Your January 2021 EA Newsletter    
Happy 2021!

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News and updates from the world of effective altruism

Future of Life award goes to smallpox eradicators

The Future of Life award celebrates “unsung heroes”: people who made our lives drastically better, but didn’t get much recognition at the time.

This year’s award went to Drs. William Foege and Viktor Zhdanov, who helped to coordinate the global campaign that wiped out smallpox, saving tens of millions of lives.

online award ceremony included Dr. Foege, the descendents of Dr. Zhdanov (who passed away in 1987), Bill Gates, Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Nobel Laureate Jennifer Doudna. 

We also recommend Jai Dhyani’s gripping essay on smallpox eradication: “500 Million, But Not A Single One More."

Reading The Life You Can Save in the year of the plague

Peter Singer’s The Life You Can Save — which fiercely advocates for giving aid to the global poor — helped to launch the effective altruism movement. 

Vox reporter Kelsey Piper recently reread the book as the COVID pandemic raged, reversing some of the gains we’ve made in reducing global poverty. Even in this new context, she found strength in Singer’s ideas.

Her takeaway: despite the “vast and confusing” problems of our time, we still have a clear opportunity to save lives and improve the world.

“In many ways, the worst thing about 2020 has been the helplessness. And The Life You Can Save persistently, repeatedly, point by point refutes all our justifications for helplessness. 

"[The book] is intimidating because it argues you should help people. But it is empowering because it argues that you can help people. At the end of a year shaped by forces beyond our control, that epiphany is a gift.”

United Nations report features Toby Ord on existential risk

Toby Ord is a co-founder of effective altruism and the author of The Precipice, a book about “existential risks” that could wipe out humanity. 

Thanks to Ord and other advocates, these risks have begun to draw more attention — but are still neglected by national governments, relative to their importance. So it was encouraging to see Ord's contribution to the United Nations’ latest human development report.

In his “spotlight” section, he discusses threats from asteroids, nuclear war, climate change, pandemics, and future advances in dangerous technology. He argues that these issues are “inherently international — beyond any individual nation’s ability to solve”, and will require new forms of coordination and policing to contain. 

But he also sees hope: The greatest risks to our species come from human action, which means that we have at least some chance of preventing them. “Humanity’s future is largely within humanity’s control.”

Would humans go extinct if civilization collapsed?

The end of civilization doesn’t have to mean the end of humanity: we are a creative and resilient species, and with enough time, we might recover. 

But how likely is “might”? If we could predict the shape of a post-collapse world, we could improve the way we prepare for disaster — giving our descendents a better chance to thrive again.

Luisa Rodriguez examines this question in a detailed EA Forum post, estimating our chances in catastrophic scenarios with varying rates of population loss and infrastructure damage. We can’t even begin to summarize her work, but the post is worth reading for anyone with an interest in the topic. 

Fighting climate change in a new political climate

Recent US election results may have major implications for where — and when — climate-focused donors should give.

new report from Founders Pledge argues that US-focused climate philanthropy is unusually promising now, for these reasons:
  1. The power of a president and their party tends to decline over the course of the presidency, making policy solutions most workable just as the new president enters office.
  2. COVID-related economic stimulus could be a massive driver of progress on clean energy, and philanthropy could help to direct this temporary funding stream.
  3. As nations build expensive fossil fuel infrastructure, they experience "carbon lock-in": carbon-intensive energy becomes cheap to use, and low-carbon alternatives become less attractive. To preempt lock-in, we need these alternatives to be available soon.
The authors also produced an update to the report after the Georgia runoff election, which changed the US policy landscape once again.

None of this means that climate change is the most important cause to support overall — we don’t make that claim, and neither does Founders Pledge. But if you want to make effective donations in that area, we recommend reading the report or watching the authors’ explanatory video.

In other news: For more stories, try these EA-related email newsletters and podcasts

If you want to discuss effective altruism with others, check out EA Hub's list of relevant Facebook groups.
The award-winning work of Dr. Foege, Dr. Zhdanov, and countless others.

