Radical Longtermism and the Seduction of Endless Growth
A Critique of William MacAskill’s 'What We Owe the Future'
What do we, in 2023, ‘owe’ to future generations of humans? What about to future plants, animals, and ecosystems?
Rupert Read and Émile P. Torres dive deeply into these questions in their guest essay for us this week, and put forth a much-needed argument for why we must look more critically at dangerously seductive, radical forms of longtermism.
Aside from evoking the various unsettling aspects of longtermism, one of the most piercing elements of this piece is Read and Torres’ exposure of the paradox within this ideology: that ‘longtermism’ is in fact at odds with long-term thinking. Long-term thinking, as they define it, is an ‘ethical practice and commitment’; it requires deep reflection on the meaning of life; and it requires care for other humans, for future humans, and for our planet. They write, ‘it involves a recognition that there probably will be people long into the future, and that the quality of their lives and the options available to them depend to some nontrivial degree on our actions today.’
A carefully considered critique of radical ‘longtermism’ is therefore not a matter of throwing up one’s hands and ignoring the future of humanity. Drawing upon Hannah Arendt, Joseph Nye, David Graeber and David Wengrow, Read and Torres offer alternative pathways to the broadly utilitarian ideology of ‘longtermism’, rooted in a more temporally and ethically expansive sense of what it means to be human.
- Leigh Biddlecome, Visiting Editor & Curator, Perspectiva
Radical Longtermism and the Seduction of Endless Growth: A Critique of William MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future
by Rupert Read and Émile P. Torres
Imagine some 1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 (that’s 10^45) digital people, an unfathomably vast number, living ‘happy’ lives in huge computer simulations spread throughout the Milky Way. If one finds this vision compelling, and considers it feasible, then one must come to the conclusion that a key moral priority for humanity this century is to safeguard our ability to create this future. We ought, it would then seem, to focus much less on how our actions affect those alive today than on how they could influence the world in millions, billions, and even trillions of years henceforth.
This is the vision of ‘longtermism,’ a worldview that one might be inclined to dismiss as fanciful—and indeed we shall argue that it is. However, its fancifulness cannot, unfortunately, lead one to dismiss it out of hand, because it has enormous amounts of power and money behind it. For example, the movement that gave rise to ‘longtermism,’ effective altruism, has literally billions of dollars in committed funding. In a tweet promoting William MacAskill’s recent book What We Owe the Future, Elon Musk described ‘longtermism’ as ‘a close match for my philosophy.’ Meanwhile, the bestselling Dutch historian Rutger Bregman calls the book ‘a monumental event,‘ adding that ‘William MacAskill is one of the most important philosophers alive today, and this is his magnum opus.’1 And MacAskill has either written articles in, or had articles written about him, in the New York Times, New Yorker, BBC, Guardian, Foreign Affairs, and Time magazine, the last running a cover story on MacAskill and effective altruism.
What exactly is ‘longtermism’? It can take two forms: moderate and radical. The former says that ensuring that humanity’s long-run future goes well is a key moral priority of our time, while the latter says that it’s the key priority. MacAskill himself says that he’s ‘sympathetic’ with radical ‘longtermism,’ although for marketing reasons, it seems, he defends its moderate version in his book. At the heart of both moderate and radical ‘longtermism’ is an idea, central to the ethical theory of utilitarianism, that the appropriate response to value is to maximize it. As MacAskill writes, ‘more of a good thing is better.’ This might sound plausible at first glance—it certainly resonates with the ethos of our consumerist society, which tells us that ‘bigger is better’—but, as we will explain, it has some deeply unsavory implications. As we’ve elsewhere argued at length, radical ‘longtermism’ could be extremely dangerous if taken literally by those in power, yet even the moderate version yields conclusions that are deeply problematic. In this review, we’ll focus on the moderate version—the view that MacAskill outlines in What We Owe the Future. We attempt to show that, more often than not, MacAskill’s claims miss the mark—in some cases, by a wide margin.
