I hope you are all doing well.
Here are some questions I would like you to reflect on.
- What are our biggest problems?
- Where should we direct our time and energy towards?
We all want happiness and shirk from suffering. In fact, a problem is essentially a cause for present or future suffering. To solve a problem is to remove a cause for suffering.
Given these points in mind, I've thought a fair bit about what our biggest problems are. These are where I believe we should be putting our time and energy into address.
- Climate change and existential risk
- Animal suffering
With everything I know, these seem to be the biggest problems ailing us. I want to note, I am not speaking with a high level of certainty here. It is just that from where I am standing, these problems seem the most serious. If you have reason to believe this isn't the case, please let me know.
1. Climate change and existential risks
We burn fossil fuels. Greenhouse gases are released into the atmosphere. They trap incoming heat from the sun and the planet warms up. This leads to bad things happening.
Many of these things contribute to feedback loops, for example:
- Ice reflects heat away.
- Ice melts.
- Less heat reflected.
- Ice melts faster.
The globe will get warmer, and it will get warmer at an increasingly faster rate. With more heat in the atmosphere, our weather patterns will become more volatile. According to the climate expert Joseph Romm with business as usual, the risks we face include:
- One-third of arable land being dried up (also our population will go up by two billion in this time, and we already have one billion who are undernourished)
- A quarter of all fisheries will die. Marine life has already started to die.
- Hurricanes, floods and droughts will become much more ubiquitous. We could reach the point in which a major cyclone every other year will be the norm.
- About one-third of all flora and fauna on Earth could eventually become extinct due to a failure of being able to adapt fast enough
This is not meant to be a comprehensive write-up on the problem. I have an article in the works for that, current title: The Evidence for Climate Change.
Existential risks have the potential to deal even more harm than even this. I defined a problem earlier as a cause of suffering, I would like to extend it to an obstacle to well-being or happiness. If we are dead, we cannot be happy.
Sixty-five million years ago, a meteorite collided into the Gulf of Mexico. The debris from the collision dissolved into the atmosphere where it obscured the sun. This led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Could something like this happen to us?
Well, yes, it could. As Neil DeGrasse Tyson has jested:
"I bet if the dinosaurs had a space program, they’d still be here and we wouldn’t."
But the risk on everyone's mind is super-intelligent artificial intelligence.
This sounds like something from science fiction – will Skynet come for us in the end?
Sam Harris lays out the case for concern in his TED Talk. In summary he says that to conclude that super-intelligent AI is inevitable we need only make three assumptions.
- Intelligence is a matter of information processing in physical systems
- We will continue to improve our intelligent machines
- If there is such a thing as a "peak" in intelligence, we don't stand anywhere near it.
How likely is this to happen in timescales relevant to us? I have no idea. Many very intelligent people are taking it very seriously though. I believe we should listen to them.
In fact, I am planning to engage in a public letter exchange with Hunter Jay of the Effective Altruism community who is working on this problem.
Also, we may still have enough nukes lying around to drive us to extinction...
2. Animal Suffering
I have already written about this.
Would it be an exaggeration to suggest that most of the suffering on Earth is concentrated in our factory farms?
I am not sure this is an easy question to answer.
Given the scope and scale of the suffering that is preventable here, I believe it should be on our minds.
"The proportion of humanity living in extreme poverty has fallen from 90 percent to less than 10 percent, and within the lifetimes of most of the readers of this book could approach zero."
From Steven Pinker's Enlightement Now.
We have already made a lot of progress, but I believe most preventable human suffering in this world is due to poverty. It seems that we have the resources to support everybody but we are allocating them in an extremely inefficient way. Improving the living standards of everyone should be on our agenda.
Have a read of this report by Our World in Data for more information on the progress we've made in extreme poverty.
Those are what seem to me to be the three biggest problems we face. I believe we should devote more of our time and energy to thinking about them and trying to solve them.
Do you agree with this? What do you believe the biggest problems we face are?
If you have thoughts on the matter, I'd love to hear them.