If you’d like to protect future generations (rather than strictly helping individuals living in the present), you should consider how to safeguard the long-term future. Most of the work in this area involves preventing global catastrophes and making our world more resilient.
We all care about the future. We want the people who come after us — our children, our children's children, and so on — to have good lives. But this might not happen. Nuclear catastrophes, runaway climate change, and engineered pandemics are just some of the threats to future generations. The scale of these threats is hard to imagine, as they affect not only everyone alive today, but everyone who could ever live.
Relative to this enormous scale, the problem is neglected. One of the world's leading experts on the risks facing humanity is Toby Ord, a philosopher at Oxford and a co-founder of Giving What We Can. In his book The Precipice, he argues that one of the biggest risks to humanity comes from engineered pandemics — think COVID, but designed to be far worse. Yet, despite the severity of this risk, the international body responsible for the continued prohibition of bioweapons has an annual budget of just 1.4 million USD — less than the average McDonald's restaurant.
Addressing risks to our future is the least tractable of our high-priority cause areas. Though there are ways of making progress, it is difficult to know how effective our actions will be. Nonetheless, given the scale of the problem and how little support is given to some of the most significant risks, we still think safeguarding the long-term future is a high-priority cause area.
We recommend some of the best charities and organisations working on this problem.
Though we think safeguarding the long-term future is among the highest-priority cause areas we could work on, there are reasons you might choose not to focus on it.
Compared to our other high-priority cause areas, there is a weaker evidence base for interventions that could safeguard the long-term future. This is partly due to the nature of the problem and the solutions they require. We can only receive feedback that any given interventions failed to prevent an existential catastrophe once. However, concerns over the evidence base do not apply to all activities within this cause area. For example, there is strong evidence that climate change is going to cause serious damage to the planet and its future inhabitants, and there are tractable ways of making progress on the problem. However, the nature of new (and more neglected) risks, like powerful but out-of-control artificial intelligence, make it especially difficult to know how likely any given intervention is to make progress on the problem.
Depending on your values and worldview, you may choose to prioritise areas where you feel confident that your actions are making a positive difference. This might still mean prioritising the better-understood risks, like climate change, or focusing on a different cause area, like global health and development. Alternatively, you might think that the best response to this lack of evidence is to support further research.
You may doubt that future generations are as important as we suggest. Perhaps you think the welfare of future people matters less than people alive today. Though we think that future generations matter and their welfare deserves equal consideration, this is ultimately a question about your values.
Alternatively, you may value future people, but believe that the future doesn't seem likely to be particularly big or especially good. These questions come down to your worldview. You can read more about the potential size of the future in section three of The Case for Strong Longtermism .
If you want to learn more about safeguarding the long-term future, read more about the specific causes below.
- Biosecurity and pandemic preparedness
- Addressing climate change
- Promoting beneficial artificial intelligence
- Improving nuclear security
We recommend giving to Founders Pledge's top charities safeguarding the future and addressing climate change. We also recommend funds that support a variety of projects designed to improve animal welfare. Funds allow donors to pool their resources so they can be allocated by expert grantmakers and charity evaluators.
Effective Altruism Funds' Long-Term Future Fund
Founder's Pledge's Climate Change Fund
There are other ways to help. Addressing these issues often requires in-depth knowledge about the particular risks. You can check out the 80,000 Hours Job Board to learn more about some of the job opportunities in this space, and read their career guide to learn more about how you can build the skills needed to help safeguard the future.
To learn more about safeguarding the long-term future, we recommend the following resources:
The Precipice (Toby Ord)
What We Owe the Future (Will MacAskill)
The Long-Term Future (Jess Whittlestone)
Biosecurity and Pandemic Preparedness (Open Philanthropy)
Potential Risks from Advanced Artificial Intelligence (Open Philanthropy)
The Case for Reducing Existential Risks (80,000 Hours)
A Full Syllabus on Longtermism (EA Forum)
However, it's not clear that focusing on near-term issues alleviates our uncertainty about whether we're having a positive impact. This is because actions addressing near-term issues still have indirect (unintended) long-term consequences. Just as a butterfly flapping its wings may cause a tornado, supporting a particular intervention in global health and development may have long-term political, economic and social ramifications. This might make you morally clueless — meaning whether you believe an action is good or bad almost entirely depends on your (highly uncertain) views about the action's indirect consequences. Read more about moral cluelessness . ↩︎