Consider a small world in which just 100 people live, each with a happiness level of 100—if you can make sense of that in the first place. This means there’s a total of 10,000 ‘units’ of happiness, since 100 times 100 equals 10,000. Now, you’re given two ways of ‘improving‘ the world: first, you could double the happiness levels of each of these 100 people, which would result in 20,000 units of happiness. Sounds good. Alternatively, you could create an additional 20,000 people who each have a happiness level of only 1, meaning that their lives are ‘good’ – they are better than no life at all, they would probably not choose to kill themselves – but not great. The result of this second option would be a total of 30,000 ‘units’ of happiness. Now, if you believe that ‘more of a good thing is better,’ and take happiness to be a ‘good thing,’ then you should choose the second option, not the first, according to MacAskill. Most of us, though, would immediately see that adding a large number of new people with lives that are barely worth living (because their happiness levels are so low, comparatively speaking) would not make the world as a whole better. Yet this is precisely the view that MacAskill promotes: ‘Good lives are good,’ he writes. ‘More of a good thing is better. So increasing the number of good lives makes the world better.’ (Perhaps what this really shows is simply that MacAskill has no real grasp of what we actually mean by ‘a good life’.)
In some sense, who can argue with more good things, or with the idea that planning for the future is important? The problem, though, and perhaps it is becoming increasingly visible, is that underneath this talk of maximizing goodness lies a reckless ideology whose adherents, in their obsession with endless economic growth and technophilia, don’t actually care about the future at all—at least, not a future in which humans might actually survive and flourish within an ecosystem that can sustain us. MacAskillian ‘longtermism’ is exactly the opposite of the sort of perspective that we need at this moment in history.
The implications of ‘longtermism’ are deeply unsettling: people, animals, the natural world, the climate crisis, and the complex interplay among all of these are reduced to calculations about value maximization, and the causal relationships among them are distorted to justify a bizarre future in which the main goal is to create the greatest number of humans—or ‘posthumans’—possible. In what follows, we offer a broad critique of MacAskill’s book, focusing on a number of core claims that, we will argue, get things astonishingly wrong: claims about overpopulation, the value of nature, economic growth, and history, among others. Given the amount of attention that MacAskill’s book has received since it was released last summer, despite a flurry of scandals within the movement like the collapse of FTX and a racist email by one of the leading longtermists that one of us uncovered last year, we hope this article will provide a useful resource for readers trying to understand the merits of ‘longtermism,’ which we believe offers a deeply impoverished vision of humanity’s future on Earth, and perhaps beyond.
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Let’s begin with a question many people today have been asking themselves: ‘Should I have fewer children to reduce the footprint of my family?’ Some are beginning to answer in the positive, and there has even been a ‘birthstrike’ trend of potential parents who are refusing to have children because of the climate crisis. Not only would creating new people increase CO2 levels in the atmosphere, but children born today could end up suffering greatly from the climate catastrophe, if not physically, then psychologically, having to watch climate refugees struggle to survive. But MacAskill thinks these people have it all wrong: we should actually be much more concerned about underpopulation than too many people on the planet—an idea frequently repeated by Musk on Twitter. We tend to only focus on the downsides of having more children, MacAskill complains, never on the possibility that they might someday contribute to economic growth, which he assumes we need vastly more of.
MacAskill’s book is thus, one might say, for yesterday’s reader: it’s growth-manic at the very moment when the world is waking up to limits.
This is a typical way in which MacAskill operates: he says something that seems boldly thought-provoking—in this case, that the world is underpopulated—when in fact it’s more backward-looking than forward-looking. The backdrop to MacAskill’s claim is a philosophically dubious belief that a larger human population of people with better-than-miserable lives makes the world morally better, which he couples to the tediously familiar and dangerously out-of-date claim that endless economic growth is good.
The word ‘stagnation,’ which MacAskill uses to describe any society not experiencing economic growth, is problematic and misleading. It’s a rhetorical maneuver that aims to tar any approach that steps outside of yesterday’s hegemony, and involves a whole set of ethnocentric and outdated assumptions, which we’ll return to below. In actuality, as green/ecological economists have long taught, any ‘steady’ state is a dynamic equilibrium. It will involve all sorts of changes; just not the kind of unsustainable change involved in a one-way arrow of ‘growth’ going ever upward.
