Ease of use: **
Value for EAA beginners: ****
Value for EAA pros: *****
Effective Altruism is a set of ideas about how to do as much good as we can in a world where we have limited time and limited resources. Effective Altruism Global is the series of conferences organised to support people from across the world in their objectives of doing the most good that they can (find out more here).
This event is in the past, but the purpose of this review is to help animal advocates consider whether they have much to gain from attending a future Effective Altruism Global conference, rather than to give a comprehensive review of the event itself. The theme of this conference was “doing good together”, but I did not feel that the conference was particularly tailored towards this goal, so I think that this review will still be a good insight into how EAGs work.
The weekend was essentially a mixture of talks on a variety of Effective Altruism topics, plus a lot of time built in for conversations and networking, with a break between every talk to allow for this. The talks themselves were useful, but the main benefit for most attendees was probably the conversation and networking opportunities. Attendees were regularly reminded of this by event organisers, and all the talks are being uploaded for free anyway, so those who missed the event will be able to watch these later.
Networking and useful conversations
EAG began on Friday the 3rd November, with a relatively unstructured evening; attendees arrived to receive their lanyards, have some food and drink, but primarily to meet each other, since no talks were organised. The conversation and networking opportunities were slightly structured by the presence of optional “speed networking” activities, as well as tables organised by cause areas. Feeling that speed networking sounded like a painful experience, I went to the animal welfare table, and had some useful conversations.
We were reminded at the start, as well as in Will MacAskill’s opening talk on Saturday morning, that we should not chat exclusively with people who shared a cause interest, but should purposefully try to speak with others and broaden our perspectives. I believe that this is partially useful advice. I had one especially useful conversation with Kerry Vaughan, who works for the Centre for Effective Altruism (and not in reducing animal suffering), who, through a series of insightful questions about my current situation, helped me to feel that I might like to prioritise focusing my career on reducing wild animal suffering (more on this topic below), rather than reducing the suffering of farmed animals. This is because the scale of the problem is larger, and he suggested that as long as I build proper feedback loops into my work, I should be able to realise whether my efforts and contributions would be likely to have any sort of tangible impact in the future.
On the other hand, I should note that some of the most useful conversations that I had were with those who shared a primary focus and interest in reducing animal suffering. I met individuals in a similar situation to me, who do not currently work full-time in reducing animal suffering but are considering doing so in the future; with these individuals I primarily shared ideas and perspectives, and we gave each other suggestions and reflections on our current efforts to reduce animal suffering. It was great to meet an individual named Sagar, for example, who is currently on the board at the Vegan Society (UK) and suggested that I apply to join the board there too, which was something I had never considered doing but which may help to improve my personal impact but also build career capital for the future.
I also met individuals currently working full-time in organisations seeking to reduce animal suffering. As well as sharing ideas with these people, I also built up an understanding of the needs of these organisations, how I might be able to meet these needs and how I might be able to best prepare to get a job working for such organisations. For example, I found conversations with Jamie and Roisin from Animal Charity Evaluators helpful, when thinking how to prepare for potential work with them. I also had some interesting conversations with Matthew Glover, the founder of Veganuary, about the issues that he was facing and about why Veganuary may be a far more effective organisation than its current ranking by Animal Charity Evaluators would suggest.
I did also have useful conversations with several individuals about Effective Altruism more generally, but even then, these conversations focused on “movement building”, which is essentially a secondary “cause area” that I am interested in, as I already focus significant effort in building engagement with Effective Altruism.
My reflections on how to get most out of the conversation and networking opportunities at EA Global conferences are:
- Make use of opportunities to speak to those interested in reducing animal suffering (and any other cause areas that you are interested in), but do not speak exclusively to these people.
- Make use of any opportunities to work out who will be attending the conference, and therefore who you would like to have conversations with, or ask specific questions to. In EAG London’s case, there was an app called Bizzabo where you could see who was attending, and I did not make sufficient use of this in advance.
- Work out which questions you would like answers to, and perhaps think about strategies for how to ask these questions to people who you have not met before and will (mostly) know very little about. On the other hand, you should still remain open to new ideas, and to finding answers to questions that you didn’t know you had!
- Make use of the speakers’ dedicated “office hours” to ask them about their talks or just to speak to them. I did not do this, and regret missing the opportunity to meet some interesting individuals, mostly notably Persis Eskander who gave the talk on Wild Animal Suffering Research.
Saturday and Sunday consisted of talks from about 10 until 6, with long lunches and breaks for further conversation and networking. There were multiple talks on reducing animal suffering each day. These are all available online for free here. I was disappointed that all the talks on animal issues clashed with those on AI safety research (this is a cause area that I donate to), but at least I will be able to watch these talks later. The talk on Wild Animal Suffering was a great introduction to a topic that I have not yet read enough about. It was this talk, combined with conversations with a few individuals (including Kerry, mentioned above) which made me feel that I need to devote significantly more attention to this issue. I also found the talk on clean meat informative, especially for gaining a more detailed insight into some of the issues hindering progress in this area at the moment. There were quite a few workshops, which, unfortunately, are not being uploaded online. There were, for example, several workshops on increasing your personal working efficiency, which I found informative.
