Category Archives: Charitable giving

Against Virtue Environmentalism

I came up with the term “Virtue Environmentalism” recently and I think it’s a good one and will probably be using it more often.

This came up when talking to a friend (this really is a thing that happened to a friend, I promise, though some parts of it also apply to me) about a frustrating experience he’d had. Afterwards he vented at me about it for a bit and we had a good conversation on the subject.

The friend in question cares a lot about the environment. He’s mostly vegan and donates a lot of money  to a variety of environmental charities and generally spends a fair bit of time stressing out about global warming.

But he also drives. Like, a lot. And I don’t mean a Tesla (I don’t know enough about cars to tell you about fuel efficiency, but it’s a conventional engine). Both short distance and long road trips. There’s no physical reason he has to drive – he’s in tolerably good shape and could definitely cycle a lot of the places he drives to if he wanted, but he really likes driving.

These aren’t inconsistent positions. I don’t think I was the one who convinced him of this, but he’s basically on board with the idea of donating instead of making personal interventions. He’s decided quite reasonably that his life is significantly better for all this driving that he’s willing to make the trade off, and he donates more than enough to be massively carbon negative despite it even without the veganism.

But someone he met at a party recently really took issue with that, basically calling him a hypocrite. I’m not sure how the subject came up, but it got quite heated.

Over the course of the conversation it emerged that the person in question was not vegetarian and did not donate anything to charity, but was very conscientious about taking public transport everywhere they couldn’t cycle, turning off all the lights, recycling everything, doing home composting, etc.

One of these people is making a big environmental difference. The other one is giving the person who is making a big environmental difference a hard time for not making a big enough difference.

(Note: This account has been somewhat fictionalized to protect the guilty)

I’m going to start describing this behaviour as virtue environmentalism.

The term comes from ethical theory. Approximately, we have consequentialist ethics and virtue ethics (it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the relevant subset here).

Consequentialist ethics says that ethical behaviour comes from acts which produce good outcomes, virtue ethics says that ethical behaviour comes from acts which exhibit virtues.

Similarly, consequentialist environmentalism says that environmentally friendly behaviour comes from acts which produce environmentally good consequences, while virtue environmentalism says it comes from acts which exhibit concern for the environment.

So, donating money to charity is consequentially good but mostly not a virtue – sure, you might as well do it, but it’s not real environmentalism.

My biases are clearly showing here. I largely subscribe to consequentialist ethics, but think virtue ethics has its place. There are good arguments that virtue ethics produces better consequential outcomes in many cases, and also that it produces better adjusted people. I’m not sure I buy these arguments, but it’s a valid life choice.

But virtue environmentalism is mostly bullshit.

Atmospheric carbon and other greenhouse gasses are amongst the most fungible types of harm out there. If I pump 100 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere (a very high footprint) and extract 110 from it into some sort of long term storage (e.g. donating to prevent deforestation or plant new trees), then I’ve removed ten tonnes of carbon  from the atmosphere and as a result I’ve done more good than someone who has only pumped 5 tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere (a very low footprint) but hasn’t removed any.

Virtue environmentalism largely results in three things:

  1. Spending lots of time and effort on actions that make no practical difference at all but are highly visible.
  2. Feeling good enough about yourself that you don’t perform the actions that would actually help.
  3. Pissing off other people and making them care less about environmentalism overall.

The third is particularly important. If we want our descendants to not gently broil in the inevitable consequences of our own environmental waste, we need to get everyone to start to taking this seriously, and if you keep telling people that the only valid way to do environmental change is this sort of hair-shirt-wearing nonsense then the result will be that people do neither that nor the actually useful actions they would probably be quite happy to do.

If you want to do “environmentally friendly” things that don’t help much but make you feel better then sure, go for it. But stop expecting other people to do the same if you actually want to help the planet instead of just feeling good about yourself.

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Charitable donations

I have never signed the Giving What We Can pledge, despite a long running nagging feeling that I should. This is because reasons.

I’m still not going to sign it (for now), but I’m going to start making up for my charitable deficiencies as an individual by sorting out my act through my company (I currently operate through my own limited company).

I’ve been putting this off until my business bank account was a bit more liquid, but now it is so it’s time to act.

So, starting from this point, 10% of all my limited company’s revenue will go to charity. To more or less backdate this for invoices I’ve issued so far, I’m going to be donating £1000 pounds to charity immediately (or, rather, as soon as the charities I’ve chosen get back to me RE how they want me to handle corporate donations, but I’ve emailed them already).