Yet MacAskill is determined that endless economic growth—fueled by having more kids, or perhaps even just creating ‘digital’ worker-people who could take over the economy—is desirable. It’s extraordinary to us that, in a world where the pronatalist norm of bringing new people into the world remains widely unquestioned as a central aim in life, the ‘longtermists’ present themselves as being edgy by favoring ever-more births.
In the ‘longtermist’ view, the more humans there are with lives that aren’t completely miserable, the better. MacAskill says he believes that only ‘technologically capable species’ are valuable. This is why he writes that ‘if Homo sapiens went extinct,’ the badness of this outcome may depend on whether ‘some other technologically capable species would evolve and take our place.’ Without such a species evolving to ‘take our place,’ the biosphere—with all its wonders and beauty—would be worthless. We find this to be a very shallow perspective.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising, then, that MacAskill doesn’t see much of a place for non-human animals in the future. True, some ‘longtermists’ have spent a lot of time recently worrying about the suffering of wild animals. You might find it touching that they fret about such innocent creatures, including shrimp. But look out: their concern has a sinister side. Some ‘longtermists’ have suggested that wild animals’ lives are not worth living, so full (allegedly) of suffering are they. MacAskill tends toward envisaging those animals’ more or less complete replacement: by (you guessed it) many more humans. Here’s what MacAskill says: ‘if we assess the lives of wild animals as being worse than nothing, which I think is plausible … then we arrive at the dizzying conclusion that from the perspective of the wild animals themselves, the enormous growth and expansion of Homo sapiens has been a good thing’—a growth that MacAskill wants to endlessly inflate.
MacAskill excuses the proposed near-elimination of the wild by saying that most wild animals (by neuron count) are fish, and by offering reasons for thinking fish have peculiarly bad lives typically compared to land animals. But there is only a preponderance of fish because we have extirpated an even higher percentage of wild land animals. He doesn’t even consider the possibility that we ought to reverse that situation and rewild much of the Earth.
MacAskill places the blame for the decline of wild animals mainly on our very distant ancestors. He blames the extinction of most megafauna on them, and says that extinction is the main cause of the dramatic decline in wild animals, thus exonerating ‘progress,’ modernity, etc. But even if (as by and large we should) we allow MacAskill’s argument about distant human ancestors having caused wildlife extinction, this has nothing to do with how the actions of modern humans have led to wildlife extinctions now. Wild animals would have recovered their biomass were it not for modern humans’ destruction of their habitat for our own ‘living space.’ Each year, more than 1% of the Earth’s wildlife is being eliminated, mostly through habitat-destruction (and the deleterious effects of human-driven climate decline on animals are largely yet to come).
MacAskill seeks to minimize the significance of animal suffering compared to human suffering by pointing to neurons. ‘To capture the importance of differences in capacity for wellbeing,’ he writes, ‘we could, as a very rough heuristic, weight animals’ interests by the number of neurons they have.’ But neuron-counting seems wholly inadequate as a criterion, even if used as a rough heuristic. Look at a terrified animal and then tell us again that its fear is dozens or even thousands of times less morally important than ours. Or consider that lacking some neurons can surely make things worse, for example, because this will often prevent the suffering creature from understanding what’s happening to it or that its suffering will soon end. (Think of a deer—or a rat—with its leg stuck in a trap.) Animals are very vulnerable to such forms of suffering. But they may well also be capable of forms of bliss that we find difficult to sustain, or experiences that we can hardly begin to fathom, as Ed Yong recently explained. This possibility, too, does not appear to have occurred to MacAskill.
So much, then, for the nobility of the wild animal, its own separate wildness and community and difference. So much, too, for humans’ love and need for the wild. All this, MacAskill seems okay with abolishing.
