Insights from the Research Team

The case for longtermism and safeguarding the future

Published on
2020-11-30
Written by
Stephen Clare
Sjir Hoeijmakers
Share this story

Suppose we could peer into the future. What might we see?

We might see a world free from pain and disease. Biotechnology and genetic medicine could cure the vast majority of ailments, allowing everyone to live a long and healthy life.

We might see a world where economic growth has stamped out extreme poverty, where common ailments like malaria and diarrheal diseases are things of the past, and where every child has the chance to get a good education and fulfill their potential.

We might see a world where new foods made from plants or grown in labs have subverted the factory farming industry, and with it wide-scale animal cruelty.

Looking a little further ahead, we might see a world where humanity has taken to the stars and begun expanding to other planets and solar systems. We might see unfathomable technological advances, like super-fast space travel, cognitive enhancements and automated intelligent agents, all working to advance the human project and make life as good as it can be.

If all goes well humanity can create a world where comfort, happiness, and wisdom reign over poverty and ignorance. And we’re just getting started. While humanity has existed for about 200,000 years, the Earth will survive for hundreds of millions of years yet. If, as seems possible, some of us eventually leave earth and spread throughout the universe, humanity may survive for billions of years.

And yet none of this is guaranteed. If we suffer a catastrophic disaster or get stuck in a less advanced state, our future, and all the value it holds, will be lost. That’s why we think supporting organisations that are working to ensure humanity’s survival and improve our long-term future is one of the most valuable things philanthropists can do.

Making the case

Longtermism is, roughly, the idea that the total counterfactual impact1 of one’s actions is primarily determined by the effect they have on the very long-run future.2 The case for longtermism in philanthropy relies on three key premises:3

  • Future people matter;
  • There are a lot of them; and
  • We can meaningfully affect their lives

First, future people matter. In many ways, this premise is quite conventional. It’s commonly held that a person’s life is equally valuable no matter where or in what circumstances they are born, so it’s not a huge leap to believe it doesn’t matter when they are born, either. Popular environmental messages, for example, are often framed in terms of protecting people in the future. Concerns about nuclear waste and climate change often focus on their effects on future generations.

Second, there are a lot of them. Since Earth will remain habitable for hundreds of millions of years and humanity could eventually expand to other parts of the universe, the future could contain a huge number of lives. Given the amount of space we have to expand in4 and the length of time we have to do it, the number of people who live in the future could reach 10^32. A number this large is literally incomprehensible. It is trillions of trillions times more people than are alive today. To put it in other terms, you might get close to this number if you took the number of grains of sand on Earth and multiplied it by the number of stars in our galaxy.5 If we believe the quality of these lives matter, then we should be very concerned with how our actions affect them.

Third, we can meaningfully affect their lives. Of course, changing the future seems extremely difficult. To have a meaningful long-term impact, the effects of a given policy or programme would have to last for hundreds or thousands of years without being reversed or cancelled out. There are some actions that do seem to have such an impact: the framing of a constitution, for example. A more direct way of affecting the lives of all those people yet to come is increasing the chance they exist.

Safeguarding the future

At the moment, our species seems vulnerable to a range of threats that could either wipe us out entirely or irreversibly harm our civilisation. These existential risks include everything from asteroid impacts to catastrophic, unforeseen impacts of new technologies like genetic engineering or artificial intelligence. Should one of these disasters come to pass, not only would the lives of everyone living today be destroyed, but so too would the lives of all future people.

It’s worth reflecting on how terrible this would be. We discussed at the beginning of this post how wonderful life in the future may be. Think of the things that make our lives worth living: the relationships we build, the art we enjoy, the connections we make with the natural world, the sense of purpose we find in our work and philanthropy. Love, justice, creativity, happiness. All of these things could come to exist on a scale we currently can’t imagine. We have so much left to explore and experience. But in just one moment, it all could be lost.

