This is the second article where I share my thoughts about the climate crisis and about what individuals can do to mitigate it. In the first part I’ve described some of the general rules I follow in my approach. Here, I’d like to focus more on topics related to our life decisions on a more practical level, as well as on how we treat the environment. It’s still not “day-to-day” actions, this will come in the subsequent articles. Another way to look at this is that the first part was about “strategy” or “vision”, this one is about “tactics” and the following will be more “operational”. Or perhaps I’m just overthinking it ;)
A disclaimer — most of this post was written in 2018/2019, so some parts might feel slightly outdated due to Covid-19.
- Choosing your career path
- Decision making
- Resource consumption
- Personal responsibility
Choosing your career path
The subject of careers is thoroughly covered by the folks at 80000 hours, so I’ll limit myself to just outlining the main points here. I’ve been reading them for a few years now, and I highly recommend the site. Basically, the idea is to take the “altruism” aspect into consideration when making career decisions and to pick paths that will let us best apply our experience and skills for the good of the world, in broad terms.
Here’s a simple example: if we can choose working for a company that makes gambling machines or at one that manufactures bagel-making equipment, maybe it would be better to pick the latter, since we’re unlikely to cause harm to anyone.
Or if our job lets us pick one of two projects to work on: one is about investing in renewable energy, the other is about digging coal from the ground—perhaps the former is something we should choose?
And now for a more extensive example (my own, as it happens): When considering my next job (back in 2017) I was choosing mostly between working with artificial intelligence or quantum computing. Quantum computing won, because, among other things, of the following:
- There are way fewer people interested in the subject than in AI
- It’s a new area of study
- I have a nearly perfect combo of education and skills
- QC has an enormous potential to solve the issues of the world
1 and 2 means I can have a chance at making a greater impact on the direction in which the whole field moves (e.g. towards something more beneficial for society). 3 means that even if the potential of those two fields were the same, my skills would be better applied in QC.
And 4 means that, in the next 10 years, there’s a chance we’ll be able to solve e.g. chemistry problems that will let us significantly increase the efficiency of industrial chemical reactions, which would contribute to noticeably lower consumption of power and water, globally. Well, sure, it’s debatable how big this chance is. But even if it’s only 1%, it’s perhaps worth trying?
Additionally, the personal risk for me is pretty low, because if at some point it turns out that, for whatever reasons, working on quantum computers isn’t a good idea, there’s no reason for me not to switch fields again.
I really recommend you investigate (and not only think) how to shape your career in a way that makes it the most beneficial to yourself and others. Personally, I didn’t even consider job offers from certain institutions where the social value of my work would be negligible or perhaps even negative.
The best place to start with that is to explore 80,000 hours—actually, that’s a good site if you’re looking for advice on how to plan your career, period.
In particular here are some materials I personally found interesting/useful:
- A guide to using your career to help solve the world’s largest problems
- How to make tough career decisions
- Career reviews
- Good podcast episode on career choices
- Interesting article about how changing an industry from the inside might look like.
This one’s simple—if we don’t take care of ourselves, we won’t be able to help anyone else, either. Giving money to a good cause and then taking a loan afterwards, because you don’t have enough to pay the bills, is not the way to go.
In general, you can do more if you’re able to work towards a cause for years. If you go bankrupt or get burnt out after two years, it would probably be better to hold off and make sure you have a nice cushion for rougher times, or go to therapy before you drive yourself to a place where you’re too depressed to get out of bed in the morning.
I’m not as involved in some altruistic initiatives as I’d like, and my personal reasons for that are: I haven’t yet reached the level of savings which gives me long-term stability My kids are at an age where they require a lot of attention
Until recently one of the blockers was also the fact that I was switching careers and in the process of moving to another country. But recently, as these became less time-consuming issues, I’ve started to actually be more active.
In general I think that good knowledge of personal finance is one of the most useful things I learned; it’s also extremely impactful in terms of what I can do for others. For starters I can recommend 2 cents – YouTube channel about personal finance.
The example I gave is more on the side of the financial stability, but the emotional and mental stability is perhaps even more important here!
I’ve noticed two trends in effective altruism:
- Focusing on specific problems and trying to solve them.
- Increasing our overall capacity for dealing with problems.
This second category includes things such as the ability to make better decisions, prioritizing, avoiding cognitive biases, etc. The rule of thumb is that if we make more rational, long-term-oriented decisions, both individually and as communities or countries, we’ll create fewer problems for ourselves and be better at solving the ones that do emerge. Which is why it’s good to educate yourself on the subject, and there are a few works I can heartily recommend:
- Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow — it’s no accident I’m listing it first. Single best book I’ve ever read.
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile and others – slightly controversial in some of his opinions, but definitely reshaped how I perceive the world.
- Mental Model of the Month Club — an online course/community focused on these matters, very high-quality materials.
- Decisive — an excellent book by Dan and Chip Heath about making decisions. I’ve been using many techniques presented in this book for years and it’s working really well.
- [Polish only] Miłosz Brzeziński — all of his writing.
All of the above also applies to the self-care argument to some extent—if you’re able to make better decisions, you have less problems and more time for doing good.
There were also a couple of really good podcast episodes from 80,000 hours which discussed relate ideas, such as:
- Interview with Philip Tetlock.
- Another interview with Philip Tetlock.
- Interview with Spencer Greeberg.