Note that these are reported infections; the actual numbers were much higher.


Books, events, community projects, and more!

EA Virtual Programs — apply soon!

Many effective altruism groups run fellowships — multi-week courses where participants discuss key ideas in effective altruism.

These have been adapted into 
virtual programs that anyone can apply for.

Upcoming programs include: Deadlines vary, and programs may fill up before their deadlines. Apply soon, or keep an eye out for future programs. (We'll share them in the newsletter.)

Save the date: EA Global events announced for 2021

The Centre for Effective Altruism (CEA) just announced dates for two conferences it will be running in 2021:
  • EA Global: Reconnect (20-21 March) 
  • EA Global: London 2021 (29-31 October)
For more details, see this EA Forum post.

Applications aren’t open yet, but when they are, we’ll share them here.


Opportunities to work on some of the world's most pressing problems

The 80,000 Hours Job Board features more than 500 positions. We can’t fit them all in the newsletter, so check out the others on their website!

If you’re interested in policy or global development, you may also want to check Tom Wein’s list of social purpose job boards.

If you want to find out about new positions as they arise (or post a position yourself), check out the EA Job Postings group on Facebook.

Applications due soon

Junior Policy Fellow, Cambridge University, Centre for Science and Policy (Cambridge, UK) (apply by 31 January) 

Research Scientist, Faunalytics (Remote) (apply by 31 January)

Other positions

Assistant Editor, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (Chicago)

Associate, Strategic Communications, IDinsight (Dakar, Lusaka, Manila, Nairobi, or New Delhi)

Call Center Representative, Wave (Remote)

Data Modeller, UK Government, Communication Headquarters (Cheltenham)

Donor Relations Officer, Schistosomiasis Control Initiative (Remote)

Philanthropy Advisor // General Application, Open Philanthropy (San Francisco Bay Area // remote)

Postdoctoral Researcher, AI Safety and Control, University of California, Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence (CHAI) (San Francisco Bay Area)

Product Designer, Ought (San Francisco Bay Area)

Public Health Intern, Helen Keller International (Remote)

Research Assistant to Anders Sandberg, Berkeley Existential Risk Initiative (Remote, part-time)

Various jobs, The Good Food Institute (Washington, DC // remote in US)

Timeless Classic

Ideas that have shaped the way we think about doing good

More than a year after its publication, Will MacAskill’s “Are We Living At The Hinge Of History?” remains influential.

(The EA movement is 13 years old, so our definition of “classic” is flexible.)

In the paper, which started as an EA Forum post, MacAskill addresses a claim of Derek Parfit — that we are now in “the most critical part of human history”, a time when our actions over the next few centuries could birth a flourishing galactic civilization or end the human story entirely. 

If we accept this claim, it has serious consequences. For example, it implies that we ought to focus on spending resources to prevent disaster during this critical time, rather than saving them to pass on to our descendants (though we’d end up doing some of both either way).

MacAskill presents arguments and counterarguments, and eventually concludes that we probably aren’t in the most influential time. After all, despite a few unusual features of the 21st century:
  • We need very strong evidence to believe that our time is more influential than any future era, even though humanity could exist for millions of years. The evidence we have simply isn’t that strong.
  • We should expect that humanity will become wiser and more knowledgeable over time: “Just as our powers to grow crops, to transmit information, to discover the laws of nature, and to explore the cosmos have all increased over time, so will our power to make the world better — our influentialness.”
This topic predates MacAskill, but his article led to much discussion within the EA community. For good counterarguments, we recommend Buck Shlegeris’s response.
Organizational Updates

You can see updates from a wide range of EA-aligned organizations on the EA Forum. (Organizations submit updates, which we edit for clarity.)
We hope you found this edition useful! 

If you have feedback for us, positive or negative, let us know.

– The Effective Altruism Newsletter Team

The Effective Altruism Newsletter is a project of the Centre for Effective Altruism, with help from the Effective Altruism Hub and Rethink Charity.
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