The philanthropic opportunity

Fortunately, we can do something about this. We can support organisations which work to safeguard this future. Such organisations represent some of the very best funding opportunities we’ve found.

In addition to its importance, another reason we think these opportunities are so good is that this cause - and longtermism more broadly - is highly neglected by governments, individuals and philanthropists. As just one example, humanity spends much more money each year on ice cream than it does on reducing existential risk.6

There are clear reasons for this neglect. First, parts of the case for focusing on the future are unintuitive. Our brains work poorly when trying to understand huge numbers. Instead, we are scope insensitive and do not naturally feel that a billion times as many lives are a billion times more important. Second, safeguarding the future is a global and intergenerational public good. Such work benefits everybody currently alive and everyone to come, so anyone who funds it captures only a tiny fraction of the total benefits. Even governments, which are often tasked with providing public goods, will underinvest because future people can’t vote or lobby to represent their interests. That means that there is a strong case for philanthropists, who may have the goal of doing as much good as possible without regard for personal benefits or preferences, to step up.

We currently recommend five high-impact longtermist funding opportunities. In no particular order, these are:

Each of these organisations is working to reduce the serious risks posed by emerging technologies to safeguard our future. If you are interested in supporting their work, please reach out to your advisor or contact Sjir (sjir@founderspledge.com) for a conversation.

Paths to impact

Although reducing existential risks may be the most straightforward way to benefit the long-term future, it is not the only one worth exploring. Our Research team is also looking for funding opportunities in other areas and thinking of novel ways to increase one’s long-term impact.

For example, in a recent report we outline the case for investing to give: investing one’s financial resources now so they can be used to do more good later. Investment returns could allow one to give more at a later point in time. Perhaps even more importantly, there may be even better giving opportunities at some future time than there are now. As we expect to learn more about how to best affect the long-term future over time, this is especially relevant for longtermist philanthropy. However, ensuring that the funds one invests end up with the best giving opportunities in the future is not straightforward. This is why Founders Pledge is currently looking into setting up a Long-Term Investment Fund for our members, which would be designed to optimize for long-term impact.

The bottom line

For philanthropists who seek to do as much good as possible, few opportunities seem as important as increasing the chance that humanity is able to fulfill its potential. Our recommended funding opportunities in this space, which are neglected by other funders, are a great chance for philanthropists to do immense good. We plan to expand these recommendations in the coming months, and hope you’ll join us on this important journey.

Notes


  1. For more on counterfactual impact, see Our Approach to Charity  

  2. This is how the Global Priorities Institute, an academic institute at the University of Oxford working on longtermist questions, defines longtermism  

  3. These are adapted from “Longtermism” section of 80,000 Hours’ article “A guide to using your career to help solve the world’s most pressing problems” (https://80000hours.org/key-ideas/#longtermism)  

  4. There are more than 100 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy alone, 15 million of which are within 1,000 light years of Earth (Ord, Toby. The Precipice, London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2020, pp. 226-30)  

  5. If there’s about 7.5e18 grains of sand on earth, and 4e11 stars in the Milky Way, then their product is 3e30 - still smaller than the estimated number of future people.  

  6. Ord, The Precipice, p. 58  

Stephen Clare

Author

Stephen joined Founders Pledge in 2019. Previously he was a Program Analyst for the United Nations Development Programme in Rwanda. He has also worked on climate change projects with the UN in Panama and the Youth Climate Lab in Canada. Stephen has an M.Sc. from McGill University and a B.Arts.Sci. from McMaster University.

Sjir Hoeijmakers

Co-author

Before joining Founders Pledge in early 2018, Sjir advised Dutch municipalities in setting up experiments with elements of basic income, and organized coordination between experiment initiatives on an academic, political and governmental level, crowdfunding his own ‘basic income’ to independently do this for two years.

In 2017, he co-founded Effective Altruism Netherlands (EAN), where he currently serves as Chairman of the Board.

Sjir holds a Master’s degree in Operations Research (cum laude) at Tilburg University.