The future doesn’t shape up to be insanely great. As far as our situation in Poland is concerned, the power supply network in Poland is in terrible condition, the water supply’s far from awesome either, and it’s only going to get worse (as the summer of 2019 showed, as well as summer of 2020 is starting to show). And so, it would seem smart to prepare yourself for the worst. Covid-19 showed that this line of thinking is really valuable — not having to think about basic needs saved me and my family a lot of stress.
While this might be obvious to some, I think most of us don’t really take it seriously. So here’s some basic advice:
- Keep reserves of food, water and drugs in the basement.
- Keep yourself physically fit.
- Educate yourself on what to do in case of disaster.
- Do a first aid training.
Why is it relevant in the context of this article? Well, the more people who are prepared for a disaster, the more people who can quickly begin to care for others and not only for themselves and in effect, the lower the total strain on the system. Also these basic practices are actually in line with the “self-care” points.
I don’t have any great resources on this topic to recommend, I’d just recommend searching for “prepper” or “preparedness”. I’ve noticed that some of the videos or articles might sound extremely pessimistic to some people, so if you don’t like the tone, just keep looking.
Do you know how much energy there is in one liter of petrol? Here’s an easy way to find out: pour a liter into your car’s tank, drive as far as you can, then go back home pushing the car all the way.
I like this metaphor, because even though it simplifies things, it lets you see how dependent we are on energy, and how little we realize what deep (pardon my French) trouble we’d be in without it.
We use energy for basically everything, in a lot of places in a product life cycle. Take the oilcloth that’s right here on the table I’m writing this on. We have:
- Obtaining the necessary resources
- Manufacturing the oilcloth
- Getting it to a store.
It’s not like this is a complex example. But you can already see that we’ve probably used up quite a bit of energy on all of that. And so thoughtlessly throwing stuff out is the same as wasting resources. The “throwing out” part is half of it, really, because all you do is generate trash (which is not great in and of itself, more on that in a second). But then you need to buy new oilcloth. And each piece is a given amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.
Besides, you can take a broader look at the whole production process. The factory for making oilcloth had to be built. The trucks that took it to Walmart had to be put together. That Walmart had to be built, too. Oilcloth came wrapped in plastic foil, because there was a bundle of three oilcloth pieces, at a discount. The foil had to be made. And then I brought the oilcloth home in a bag. And the bag… you know the rest. Someone had to make a factory for me to get that bag. And so on and so forth…
I may be going ad absurdum a little bit, but I still think this illustrates a few things:
- That reducing any and all consumption contributes to decreasing emissions.
- That it’s really hard to calculate how much CO2 was generated by a specific part of the entire manufacturing process.
- That everything we do and use somehow corresponds to energy consumption.
And what about wind, solar, tidal power or other renewable sources? A bit better, but even if we could produce electricity in a way that’s 100% green (it’ll never be 100% green though, it’s a messy subject), there are arguments to keep consumption low:
- Electricity is not the only carrier of energy we use, and we don’t have electric trucks adopted en masse (yet).
- We do have a finite amount of resources, so maybe it’s better not to use them for bull… silly stuff.
- You never know if we haven’t missed some important factor, so in general it’s better to keep consumption low. At the end of the day, some part of each kilowatt hour goes up into the atmosphere as CO2, and it’s going to be a looong time before we’re able to change that.
Relevant term - Energy Return Of Energy Invested (EROEI), see “Economic Influence” section in particular.
Basically, generating a lot of trash is not cool and hurts us all. If you need to have that explained, check out this video by Kurzgesagt about plastic. How does that tie to climate change? Because not only is it tough for all sorts of animals to adjust to the changing climate, we’re also giving them plastic to eat, which kinda seems like we want to make sure that the ones who manage to survive the climate then choke on the plastic. The same goes for plants, our allies in the context of climate change (you know, making oxygen out of carbon dioxide, managing groundwater flow, and so on). And some time ago I came across an article on the fact that scientists found microplastics in human excrement for the first time; so it’s pretty clear we’re not helping ourselves by throwing so much stuff out, either.
Not to mention air pollution – I’ve lived for a couple of years in Cracow, which has (at least during the winter) one of the highest air pollution in Europe, if not the world. Not everyday was like this, but when you went out and started coughing after 20-minutes walk, it wasn’t fun.
Personally, I feel that some things I’ve written about in the two previous sections are so obvious that they’re not worth writing about. If you feel the same – sorry for wasting your time. But sometimes when I talk to people they still don’t seem to get it.
One part of this is appreciating the complexity of the problems at hand. Energy systems and production chains can be extremely complex and there are no easy solutions to the associated problems. Any single political decision cannot solve these, because they touch so many areas of our lives that it’s simply not enough. Political forces might help with some aspects (as the story of the Ozone Depletion), but are not able to solve others.
And this leads us to another conclusion – we are part of the problem as well as part of the solution. The sum of all the decisions we make on the everyday basis is shaping this world as well. And every decision we make has some consequences for the environment.
This is not reasuring at all – it’s very emotionally draining to live in the world, where you analyze every decision against so many different verticals: environmental issues, discrimination, social inequalities, personal gains, long-term future, local society, etc. And to be honest, I don’t think it’s possible to do make fair analysis for every decision.
But since you and I are responsible for part of the damage, shouldn’t we try a little bit harder to make this world better?
And as always I wanted to thank everyone who contributed to this blogpost, especially the one and only, Rafał Ociepa :)
The next part will be about the concrete, day-to-day actions. I encourage you to sign up for the newsletter, if you don’t want to miss the following posts from this series.
Have a nice day!