You can see a full list of the talks that were given here.
My main takeaways – meeting people and learning about wild animal suffering
Personally, I suspect that the main benefits that I gained were in meeting new individuals who I will remain in contact with. I did, however, change my mind about several key issues, as a result of conversations and talks combined. Most notably, I now feel that there is more that I, as an individual, can do to help increase the likelihood of significantly reducing wild animal suffering in the future, and that I should consider these opportunities a priority. The gist of the argument for why we should consider this issue is that there are many, many times more animals in the wild than in farmed conditions. Animal Charity Evaluators’ page on this topic cites research from the Smithsonian Institution which notes that “at any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive”. In contrast, Sentience Institute estimates as an upper bound 343,100,000,000 animals farmed by humans in 2017, most of which are fish – view the breakdown here. Although their figures don’t quite match up to Sentience Institute’s, ACE argues that “there are about a billion times more wild animals than animals in any situation directly under human control—and even if our estimates are significantly off, or we exclude invertebrates from the analysis, the gap in numbers is still extremely large” (same link as above).
Although we may feel more responsible for farmed animals, there are still sentient beings in the wild, whose interests we should not ignore. In particular, certain types of animals – called “r-strategists” – have developed through evolution the strategy of producing huge numbers of offspring, who live only a short time and most of whom die (possibly painfully) before they make it to adulthood or breeding maturity. It is therefore likely that the death of these animals causing them greater suffering than any pleasure that they may experience in their brief lives. Given the unfathomably large number of animals involved, this then accounts for a huge amount of suffering. There are many questions around such issues: the extent to which insects (who account for a huge proportion of such animals) can actually suffer, as well as which interventions (if any) are possible now or would be in the future. It is precisely because of these unanswered questions that raising awareness of wild animal suffering as a cause area, and research into wild animal suffering, are urgent priorities.
At the least, I feel that I need to read up more on the topic, and discuss it with interested individuals at Effective Animal Altruism London events, but I will also look to see if there is some small amount of useful research that I could conduct at this stage.
Is it worth the price and the travel?
At £300, this is not a trivial question. For that price, you could do some pretty great things.
ACE estimates that every $1000 donated to The Humane League “would spare 100,000 to 1.7 million animals from life in industrial agriculture.” With the current conversion rate that £300 equals $395.70, this would translate as 39,526 to 671,937 animals spared from a life in factory farming through a donation of the same amount. For one human comparison, GiveWell’s most recent calculation estimates that for the Against Malaria Foundation, their highest-recommended charity for attempting to save human lives, it costs $4,999 to save one life (see detail on the calculation here). Therefore, the money used to attend EAG would be the equivalent of 7.91% of a human life. There are obviously huge amounts of uncertainty in these estimates (and I suspect that they are optimistic for The Humane League’s impact), but the fact remains: money matters, and £300 is a lot of money!
That does not, however, mean that you would have donated this money otherwise – on a personal budgeting level, I considered EAG to be somewhere between a holiday, a recreational activity and an investment in my career. I do no regret attending, as the location this time was convenient for me, so there were no significant travel difficulties. Nevertheless, I did walk away feeling that I wouldn’t be travelling to any more distant EAG conferences any time soon.
I suspect that EAGs are most useful for those already heavily involved in the Effective Altruism (or Effective Animal Advocacy) community, as they give you a chance to meet lots of intelligent people, share ideas and perspectives, and organise your plans with colleagues (and future colleagues) who you may otherwise have been unable to meet with. For such people, the talks are a lower priority, and the weekend is essentially a great opportunity to have lots of people who you want to speak to (from across the world) in one place. For such people, EAG is definitely worth the price.
For those less involved currently, EAG probably helps you to get lots of new ideas and get some useful networking done (especially if you make this a priority and use the time well). To some extent, EAG was very personally motivating, as I met lots of people who were doing great things to make the world a better place, who can act as role models. This is probably especially helpful for people who do not have an active local Effective Altruism group that they are able to meet up with and contact. On the reverse of the same coin, however, I (and a few others I spoke to) felt slightly deflated due to the feeling of being less knowledgeable, less useful and likely having lower potential to do good in the future than a large number of the people there! For people not already very involved in the EA community, then, EAG is probably still worth it if the logistical difficulties are not too great, but if you need to travel far, the costs may outweigh the benefits.
If money is more of a barrier, there are options for a reduced ticket price, which may make it easier for some. The benefits that you receive from attending will obviously depend on your own position and goals for the event. For example, travelling across the world just to gain some inspiration may not be the best idea, unless you feel particularly lacking in inspiration, but if you are considering a career in one of the cause areas (or are already pursuing such a career), then it may well be worth it!
I would encourage interested people to attend, but to make the most of your networking opportunities while you are there and to prepare some ideas and questions in advance.