There has been much talk lately of the fact that we have to change for the good of the world, and that everyone can become a superhero for the purposes of this change. But what to do as a newly-recruited hero, and how to change reality for the better?
The comparison between involvement in important matters and transforming into a superhero seems to have taken a solid hold in our imagination. Areta Szpura asks How to Change the World? (Jak uratować świat?) in her book, animal rights charity Otwarte Klatki (Open Cages) encourages social media followers to become superheroes for animals, and at the latest climate strike I spotted someone in a Superman costume calling on people to save the oceans. I like this comparison a lot because it shows that everyone, including me and you – the readers of “Przekrój” – has some kind of superpower that enables them to make a change. And usually, we have more than one. It could be our salary, because even if you’re earning the national average, we are among the richest people in the world. It could be our free time, which we can devote, for example, to helping a chosen organization. And then there’s our talent, such as knowledge of a foreign language, which can be used to spread ideas that change the world. The method for doing so, step by step, is taught by effective altruism – a philosophy and social movement that seeks to find ways to change reality most effectively for the better.
Effective altruism presupposes that each of us has the willingness and moral obligation to help. Therefore, it addresses not whether it is worth it, but how to do it most effectively, analysing and then popularizing the best methods of change for the good of the world. What distinguishes effective altruism from traditional philanthropy is its footing in scientific evidence and philosophical thought experiments. Sometimes there is a really big difference between these two concepts, because effective altruism need not always coincide with our intuition, emotions, or the media message about what is actually good. This can most easily be illustrated with some examples.
All of us have multiple opportunities to do good each day. Let’s start with the most popular, such as choosing a means of transport, buying your dinner, remembering your own bottle or using cotton shoppers. I find this last example particularly significant – I’m sure you know that feeling when you manage to pack a lot of vegetables, fruit and bread without using a single plastic bag. Maybe some people even do what I do, counting with pride how many plastic bags have been saved on your way home from the shops. Five – very good, seven – excellent, ten – I’m a plastic bag superhero! However, as Stanisław Łubieński notes in his article “Unstable Cotton” (“Niezrównoważona bawełna”) published in the magazine Dwutygodnik, simply not using plastic bags may not be enough, because it all depends on what you use instead. According to the popular measure of environmental impact – which is determined by examining the production and life cycle of each item – the ecological cost of producing one cotton bag will equal the cost of producing a plastic carrier bag once it has been used 131 times. This is a situation where intuition may not suffice, because rather than buying or taking another cotton bag, effective altruism would encourage you to take a plastic bag from the shop and use it as long as possible.
It’s similar with veganism and considering how many animals can be saved every year by giving up animal products. After all, we can do much more than just what’s within the range of our sight or our consumer choices. If we chose to financially support an effectively-operating animal rights organization – such as Animal Charity Evaluators, represented by Peter Singer himself – by allocating £1000 per year to one of them, we would be able to save 75,965 animals from industrial farms. Of course, I’m not encouraging you to give up on vegan dining. You can limit meat in your own diet, and transfer the money saved – because I remain convinced that vegan cooking can be cheaper than meat-based – to a chosen effective organization every month. 75,965 animals. I’ve been known to cry when watching those videos on Facebook showing someone heroically rescuing a single dog or cat. But what reaction would be adequate for the heroism of a person who gave £10 per month over several years and saved almost 76,000 animals?
Money is important, but it’s not the only way to change the world. People who, for whatever reason, don’t opt to regularly support an organization financially can support it with their skills by volunteering. Many people probably associate volunteering with handing out leaflets or awkwardly accosting passers-by in the street. But such activities are a thing of the past in most organizations. Volunteers do much more in effectively-operating organizations: they build websites, develop visual identity, help to edit books, advise on how to clearly present the programme of action, translate the latest articles from foreign languages, or use other professional skills. As a matter of fact, job choice is another opportunity to change the world. And according to effective altruism, this doesn’t mean quitting your job and becoming a full-time activist. Instead, you can choose a job in which you will develop, and your new skills – such as being a good manager or a human resources specialist – can be used in the organization you support. You can also choose the best paid career path that you’re interested in, in order to be able to donate as much money as possible to effectively-operating foundations.
And thus, with a focus on finance, I draw this article to a close, having mentioned time and skills along the way as tools for changing the world. This ending feels appropriate, because it seems to me that money is our biggest problem. Either we forget that, compared to the rest of the world, we have a lot of it; we can give £5, £10 or £20 per month, which will have enormous power if it’s deposited in an effective organization. Or, conversely, it escapes us that we have other options in addition to money that will allow us to be part of this change. And when we remember all this, we will finally be able to achieve what every superhero cares about the most – changing the world for the better.
The effective altruist’s exceptional potatoes
Ingredients for 2–4 portions:
1 kg potatoes
4–6 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and black pepper
Chopped fresh herbs, e.g. chives, thyme or rosemary
1. Boil salted water in a saucepan. Heat the oven to 175°C. Peel the potatoes and cut them into quarters or eighths, put them in the water and boil for 5 minutes. Gently fish them out with a slotted spoon and place them on a baking tray lined with baking paper. Leave them to cool down a little.
2. In the meantime, pour the oil into a small saucepan, add the quarter onion and fry. After about 4 minutes, when the onion starts sizzling and turning brown, turn it over and fry for another 1–2 minutes until the oil is hot and the onion is golden brown on the other side. Remove the onion and set aside.
3. When the potatoes have cooled down slightly, pour the hot oil over them, sprinkle generously with salt and mix carefully. They may crumble a little during mixing, which will make them even crunchier. Put them in the oven and roast for 15–20 minutes; you can dedicate the waiting time to becoming an effective altruist. First visit https://www.effectivealtruism.org to read more about supporting thriving organizations, then watch Peter Singer’s speech on TEDx, and make sure you stir the potatoes at some stage. You can also visit www.givewell.org and www.animalcharityevaluators.com, let the potatoes roast for another few minutes, then sit down to eat.
4. Sprinkle the hot potatoes with your favourite fresh herbs, the finely diced onion and a pinch of salt and pepper, and mix thoroughly. You can eat alone and continue reading, or better still, eat with your loved ones and share your ideas on how to become an effective altruist.
Translated by Kate Webster
A high five for “Przekrój”? Or maybe a ten? By supporting PRZEKRÓJ Foundation, you support humour, reliability and charm.
Choose your donation