MacAskill at least sounds vaguely green-friendly when he argues that we should transition to renewable resources as soon as possible, leaving as much coal and oil in the ground as we can. However, his key argument for this makes one shudder: since what ultimately matters for ‘longtermists’ is maximizing ‘value’ — which means increasing the human population to the limits, not just by having more children now but by colonizing space, plundering the cosmos, and even building vast computer simulations in which trillions of digital people could live—MacAskill comes to a startling conclusion: if we burn up all the fossil fuels today, we’ll have nothing to burn up later if civilization collapses, that is, to rebuild our civilization by passing through another fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution. That is: to repeat the pattern that (in his own scenario!) will have led to collapse. In his words, ‘there is a significant chance that we will continue to burn coal and other fossil fuels for a long time. If so, we would use up a resource that might be crucial for recovery after the collapse of civilisation.’ He thus advocates, in effect, making the very same colossal mistakes again that we’ve made in the past century or more, which has led us to the brink of mass ecocide and, therefore, mass-suicide. He says that he wants us to live a long, long time, but not, it seems, to learn very much along the way. ‘Longtermism,’ we venture to say, is actually pretty short-sighted.
Though MacAskill makes a great show of having been well-advised and considering everything, he completely ignores vast literatures and traditions that offer serious challenges to conventional ‘wisdom’ about growth, development, and the environment. He assumes that further economic development—a controversial way of seeking to extend Western hegemony and industrial growthism, launched covertly by the Truman administration literally to capitalize on the vacuum and opportunity created by World War II—is obviously right and that there is no alternative to it. This is an extremely narrow view, taking for granted the rightness of societal structures basically like our own.
This observation also extends our claim that MacAskill repeatedly says things that sound bold but are actually tedious, covert re-workings of crude assumptions underlying our (failing) civilization. He actually reinforces something his book vigorously warns about: the danger of ‘lock-in,’ whereby the space of future possibilities for civilization and humanity is constrained by some fundamental values that we can change today, but might not be able to in the future. MacAskill’s own thinking about development and related issues exhibits tendencies, of the highest order, toward locking-in values that could seriously impact humanity’s future over the coming millennia in profoundly negative ways.
Another example of this tendency is his relentless technophilia, the convenient and shallow assumption that, whatever the problem happens to be, the solution is always ‘more technology’—i.e., a ‘techno-fix.’
MacAskill appears to favor an outdated conception of human knowledge as inherently connected to the subjugation and control of natural processes, of which he strongly favors the maximization. He doesn’t notice that our very attempt to control the natural world, over the last several centuries—the repeated endeavor to ‘conquer’ or ‘subdue’ nature, as Francis Bacon put it—has tipped us into a situation where key planetary systems are ‘out of control,’ where we have passed six of nine planetary boundaries that demarcate a ‘safe operating space for humanity,’ are on course to pass two of the remaining three, and appear to have disrupted the planet’s climate in a way that will not be reversible. Based on the logic of precaution (which is entirely alien to the maximization-mindset), we ought to be more impressed by what we have been, and currently are, ignorant of than by what we know. That is to say: we ought to be more epistemically humble (and much more than MacAskill is). We ought to accept that we are living in a world that we may never fully understand, let alone control. We ought to act so as to stay safe in such a world. And we ought to seriously consider the possibility—in our view, the actuality—that the very endeavor to control nature has caused blowback. We have pushed systems that we do not understand into unstable states, by perturbing them without even realizing what we are doing. This is obvious in relation to the climate system, but has actually happened and continues to happen to a significant extent across a range of planetary boundaries, very strikingly with regard to ocean acidification, plastic pollution, and the creation of novel entities (such as ‘forever chemicals’).
Furthermore, surely a philosopher should be able to see that it is not, in the final analysis, any knowledge—let alone ‘information’—that we are most crucially lacking. It is, in Hannah Arendt’s sense, reason that we need more of, where Arendt understood ‘reason’ in terms of meaning rather than cognition or information. When one starts to face up to the devastating truth about our civilization’s (catastrophic) impact on the natural world, upon which we depend for our wellbeing and survival, culminating at present in the terrifying reality of incipient climate breakdown, what one typically encounters is a crisis of meaning. One’s life may seem pointless, one’s future plans rudderless. One is forced to reassess comfortable assumptions about how change can best be catalyzed. How can we navigate that cultural crisis of meaning? What is the existential horizon of our positioning as thinkers in a civilization that is not long for this world? None of these questions surface in MacAskill’s book. There is actually little or no sense, throughout most of his book, of life having meaning – no real sense of struggle, or depth (or beauty).
