[ExI] Consequentialist world improvement

Charlie Stross charlie.stross at gmail.com
Sun Oct 7 10:03:44 UTC 2012

On 7 Oct 2012, at 00:22, Mike Dougherty <msd001 at gmail.com> wrote:

> On Sat, Oct 6, 2012 at 5:35 PM, Anders Sandberg <anders at aleph.se> wrote:
>> So in terms of deaths, fixing (or even denting) ageing, malnutrition,
>> infectious diseases and lifestyle causes is a far more important activity
>> than winning wars or stopping terrorists. Hypertension, tobacco, STDs,
>> alcohol, indoor air pollution and sanitation are all far, far more pressing
>> in terms of saving lives. If we had a choice between *ending all wars in the
>> world* and fixing indoor air pollution the rational choice would be to fix
>> those smoky stoves: they kill nine times more people.
> I was going to suggest you run for president on the "improve indoor
> air quality" platform.  The dozen or so of us who would vote for
> sensibility would inevitably be drowned-out by those prefer full
> bellies and empty-headed entertainment.  Bread and circuses are far
> easier to provide.


Here's the thing; the air pollution problem is down to a handful of addressable causes. One of these is widespread combustion of low-grade coal in power stations, which in addition to pumping CO2 into the atmosphere is also prone to producing sulfurous oxides and particulate contamination. Overall, coal-fired electricity generators kill 2-3 orders of magnitude more people than nuclear power plants per GWh output, even if you use the most overloaded estimates of mortality due to nuclear accidents (such as the claim that Chernobyl killed upwards of 25,000 people). Solution: switch China and India to building fission reactors. And build a buttload of modern reactors in the Pripyat zone and then add a big-ass grid interconnect to shunt the surplus electricity west. If we can accept some transmission losses, we can keep the people of Germany from collectively melting down while keeping the lights on in Augsberg.

The other major problem is use of indoor cooking fires -- charcoal, wood, low-grade coal. The mortality is hidden, and mostly takes the form of women and children in developing countries who succumb to respiratory infections or TB secondary to lung damage caused by smoke inhalation. The fix is quite simple -- cheap stoves with stove-pipes to vent the smoke outside the home! This is 18th century technology. The only reason it isn't ubiquitous is because we're talking about *poor* people. How much would it cost to fabricate and install half a billion cast-iron stoves? Probably less than the UK is planning on spending on replacing its nuclear deterrent in the next decade.

>> ==Conclusion==
>> To sum up, this approach of just looking at consequences and ignoring who is
>> who is of course a bit too cold for most people. Most people have Tetlockian
>> sacred values and get very riled up if somebody thinks about
>> cost-effectiveness in terrorism fighting (typical US bugaboo) or development
>> (typical warmhearted donor bugaboo) or healthcare (typical European
>> bugaboo). But if we did, we would make the world a far better place.
>> Bring on the robot cars and happiness pills!
> You're talking about Soma?  Agreed; no need to wait until 2540.  Oh
> right, that was a dystopian future :(

No. Brave New World was *framed* as a dystopian future *by its author*, who was attached to a romantic vision of art as something that can only be produced by a human soul in torment. There was, in other words, an agenda behind it. If you disagree with that agenda, the conclusions look very different. (I can see other things to criticize in BNW, but soma and the hedonistic bias of the world society aren't among them.)

On the other hand, some of the horrors of modern bread'n'circuses, as exemplified by reality TV shows such as "Honey Boo Boo" or "Four fat brides, one skinny dress" just drive me to despair of my species. (But on the gripping hand, we've always had our equivalent of Bedlam ...)

-- Charlie

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