(cross-posted from my blog)

As a young environmental activist, I lived the stereotype by not giving money serious thought, both personally and politically. There is a point where the less money you have, the less you care about it, even though you should care more. Let's call it financial learned helplessness - a state of mind where you believe that you will never have money, so when you do have some, and you get the chance to save and compound, you pass on it and spend the money. I think this sentiment is common.

While you might say: "Well, that just proves my point that poor people are poor because of their own decisions and lack of discipline", someone else might say: "Well you don't understand that, had you grown up in the same circumstances as they did, with the same brain they were born with, you would have done the same". And then you might respond with: "Maybe that's true, but we should still say that they make bad decisions and have no discipline because shaming someone is a powerful social tool to incite change." And then someone would reply: "In an ancestral-like environment, that may be true, but in today's world, people will always have the option to walk away from your shaming, so what you're really doing is driving them away". And you might then say: "It still makes sense to shame them, because if it becomes a popular sentiment, they will have nowhere to hide, and this will nudge them to make better decisions". But then someone would respond: "In addition to being cruel, that's very unlikely. But seeing how a lot of poverty is just being born in the wrong family or wrong neighborhood, it's also false." And then this debate would become a debate about social mobility, inherited capital, or free will, which we all know doesn't exist because nothing in this world is free except refills.

All of this is related to personal financial ability though. The other side of that coin is political views surrounding money, or what you might call economic literacy. In the eyes of environmental and/or leftist activists, money is icky. It's something to remind you of the injustices of the system. There never seems to be enough of it, and who controls it anyway?

In my experience, people with grand ideas of social reform ignored money questions. How much something costs in a proposed policy is never the subject, because things generally don't cost anything.

I once sat in a conference on the power system in my country. The government had recently published a development strategy, and this strategy included new extraction sites for natural gas, as well as a big new LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminal. If you don't know, an LNG terminal is a port where tankers can unload natural gas that they're carrying from somewhere else.

I sat and listened to people who explained how this was a very bad idea and how it needed to be stopped. And I agree that solar power (which is abundant where I live) is a better idea than relying on fossil fuels. But as I listened, it dawned on me: these people haven't really thought about this problem. Neither had I. Whether something is good or bad for the climate is an important factor - but it's not the only one. There are other things you have to think about, for example geopolitical aspects of your decisions. Where are you getting most of your power now? How long will the transition last? Most important of all - how much will all of this cost?

It feels great to say "it costs what it costs", and signal to others that you believe that the climate is much more important than imaginary things like money. But that feels great exactly until you have to implement the solution and see that it isn't as easy as you thought it would be. There are irrationalities related to money, like stock price manipulation. In addition, the entire system is complex. You have to put in effort to figure out what's what. None of these things, however, should make you think: "I'm simply going to ignore all of it because it's less important". Is money less important than climate? In a sense, yes. Does this mean that you can ignore it? No.

[Money questions] is just a subset of [number questions]. In that conference, there were several people arguing for a specific course of action related to the power system. And I'm almost certain that most of them couldn't define the relationship between a joule and a kilowatt-hour even if their life depended on it. They argued for a specific course of action regarding a Very Important Thing and not only did they not know the intricacies and details about the power system - like what's the annual consumption - but they didn't even speak the language used to talk about these things! (Neither did I, and I helped organize this conference, so if anything, this is a self-own.)

I get that this is gatekeeping. And I get why gatekeeping is bad. Wisdom of crowds is a potent and real thing. But real talk for just a second: if you don't know what the hell you're talking about, you should probably learn about it before talking. Experts might certainly be biased or simply not care about the environment, which is why you have to make a push for the environment, convince people that it's an Equally Important Thing. But to seek a position of influence and not even speak the language - no good! "But maybe the language itself locks people out and perpetuates the oppressive structure of so-called experts", you say. There may be fields where this is entirely true. But if you want to build a house, who do you trust more, architects and construction workers, or journalists?

It may be true that journalists will have good feedback that architects and construction workers should incorporate. But if some journalists - with no building experience - try to stop your house from getting built and provide alternative ways you should build - e.g. the types of foundations used, or what kind of insulation you should use in your walls etc. - you'd take them more seriously if they had at least some experience or understanding of building. If they understood soil types, or how terrain slope affects the depth of foundations, or what the R insulation value even is - if they spoke the language of the trade, you wouldn't discard their views as easily.

What happens in practice is that these interactions turn to tribal warfare. Take plastics, for example. They are a blessing and a curse, but I find that activists that I worked with don't see the blessing side at all. They would be hard-pressed to name at least one useful thing about plastics, despite this being a core component in their lives, one that they couldn't live without. Almost everything in their physical realm is made out of plastics. It's like living in a well-run society, with functioning roads, hospitals and public toilets, and saying that all taxes are evil and unnecessary. It's easy to take the world around you for granted and forget that it's not actually the default mode. But it takes effort to recognize the complex web of effort that took generations to build, just so you can have cheap abundant energy, materials - or clean streets and affordable hospitals.