The problem is that MacAskill just doesn’t generally consider what ought to be the philosopher’s prerogative: reflecting on the meaning of life. A life that merely seeks to perpetuate itself and to mindlessly expand, plunder, subdue, and maximize, without concern for any deeper meaning, is no life at all.
‘Longtermists’ are preoccupied with ‘existential threats’ (‘x-risks’ for short), but if existence is pointless, it’s hard to see how such threats matter—at least in the sense of ‘existential’ that one encounters, for instance, in the existentialists (such as Sartre, Camus, and Beauvoir).
Of course, one crucial reason for MacAskill’s failure to take actual existential threats to civilization (such as climate degradation) seriously, let alone their existential dimension, is that he continues chronically to underestimate the danger posed by climate and ecological breakdown to our species—and others! He naively believes that life will ‘go on getting better,’ and that by 2100 the average person will be five times richer than today. This ignores multiple studies and approaches suggesting that, in reality, we may well be on the cusp of crashing human civilization, and that continuing as we are doing—which is what MacAskill favors, only on steroids—is incompatible with avoiding societal collapse.
We are worried about the rise of so-called ‘longtermism’ precisely because we care about the long-term future of humanity. Indeed, we care about the long-term future of all living beings of the natural world, in which we are just one of millions of species. MacAskill seems to view other creatures, ecosystems, and so on, in purely instrumental terms. And, if he ever tips into thinking of them in intrinsic terms, as when he briefly considers the worth of animals’ lives for their own sake, he judges their lives to be worse than nothing. He envisions total domestication as the future of nature, a fantasy of complete human dominion over the biosphere, which comports with the ‘longtermist’ fantasy of ‘technological maturity,’ which MacAskill’s Oxford colleague Nick Bostrom defines as the total subjugation of nature and maximization of economic productivity to the physical limits. We call this a ‘fantasy’ because the very effort to achieve dominion systematically backfires. The best way to ensure a long-term future for our descendants and our kin is to reduce our impact upon the biosphere to a tolerable level, not to endlessly increase it.
It is unfortunate that the name ‘longtermism’ has been appropriated by a short-sighted, reckless ideology.
But the situation can be rectified: we can distinguish between ‘longtermism,’ in scare quotes, on the one hand, and long-term thinking, on the other. Whereas ‘longtermism’ is an ideology, long-term thinking is a perspective, an attitude, and a practice.
It does not presuppose that value must be maximized, that the non-birth of ‘happy’ people is intrinsically identical to the death of ‘happy’ people, and so on. Rather, it involves a recognition that there probably will be people long into the future, and that the quality of their lives and the options available to them depend to some nontrivial degree on our actions today.
Long-term thinking is an ethical practice. It’s a commitment. A determination. Not an ideology—not an ‘ism’! There will likely be people in the future, and they, whoever exactly they turn out to be, depend upon us. We thus have a deep responsibility to these future people; and we are letting them down profoundly. Right now, there is a dictatorship of the present generation over future generations. ‘By abandoning the tyranny of the present over the future,’ MacAskill writes, ‘we can act as trustees—helping to create a flourishing world for generations to come’ (italics added). This sounds good, and embodies a crucial truth: the future always hangs upon the thread of the present. We have indeed on the whole been terrible trustees for the last few centuries, and especially the last few decades.
The question, however, is how to make this trusteeship real. And how to do so without creating a new tyranny: the locking-in of crude consequentialist-oriented ‘longtermist’ thinking—with, ironically, potentially awful consequences. Consider this counterpoint from Joseph Nye:
A crude utilitarian calculation would suggest that since the pleasures of future generations may last infinitely (or until the sun burns out), no risk that we take to assure certain values for our generation can compare with almost infinite value in the future. Thus we have no right to take such risks. In effect, such an approach would establish a dictatorship of future generations over the present one. The only permissible role for our generation would be biological procreation. If we care about other values in addition to survival, this crude utilitarian approach produces intolerable consequences for the current generation (italics added).