I am still vacillating somewhat on exactly what charities to donate to, but I’ve decided to go with an initial position that I am pretty confident in and adjust later as I refine my thoughts: I’ll be donating in a 50/50 split between Give Directly and Cool Earth. Each will definitely get £500 of that initial donation, and until I come up with a better plan will get 5% each of my revenue.

I’m also considering:

  • Donating to the Against Malaria Foundation. At present if I do this the most likely scenario is a 50/30/20 split Cool Earth/Give Directly/Against Malaria Foundation (I am aware that this is the direct opposite order to what Give Well would recommend. Again, reasons. Maybe even good ones).
  • Finding some good political change organisations to donate to. Recommendations welcome.
  • Investing in renewable energy funds. Note: This requires me to do a lot of investigation of how this sort of thing works as a corporation, so I’m probably not going to do it any time soon.
  • Offering clients some sort of matching scheme for up to an additional 10%.
  • Additionally donating money to open source organisations such as the Python Software Foundation. If I do this it would not come out of the 10%.
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Effectiveness of personal greenhouse reduction vs donation

Epistemic status of this post: I am not an expert, but I am reading people who are. There is every chance that I have messed up somewhere so if you know about this area I welcome correction, but in the absence of that the numbers seem relatively robust.

General disclaimer: This is UK centric. The general theme and advice is probably quite portable, but the specific numbers will vary quite a lot depending on who and where you are.

Due to a combination of long-running family arguments and the fact that now that I’m earning money again I’m planning to invest a lot of my earnings in charitable giving, I’ve been looking into various ecological statistics and costs and I’ve come to the following conclusion:

  1. Based on typical UK lifestyles, it is very hard for any personal ecological intervention to be more cost effective at reducing carbon emissions than giving money to an effective climate change charity.
  2. The amount of money you need to spend to go carbon negative is surprisingly small.

Here are my calculations. Note: I am deliberately rounding things up on the grounds that these are ballpark figures.

Based on the UK greenhouse gas emissions national statistics from the government, the UK is currently emitting the 568.3 million tonnes per year of CO2 equivalent greenhouse gasses (467.5 million tonnes of CO2, the rest is other greenhouse gasses).

Based on this report from the committee on climate change, this is artificially low due to CO2 imports from countries that do manufacturing for us, and the real CO2 emissions are probably something like 80% higher than that. This comes to 841.5 million tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

The current population of the UK is 64.1 million. So dividing 841.5 by 64.1 (the millions cancel), you get about 13.1 tonnes of CO2 per year per person.

Note: This includes a whole bunch of industrial usage that you have no direct control of. e.g. if everyone in the UK became vegan overnight (which according to this Guardian article can save up to about 1.5 tonnes per year if you’re starting from a meat rich diet), all the cattle and other agricultural animals aren’t going to evaporate, we’re just going to export more. You will reduce demand, and thus production, but you’re probably not able to reduce your “share” of the production to zero. So this is already an overestimate of how much greenhouse emissions we can actually exert a direct influence over.

Now, lets arbitrarily double and round up on the grounds that you might be a high carbon footprint person if you’re eating more meat than average, driving everywhere, etc. We’re trying to create a comfortable overestimate of how much you could reduce your carbon footprint. Your mileage may vary.

So lets say for the sake of the argument that you personally have a carbon footprint of up to 30 metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent.

How much would it cost for you to offset this?

Note: Although I have some doubts about the efficacy of any given choice of carbon offsetting, atmospheric carbon is the ultimate fungible resource. Distribution matters a bit, but ultimately the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere is what matters the most, so I think thinking in terms of offsetting here is completely valid.

Anyway, cost. There seem to be a variety of reports.

  1. This guardian article (note: from 2011) claims that £8 / tonne is “typical”. That would make this a price of £240 / year.
  2. The fixed offset calculator from the world land trust claims that we should be paying them £450 / year to offset 30 tonnes of carbon
  3. This analysis from Giving What We Can claims that Cool Earth are extremely effective to the tune of saving one tonne of carbon per £0.85 donated. That would make a £25.5 / year donation to them effective at offsetting these 30 tonnes!

Obviously this is quite a range. However, even the upper bound of £450 is just not that large (for poorer people and families obviously it’s much more significant, but note that within the UK at least poorer people are also likely to have smaller carbon footprints. I do not know how much of this is mediated by the fact that poorer people are disproportionately likely to be urban). Especially when you consider that this is a significant overestimate of how much you are likely to need to offset.

