Effective Sustainability - results from a meetup discussion

by Gunnar_Zarncke 3 min read29th Mar 201522 comments


Related-to Focus Areas of Effective Altruism

These are some small tidbits from our LW-like Meetup in Hamburg. The focus was on sustainability not on altruism as that was more in the spirit of our group. EA was mentioned but no comparison was made. Well-informed effective altruists will probably find little new in this writeup.

So we discussed effective sustainability. To this end we were primed to think rationally by my 11-year old who moderated a session on mind-mapping 'reason' (with contributions from the children). Then we set out to objectively compare concrete everyday things by their sustainability. And how to do this. 

Is it better to drink fruit juice or wine? Or wine or water? Or wine vs. nothing (i.e.to forego sth.)? Or wine vs. paper towels? (the latter intentionally different)

The idea was to arrive at simple rules of thumb to evaluate the sustainability of something. But we discovered that even simple comparisons are not that simple and intuition can run afoul (surpise!). One example was that apparently tote bags are not clearly better than plastic bags in terms of sustainability. But even the simple comparison of tap water vs. wine which seems like a trivial subset case is non-trivial when you consider where the water comes from and how it is extracted from the ground (we still think that water is better but we not as sure as before).

We discussed some ways to measure sustainability (in brackets to which we reduced it):

  • fresh water use -> energy
  • packaging material used -> energy, permanent ressources
  • transport -> energy
  • energy -> CO_2, permanent ressources
  • CO_2 production 
  • permanent consumption of ressources

Life-Cycle-Assessment (German: Ökobilanz) was mentioned in this context but it was unclear what that meant precisely. Only afterwards was it discovered that it's a blanket term for exactly this question (with lots of estabilished measurements for which it is unclear how to simplify them for everyday use).

We didn't try to break this down - a practical everyday approch doesn't allow for that and the time spent on analysing and comparing options is also equivalent to ressources possibly not spent efficiently.

One unanswered question was how much time to invest in comparing alternatives. Too little comparison means to take the nextbest option which is what most people apparently do and which also apparently doesn't lead to overall sustainable behavior. But too much analysis of simple decisions is also no option.

The idea was still to arrive at actionable criteria. One first approximation be settled on was

1) Forego consumption. 

A nobrainer really, but maybe even that has to be stated. Instead of comparing options that are hard to compare try to avoid consumption where you can. Water instead of wine or fruit juice or lemonde. This saves lots of cognitive ressources.

Shortly after we agreed on the second approximation:

2) Spend more time on optimizing ressources you consume large amounts of.

The example at hand was wine (which we consume only a few times a year) versus toilet paper... No need to feel remorse over a one-time present packaging.

Note that we mostly excluded personal well-being, happiness and hedons from our consideration. We were aware that our goals affect our choices and hedons have to factored into any real strategy, but we left this additional complication out of our analysis - at least for this time.

We did discuss signalling effects. Mostly in the context of how effective ressources can be saved by convincing others to act sustainably. One important aspect for the parents was to pass on the idea and to act as a role model (with the caveat that children need a simplified model to grasp the concept). It was also mentioned humorously that one approach to minimize personal ressource consumption is suicide and transitively to convice others of same. The ultimate solution having no humans on the planet (a solution my 8-year old son - a friend of nature - arrived at too). This apparently being the problem when utilons/hedons are expluded.

A short time we considered whether outreach comes for free (can be done in addition to abstinence) and should be the no-brainer number 3. But it was then realized that at least right now and for us most abstinence comes at a price. It was quoted that buying sustainable products is about 20% more expensive than normal products. Forgoing e.g. a car comes at reduced job options. Some jobs involve supporting less sustainable large-scale action. Having less money means less options to act sustaibale. Time being convertible to money and so on.

At this point the key insight mentioned was that it could be much more efficient from a sustainability point of view to e.g. buy CO_2 certificates than to buy organic products. Except that the CO_2 certificate market is oversupplied currently. But there seem to be organisations which promise to achieve effective CO_2 reduction in developing countries (e.g. solar cooking) at a much higher rate than be achieved here. Thus the thrid rule was

3) Spend money on sustainable organisations instead of on everyday products that only give you a good feeling.

And with this the meetup concluded. We will likely continue this.

A note for parents: Meetups with children can be productive (in the sense of results like the above). We were 7 adults and 7 children (aged 3 to 11). The children mostly entertained themselves and no parent had to leave the discussion for long. And the 11-year-old played a significant role in the meetup itself.