A movement has sprung up over the last decade (though its philosophical roots stretch back much farther) known as “effective altruism”. Quoting the summary offered at effectivealtruism.org, We use evidence and reason to ask “Where can a small set of individuals make the biggest difference?” We’re entrepreneurs and economists. CEOs and scientists. Students and philanthropists. And if you’re ready to rethink social impact, you’re ready to join us.

The first session of a three-part gathering of the EA network starts tomorrow at Google headquarters (to be followed at two-week intervals by sessions in Melbourne and Oxford). So it seems a good time to pose some questions to people in the movement.

EA tends to highlight how inexpensive it can be to save lives in the developing world; but what about the quality of those lives once saved, and what about their impact on resources and ecosystems in the future? “Saving lives” has immediate emotional appeal, but a movement that prides itself on taking the rational view needs to deal squarely with the fact that world population is already well beyond sustainability.

Many affiliated with EA are concerned with aspects of animal welfare; but what about slowing and stopping the Sixth Extinction?

EA tends to encourage people to participate in the economy as it is, to seek well-paying jobs so that they have excess income available for philanthropic ends; but what about the fact that, from the systems perspective, Business as Usual is making the world-predicament worse the longer it continues?

There is a good deal of crossover between EA and various groups that are worrying about existential risks. Interest seems to gravitate toward those existential risks for which the response lies in the technological realm; but what about the enormous existential risk posed by overpopulation and overconsumption, for which the only possible response lies in the much less tractable realm of human behavior? When it comes to existential risk we cannot afford to confine our search to the area under the lantern.

We would welcome discussion of these matters in the EA community and on the web; please send links to turn21.org@gmail.com.

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