What this means in practice is:

  1. If the analysis of their effectiveness is at all believable (I have a reasonable amount of non-expert confidence in it, but I have not done a close reading of the report), a recurring donation of £10 / month to Cool Earth is probably enough to make you significantly carbon negative. Even if it is an order of magnitude too optimistic, £20-30 / month should still be enough to make you carbon neutral unless your lifestyle is truly exorbitant for the UK.
  2. If a personal intervention costs you something you value as much as £10 pounds per month it’s probably not worth it and you might want to consider offsetting instead.
  3. Even if you want to reduce your personal ecological footprint, you should strongly consider giving money to a charity such as Cool Earth, because it lets you make your net ecological footprint go negative.

This suggests the following rules of thumb:

  1. If a personal intervention net costs you money, it’s probably not worth it. Give the money to Cool Earth instead.
  2. If an intervention requires a regularly (say as often as once a month) recurring action that each time you perform it you would rather give £1 to Cool Earth, you should consider not bothering and giving a bit more recurring money to Cool Earth instead.
  3. If you have particular habits that have a high carbon cost per instance (e.g. long distance travel), consider offsetting them with a donation each time.

2 requires a little unpacking. It would of course be better to do both. However, my thesis is that you are more likely to stop doing annoying actions than you are to stop recurring donations: One requires active intervention to keep doing, the other requires active intervention to stop. Moreover, we tend to have a “virtue budget” where because we feel good about ourselves for doing one thing we’re likely to do less of another (I have seen Science on this but do not currently have a cite, so take this information well salted). So given the relatively low effectiveness of doing things which will annoy you, the high chance of stopping them, and the comparative effectiveness of less annoying alternatives, it’s probably better to just go with the less annoying alternatives.

Personal interventions that are probably worth it:

  1. Loft insulation if you are living in a house you own and do not currently have it. This will save you money as well as reducing your carbon footprint. Therefore the cost is negative and thus always going to be better.
  2. Replacing light bulbs with LED ones as and when they break: Saves you money, costs you no time and reduces your carbon footprint.
  3. Other cost saving ecological measures for your home are probably worth it too. I’m not super familiar with this area because London living means hardly anyone I know outside of my parents own a home. There’s probably something interesting to say about the ecological costs of renting here.
  4. If you can take public transport instead of driving you probably should, but this is not a practical intervention for many people because whether you take public transport tends to be more a function of where you live than an easily changeable aspect of your llife.
  5. If your diet is high meat then eating more vegetarian meals is probably a good thing anyway and will save you money without costing you time, but bear in mind that you could eat meat every day and chuck £10 to Cool Earth at the end of the year and still save more carbon than by going vegan, so this is probably not a valid reason to go vegetarian.

Addendum and other considerations

  1. There is more to saving the planet than CO2 emissions, but it’s a pretty good start. However, other considerations may affect the validity of some interventions. For example although you save comparatively very little CO2 by going vegan, you do probably save upwards of 1000 litres of water per day, and water is significantly less fungible than CO2 because of the difficulty of transporting it. So decreasing your meat consumption may be a valid intervention after all, or you might want to just chuck another £10 / year at some charity building desalination plants, I don’t know. More research needed.
  2. Even if the estimates of their effectiveness at CO2 offsetting are wildly overstated, Cool Earth’s approach helps poor communities and preserves biodiversity, and thus seem like a worthwhile charity strictly on those grounds. However if they were contributing literally zero carbon offsetting benefit, Giving What We Can’s DALY comparison against the Against Malaria Foundation (who I have currently let my donation to lapse, but will be resuming it once I’ve sorted out my finances) makes Cool Earth the less compelling alternative of the two.
  3. With any charity, there is a point of diminishing returns. Cool Earth do not appear to be at that point yet according to the Giving What We Can analysis (which is a few years old, but showed sufficient headroom that they are probably still going strong). It is very unlikely that we can achieve the needed global carbon reductions purely through direct offsetting. I have no idea if Cool Earth could productively use £640 milion per month (everyone in the UK giving them £10 / month), but I doubt it. However we are currently so far from that point that I think it is not a major concern.
  4. Medium and long-term, we still need systemic change. Short-term, we have the emissions equivalent of a Wonga loan and almost nothing matters except for paying it off. In order to balance these two it is probably worth diversifying your charitable giving and giving some of it to advocacy groups. More research needed one effectiveness here (the linked Giving What We Can piece has some analysis here. It’s a few years old though and the analysis of effective advocacy probably changes faster than effective climate change interventions).
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