This remark of Nye’s is true, though right now the pendulum is so far the other way. That is to say, MacAskill’s claim, provided it is understood in terms of ‘long-term thinking’ rather than ‘longtermism,’ might be more pressing than Nye’s. The challenge is, therefore, to end that dictatorship without creating a new mirror-image one—as the ‘longtermists’ do. To respond efficaciously to that challenge is what we seek to do, and call for others to do as well.
By this point, readers may be somewhat surprised that ‘longtermism’ has gained any credibility at all, and that MacAskill has been as feted as he has. Can MacAskill’s credentials perhaps be saved by dwelling on the one aspect of his book which seems genuinely philosophical in nature?
We refer to MacAskill’s discussion of the so-called ‘Long Reflection,’ which he describes as a situation in which ‘we can reflect on and debate the nature of the good life, working out what the most flourishing society would be.’ Sounds good. Yet for a philosopher so committed, supposedly, to fearlessly interrogating his beliefs, it is remarkable how little MacAskill questions his own worldview and its underlying assumptions. What We Owe the Future does little more than extend a growthist, neoliberal agenda into the distant future, backed by a worryingly utilitarian-ish conception of ethics. This book might be the closest thing there is to MacAskill’s ‘magnum opus,’ the ‘Bible’ of longtermism, but we hope few convert. The book itself exemplifies very little of the spirit of the Long Reflection that MacAskill enthusiastically promotes. Indeed, one strongly suspects that in practice ‘the good life’ and a ‘flourishing society’ for MacAskill simply equate to: endless ‘growth’.
Herein resides a final sense in which the imperative to avoid ‘stagnation,’ central to MacAskill’s tome, is objectionable. This way of thinking actually undermines the prospects for and moreover the experience of the Long Reflection, as many hunter-gatherers’ societies and some ancient societies have experienced it (or something like it).2 By which we mean: What anthropology and archaeology have taught us is that many societies prior to ours appear to have been much better at creating the conditions necessary for deep reflection and conversation than our own society.
This can be seen, for instance, in another very recent book that also has bold transdisciplinary aims, but, unlike MacAskill’s, is actually grounded in the fine warp and weft of a detailed exploration of human history: David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. Graeber and Wengrow argue compellingly that there have been repeated examples in the past several thousand years of societies engaging in what are, in effect, ‘long reflections’ that in some cases led those societies to abandon or overturn entrenched—even seemingly ‘locked-in’—institutions or practices. For example, slavery has been repeatedly abolished throughout history; there have been profound, long-lasting turnings-away from viciously inegalitarian and illiberal polities that have left massive visible marks in the archaeological record; and in some hitherto unknown, or at any rate unsung cases, transformative change has come from bottom-up deliberative-democratic institutions. Graeber and Wengrow suggest that it was the ‘long reflections’ of some Indigenous North American civilizations that made possible the European Enlightenment itself. They argue that the ‘indigenous critique’ of European political economy, especially in the eighteenth century, both inspired some Europeans to break with the constraints of monarchical, theistic, and anti-democratic values, and stands as a lasting rebuke to the powerful tendencies towards hierarchy and domination that have found expression in the modern world—tendencies that pervade MacAskill’s writing.
Graeber and Wengrow suggest that it is profit-hungry, pseudo-individualist modern civilization that ‘got stuck’ (aka ‘locked-in’) in one particular form of socio-political organization. Many prior cultures had, they argue, fundamental principles that made it possible to change their form of organization, and often acted upon these to change.
