Shafi Rubbani: Permanence-The Forgotten Criterion

Everyone leads a busy, complex life. There are always too many things to do and too little time, so it becomes important to organize ourselves. This is a topic that comes up often in EA: prioritizing causes. There are far too many evils in the world to be solved in several lifetimes, let alone one, so we make a list of issues that we believe to be important, and we give them our highest attention until they are no longer priorities.

Another item off the list. However, life is never quite so simple. The problems we dedicate our lives to solving may be so large in scale that they never truly disappear. Even if they do disappear, they can always return, and this is something we must be mindful of.

This has been on my mind recently because of two articles I read in the New York Times, one about a measles outbreak in New York and New Jersey and one about the spread of a new drug-resistant fungus in hospitals worldwide. Measles in particular is an issue that I associate more with the 20th century than our time--a menace the world faced and conquered with the development of modern medicine. The discovery of vaccines and antibiotics created a new global health paradigm where we could come together to protect ourselves from all manner of diseases. No longer would we have to fear decimation by the latest strain.

However, despite these efforts, infectious disease has not been eradicated, even in developed countries. The anti-vaccination campaign has undermined the adoption of vaccines, and the use and overuse of antibiotics have created new and deadlier diseases. Resultantly, even as EA’s around the world work to improve healthcare in developing nations, public health in countries like the United States is deteriorating. It feels like a case of two steps forward, one step back.

Based on recent events, I think Effective Altruists should add a fourth criterion to their trinity of tractability, scale, and neglectedness: permanence. As we evaluate interventions, we must acknowledge that the duration of their impacts may be limited. Furthermore, we must prepare to shore up our current efforts in the future. Otherwise, all of the work we and our predecessors have accomplished may be undone.

If we were to alleviate global poverty, under what conditions could poverty return? If we can prevent climate change from destroying the planet, what steps should we take to ensure that the mistakes of industrialism are not repeated? And how might the next generation of medical developments bring about the next wave of diseases?

These questions are far-off, optimistic, and difficult to answer. But if we don’t ask them now, then we risk finding ourselves back at square one.