The Most Good You Can Do… Sorta


(Asteroid mining, not so much; asteroid deflection, yes)

There’s a recent book I picked up, The Most Good You Can Do, by Peter Singer.  While the effective altruism idea is attractive, and makes a lot of sense (what is the biggest effect you can get with limited resources?), there were some parts of it that made me wonder if the author really thought things all the way through.   The overall efficiency idea of Singer’s is an excellent one – and perhaps one we should take to heart regarding the environment.  This has been raised by Without the Hot Air book, and should be read by all who really want to do something productive in this realm.  For example, it is counterproductive taking a few airplane trips a year if you are trying to recycle religiously, and pointless to unplug your “vampire” power supplies if you are driving to work with underinflated tires.   As Tom Murphy’s blog states – Do The Math!

One of the concepts in the book is that if you want to work on Wall Street to give away a great deal of money later, that’s a rational and good way to think about how to give the most, and most efficiently.  If modern capitalism can create more “benefits” than harm, then by all means – become a capitalist (and give most of your fortune away, of course).   This isn’t an academic question, of course – many of us are given opportunities to make a great deal of money, if only we would compromise on some “small things.”  Singer makes some great arguments for (and against), this practice, but in the end, he does a bit of handwaving and says capitalism is here to stay, so we might as well make the most of it.

This analysis is flawed, at its base, however, as Guy McPherson and many others have said, “If you really think that the environment is less important than the economy, try holding your breath while you count your money.” The argument being made here is that it is quite counterproductive to work in a field (Wall Street hedge funds, high frequency trading, exotic derivatives  – all the province of technical/engineer types who regularly get hired by financial firms, who could be doing better elsewhere) where the net product will bring the environment and system to a crashing halt, even if you are giving a good chunk of your money “efficiently.”   Also, raising living standards to include things like an American diet, the stress of commuting, sitting in chairs for hours at a time – are these things really making everyone’s lives better?

Singer praises folks like Bill Gates and Warren Buffet – men who made fortunes (and are giving them away), but at the core, what they are doing (and have done) is and was inherently bad for our overall planet’s long term health.   The PC revolution was built on increasingly powerful Microsoft operating systems (requiring faster processors, and more resources), rather than efficient and far more secure open-source paths (Linux, anyone)?   Coca-Cola (and the ‘foods’ of its ilk) are part and parcel of our obesity and diabetes epidemics, which in the long run, makes people’s “lives” more miserable.   Would these things be considered ‘good’ in the long run, even though they make a lot of money?   Likewise, the folks who want us to build cheap and clean nuclear power to counteract or limit global warming (some from the green movement) are looking at the short to medium term benefits, rather than the longer term effects, which can’t be compensated for in any manner (the loss of our entire biosphere, and the long-term effects of nuclear wastes, which still haven’t been made safe, after all these years).

At one point in the book, the issue of climate change does come up, but it seems to be downplayed a bit, as if all the data weren’t in yet.  This seems a bit odd to me, for Singer does make great points about a vegetarian diet (to alleviate animal suffering, and which is good for the environment), avoiding nuclear war, and even the seemingly strange (but quite important) idea of helping Earth avoid asteroid impacts (with many cheap and efficient robots, not humans, of course).   It is ironic, that this last element, avoiding an asteroid impact, is given a lot of ink in the book, yet capitalism seems to get off the hook earlier on.   Singer also misdirects a bit, when stating that we have ‘peace in North America’, but the cost of that is due to us ‘outsourcing’ this violence to other parts of the world, which we have plundered of treasure and resources.  It is easy to be at peace when you are fat and kept entertained.   Our “North American peace” (not so peaceful if you are in Mexico, of course) is built on a pretty rickety structure.   As Jenny Holzer has written, “People won’t behave if they have nothing to lose.”

Overall, Singer’s book is a good one, and thought provoking.

Questions for this week:

  • What do you think of Singer’s arguments?
  • Can anyone tell me why high frequency trading is important?   Or complex derivatives?
  • Should engineers take an oath like the Hippocratic Oath that doctors take, to ‘First, Do No Harm,’ in order to stem the brain drain to Wall Street?




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