good institution-building.

Still, I would caution even its most pragmatic adherents against the pitfalls I’ve tried to discuss in this post: an unscalable ecocentrism, an unworkable longtermism, and an impractical anti-institutionalism.

At any rate, I’d be very curious to hear how the movement sees itself at this juncture. And, precisely because there are so many ideas and figures I respect within effective altruism, I’d be eager to hear from them what, if anything, about ecomodernism they find unconvincing.