In contrast, MacAskill offers in What We Owe the Future merely a hackneyed, crude, post-Rousseauian picture of our ‘inevitable’ ‘ascent’ from hunter-gathering through agriculture to industrial neoliberalism, and from there, onward to the stars. This pitifully over-simplified vision is both false in claiming any kind of inevitability, as Graeber and Wengrow show beautifully, and worse than false in claiming a unidirectional pattern. Graeber and Wengrow show how peoples have chosen not to embrace agriculture, or to abandon it later on, or to not go down certain avenues of craft or industry. They show moreover that such choices do not involve going ‘backwards’—and are, in fact, far more subtle than the very brief description we have just essayed: it is a massive over-simplification even to speak of ‘agriculture’ as if it were one thing that dawned. Instead, what history teaches is that peoples have experimented at length with various practices, sometimes playfully. There simply is no uniform historical sequence through reified ‘stages’ such as ‘the agricultural revolution.’
To MacAskill’s extreme historical and political crudeness, one might counterpose the delicate observances and, crucially, the sense of human beings as above all collective political animals, which Graeber and Wengrow foreground in their work. We are, and have been since the ‘dawn of everything’, self-conscious political actors whose first freedoms include the freedom to change social forms. It is this broadly democratic freedom that has, paradoxically, been largely forgotten by contemporary humanity. Thus, we have fallen into seeing domination by the market and by technological ‘progress’ as natural, inevitable quasi-forces-of-nature. Thus, we have got stuck. We are locked into the kinds of assumptions that utterly control MacAskill’s ‘thinking.’
MacAskill places the Long Reflection at some point in future time. But, maybe the best option for actually attaining the Long Reflection is already present, or in our past. Perhaps it is to a significant degree rural and/or Indigenous in form. Perhaps we can draw on the strands of Indigenous wisdom that have survived European and American imperialism to enable the Long Reflection to re-enter our world. Gaia knows we need it.
The Long Reflection requires precaution, and it ought to manifest precaution. But MacAskill’s book doesn’t ultimately respect precaution at all – on the contrary, it wants to let technology rip. And to make us ‘too big to fail.’3 MacAskill and his colleagues make it sound as if they are investigating fearlessly into how humanity can secure itself against x-risks. We beg to differ: we have shown how MacAskill’s book merely unimaginatively extends certain current trends in our society into a wholly fantasized future, and how it doesn’t really offer any serious challenge to those trends, even when there are x-risks present in them.
The classic example is AGI (Artificial General Intelligence). ‘Longtermists’ make great play of worrying about the alleged x-risk we face from AGI. But if, as we too believe, the quest for AGI is indeed dangerous—including, crucially, because it distracts us from the actual x-risk of terminal climate breakdown, while potentially adding directly to that risk—then all options have to be open, including a deliberate societal decision not to create such dangerous technologies.4 But that is precisely the avenue down which MacAskill is not even willing to talk about going because AGI may be part of the precondition for any reasonable chance at colonizing the galaxy. All the effort to ‘steer’ AI that ‘longtermists’ take much credit for is little more than cover for allowing it to go on and on, and maybe faster!
The alleged concern from ‘longtermists’ for x-risks turns on its own head in the face of their insistence upon the maximization of human numbers beyond the Earth. Now consider a very different gestalt from MacAskill’s: rather than trying to manage the risks inherent in massively resourcing AI, while being unwilling to ever fundamentally question it, why not exercise social power based on political and philosophical reflection, and seek to impose moratoriums, instead? This idea comports with Bill Joy’s seminal 2000 article for Wired magazine, which offered an early survey of the various twenty-first-century risks arising from advanced genetics, nanotech, and robotics (GNR) technologies. Whereas transhumanists like Bostrom, who we could call the ‘Father of Longtermism,’ responded to these risks by arguing that we should create a whole new field to study and neutralize them, Joy claimed that the safer route is to simply not develop them. He noted that this strategy of ‘broad’ relinquishment has worked with biological and chemical weapons, which were banned by the biological and chemical conventions of 1972 and 1993, respectively. So why not try this with GNR technologies?
For all its self-congratulatory concern about anthropogenic x-risks, the ‘longtermist’ worldview requires humanity to expose itself to unprecedented threats to its survival, for the sake of fulfilling our alleged ‘longterm potential’ in the universe. What we need, they claim, is something like an ‘ethics committee’ to guide the development of AGI and other GNR technologies, without ever seriously considering the idea that perhaps the best option is to halt the madness of ‘progress.’ Can one, after all, really talk about ‘progress‘ when the result is—by their own estimation—a greater chance of 8 billion people dying this century than any prior century in our 300,000-year history on Earth?
