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Bringing effective altruism to conservation

How many animal lives are impacted by restoring a prairie ecosystem or a protecting a swamp? That's the sort of number so-called effective altruists look for when deciding where to put their philanthropic funds, and it represents both a challenge and an opportunity for conservation.
January 29, 2020

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In a world of good causes and limited resources, how should we decide what to support? It’s a difficult question, and one that effective altruists—people who believe in channeling philanthropic funds towards projects that provide maximum per-dollar benefits—seek to answer in empirical terms.

Effective altruists promote rigorous assessments of charitable impacts, using metrics like cost per life-year changed. The approach is popular in certain intellectual circles where evidence-based management prevails; it’s proved well-suited to animal welfare-related efforts, which impact captive animals whose lives can be counted in fairly straightforward ways.

When it comes to conservation, however, effective altruism is not a factor. “The environment does not appear among lists of charities recommended for effective altruism,” write ecologists Benjamin Freeling and Sean Connell, both of the University of Adelaide, in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution. “A charity that captures the market of effective altruists could leverage a substantial resource for conservation.”

One challenge is that—except in the case of rare or especially charismatic creatures—conservationists don’t frame their work in terms of individual animal lives or well-being. Instead the focus is on entities like species or ecosystems. These certainly have value, but they’re not easily empiricized in per-unit terms.

Yet Freeling and Connell say that should be possible. It’s just a matter of translating from abstracted, high-level frameworks to the granular scale of individual lives. “The capacity for environmental causes to save many lives or life-years per dollar,” they write, “is established by the countless animals that continue to suffer from ongoing degradation and collapse of their ecosystems.”

As an example of how this might work, Freeling and Connell offer the case of anchovy fishing off the coast of Peru, where one ton of fish—some 37,000 anchovies—is worth about $33 U.S. dollars. If the organizational infrastructure existed to convert donations to fishing reductions, an effective altruist might save 1100 lives per dollar.

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There are complications, though. Whereas the suffering and death prevented by replacing chickens with plant-based meat is obvious, a different moral calculus is required to compute the benefits of saving anchovies from nets so they can be eaten by other ocean predators (and, for that matter, so they can eat other, even smaller fish).

Some philosophers might consider this simply another form of suffering. Others would point, as do conservationists and ecologists, to all the lives these fish in turn support, both directly and through nesting webs of interaction—which also need to be empiricized.

The same goes for any other initiative. How many lives are impacted by, say, restoring a prairie ecosystem or a protecting a swamp? “The possibilities go well beyond our oceans,” write Freeling and Connell, and the calculations won’t be easy, but the payoff for eternally cash-strapped conservationists is potentially great.

“Evidence-based donating is likely to grow as more donors seek evidence of their charity’s value,” they write. “Organizations that step in and bridge the gap between effective altruism and ecosystems could leverage millions of dollars.”

Source: Freeling, Benjamin S. and Connell, Sean D. “Funding Conservation through an Emerging Social Movement.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 2020.


About the author: Brandon Keim is a freelance journalist specializing in animals, nature and science. He is now writing Meet the Neighbors, a book about what animal personhood means for our relationships to animals and to nature. Connect with him on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.

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