Game-theoretically, you're putting yourself at a disadvantage here. Other people - who don't know what the hell they're talking about - will seek positions of influence and work their way through status games. And you, who also don't know what the hell you're talking about, will be stuck home with a book about transformers, harmonics, and surge arresters, and will feel like you know even less than you had known when you started reading.

While having fewer uninformed opinions is a status boost in rationalist circles, this is not the norm. How to proceed? Simply keep quiet about things you don't understand enough? Always advocate for expert opinion? I don't have a good solution, but my current practical answer is:

  • get good at learning quickly
  • build a knowledge foundation

The skill of quick learning includes knowing how to focus: actively discarding things that you don't need, and taking in things that you do need. But it also includes the optimistic view that you can teach yourself anything.

On the other hand, having a knowledge foundation means learning elementary things about how the world works. It means to be up close and personal with the world and it means writing fact posts. Little by little, the world starts coming into place.

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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:21 PM

One of my biggest regrets is not focusing on making money when I was younger. There was a lot of money to be made, and it would have been really useful. Money is optionality and can be used to further many goals.

When I was younger, I used to be proud of my relative indifference towards money. It took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that resource acquisition is a convergent instrumental goal.

I expect you already know this, but, the role of activists is not the same as the role of experts, and that's okay. You will never know everything relevant to the situation you're hoping to intervene in. Even if you did, institutions ignore their own environmental experts all the time. Usually, you aren't there as some sort of policy consultant, you're there to pressure their interests into alignment with yours. Even if you have zero clue what other constraints they are balancing, it can still be reasonable to loudly voice your problems; you are yourself one of their constraints. (There's actually an analogy you could make with price signals, where the buyer and seller don't need to know the other's budget calculations, they just need to freely pursue their goals against one another.)

Ideological information is still information, the high-level conceptual narratives and emphases you place on different factors. It felt like the aura of 'seriousness' you talk about with money points to something more general: tradeoffs. Black-and-white thinking in politics is, uh, easy to fall into. But it's a lot more powerful when you can say, "Sure, there are benefits/harms x y and z...and they're completely outweighed by a b and c." You can pay attention to those tradeoffs without losing sight of the Very Important Things. Maybe x needs to be mitigated more carefully. Maybe y is a core obstacle that needs to be dealt with first. 

Obviously, though, having some in-depth subject knowledge doesn't hurt! It helps you make sure you're fighting for the right thing, in the most effective way, and can give you greater legitimacy dealing with other parties. It's a tragic historical fluke that radicals the last few decades have been so, innumerate and technophobic. Get a few of your activist friends and call yourselves a research team, or a reading circle, and then spread whatever knowledge you gain. I think you're on the right track, and good luck.  :)

I totally agree with "activists are one of the constraints". And while getting more knowledge can give you greater legitimacy, there's also significant opportunity cost here. Like, in certain eco-activism circles, you have to specialize. You need to learn skills, and the specialization is even more granular than someone from the outside might expect. Example: there's a lot of training involved in preparing and releasing banners, or in organizing peaceful demonstrations. You simply don't have time to learn about the subject matter in depth, because you have to practice your knots, or social engineer your way onto a roof. Doubly so if you have work and family to balance alongside! I could maybe write about this as well.

Anyway, great observation and analysis, thanks!

I... wrote a big comment but I wasn't logged in

I'm very sad.

Anyway, I agree. I lived my whole life hating money due to 2007 and my family's collapse, and it being entirely because we were reliant on decadence.

All it did was limit my influence liquidity, so to speak. And my comfort. I can't even focus on writing an opinion piece or writing a meta-analysis without being concerned over food, sleep, tomorrow, or my family. It's hugely distracting.

A few months ago I decided to change that around. Now I've started to be profitable off of my learning, and it feels incredible. Not because I think I'll be rich. But because I can finally really help my family and help my Mum stop having to overwork while being underpaid with arthritis. I just want to, after so many years of being "exceptional but stupid", to make the correct choices. I think all this time suffering has done us a lot of good, though. Can you imagine where we would be without the perspective of this thinking?

The folks who started investing early are the same ones we will have to directly criticize in activism, after all.

I would be interested in a post about the cost (time and attention) of building a knowledge foundation in our era of exacerbated complexity and breadth for the average Joe. I wonder if even under great process (ultra learning, or more evolved quick learning), the learned citizen is but an unreachable lie. 

I was writing something like this, like, a list of an order of subjects and reading materials to be basically competent at knowing how to further your understanding and be able to clarify specifics in a subject, any subject, merely from exposure and a wide breadth of surveys.

It's absolutely impossible without just broadly missing subtopics and context.

For instance, to comprehend the development of mathematics properly, you also need a highly detailed understanding of history.

To understand linguistics, you need the same.

To understand.. well, to be honest, I think simply studying history and going down rabbit holes is probably the best way for any individual to get a direct shot of Knowledge. HOWEVER,

our history is revisionist nonsense half the time and takes even more skill in researching to really aggregate into a reasonable summary with controlled bias.