The ‘longtermist’ movement is fueled by billionaires who unsurprisingly largely share the same ideology as ‘longtermists,’ and importantly, would benefit from their recommendations of ‘techno-fixes,’ ‘endless’ growthism, and so forth.
This review is thus a call to arms for readers with any power, influence, or money to be on the right side of history—to make the case for real sustainable change to prepare humans for the long run.
We’ve argued that MacAskillian ‘longtermism’ is a dangerous ideology, of exactly the form that we don’t need at this moment in history. What we need is: attunement to nature and our animal kin, not estrangement from them; humility, not growth-obsessed, technophilic, rocket-fueling of current catastrophic trends; lower birthrates, not higher; and so forth.
We end by noting a final, terminal irony about MacAskill’s book. The book is called ‘What We Owe the Future.’ But consider the following thought-experiment: in World A, 20 billion humans live all at once, trash everything, but party hard until the end. In World B, only 1 million exist per generation, but humanity persists, Earth-bound, into the future until a total of 10 billion people have existed. Assuming that a generation is 30 years, this means that people would exist in World B for another 300,000 years, which is roughly the same amount of time that Homo sapiens has so far existed, and 50 times longer than civilization has been around. Hence, twice as many people exist in World A than World B, but in World A, humanity’s future ends within a lifetime, while in World B, humanity’s future extends into the distant future. The question is: would World A be better or worse than World B?
‘Longtermists’ would surely argue that, other things being equal, World A is better, since it would contain more ‘happy’ people and, therefore, more total value. In contrast, we claim that World B would be better—this is, in our view, a more humane, a more beautiful, a more decent scenario than its alternative, which bears some alarming resemblances to the way we live right now: as Homo eversor, ‘man’ the endless destroyer. But MacAskill asks us to be impressed by the sheer weight of numbers. In a forced-choice situation, he would presumably pick World A over World B. Hence, the final irony is that ‘longtermists’ don’t actually care about the future after all. This is the ultimate irony, given the title of his book.
Caring about the future is more than wanting to maximize the total human population. It’s about preserving, protecting, and sustaining the succession of cohorts that extends from the distant past, through the present, into the indefinite future, and under conditions that favor the flourishing of those who come after us—whether human or nonhuman. People aren’t the mere ‘vessels’ of ‘value.’ Rather, we are one small link in an indefinitely long chain of being and becoming, and it is our collective parenting of the future that reveals to us who we really are. Perhaps ‘Homo curans’ is a good name for what our species should aspire to: the ‘caring human,’ or ‘humans who are defined by our capacity to care, not just for each other right now, but those who will likely come to exist in the future.’
Our great task as a species is to act on this imperative. That is what we owe the future.
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We should note that this is not exactly, in fact, MacAskill’s magnum opus, as he notes in the acknowledgements section of the book that many chapters were co-authored with others, and in fact ‘most of the sixty thousand words of endnotes were written by’ others. (Sixty thousand words, we should note, is an entire book in itself.) Although putting one’s name alone on a book that others have partly written may be common in the publishing world—many books are ghost-written, such as Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal—it is unusual among academics.
MacAskill cites the fairly strong evidence that the happiest humans in history have probably tended to be hunter-gatherers, and that they have typically had remarkably long opportunities for leisure and reflection, compared to the hyper-occupied lives of most of us in industrial societies. But he does nothing with it. He doesn’t allow this evidence to affect the ‘conclusions’ he sticks to, limpet-like.
But surely what we learned in 2007 to 2008 during the global financial crisis is that TBTF can nevertheless still fail. The consequences of our civilization at large failing, which is now in our view a likely outcome of the forces that MacAskill loves, will be more awful by many orders of magnitude than were the consequences of the hubris of banks, regulators, politicians which got exposed cruelly to view, to the cost mainly of ‘little people,‘ in 2007/2008.
MacAskill even recommends folk to focus on AI and not climate; at a time when we are off the cliff on climate, this is reckless in the extreme.