To do good in the world, I think it is crucial to learn from mistakes. In the past I made a lot of mistakes and also this website contained (and most likely still contains) mistakes. Here I present an overview of my most important mistakes and failures. The writing of this article was inspired by this Global Optimum podcast.
As I keep continue making and discovering mistakes, this overview is updated regularly. It already contains more than 20 mistakes.
Bias blind spot. I underestimated my cognitive biases, moral illusions and irrational beliefs. This is a meta-mistake: I made a mistake about how many mistakes I make.
Antidote: to correct for this mistake, I study a lot about rationality and critical thinking, I actively look for other mistakes I made, and I promote the importance of changing our minds based on good arguments and evidence.
Intrinsic value of biodiversity. This is probably my biggest moral mistake: I’ve put too much emphasis on an intrinsic value of biodiversity, integrity or naturalness of ecosystems. Related to this, I defended a deep ecological biocentric-ecocentric ethic for more than ten years. This is a kind of egocentrically imposing my own projected values of integrity and naturalness (comparable to esthetic preferences for the beauty of nature) on all sentient beings in nature, instead of prioritizing what the animals want (or can consistently want if they were well-informed).
Antidote: to correct for this mistake, I focus more on the well-being of animals, including wild animals. I intrinsically value well-being of individuals (including animals), because those individuals themselves value their own well-being, whereas nature itself does not value biodiversity, integrity or naturalness. Instead of conservation biology, I promote welfare biology: supporting scientific research for safe and effective interventions in nature to improve wild animal welfare. Hence, I support Wild Animal Initiative.
Average utilitarianism in population ethics. In my PhD-thesis in moral philosophy, I defended a kind of average utilitarianism. This population ethical theory faces a sadistic conclusion: Situation S contains N people with extreme happiness and 1 person with extreme suffering. Situation S’ contains the same N people with extreme happiness, the same 1 person, but with extreme happiness, plus extra M people with lives close to but slightly lower than extreme happiness. According to average utilitarianism, S’ is better and should be preferred, because S’ contains the highest level of average happiness. This is counterintuitive to me.
Antidote: to correct for this mistake, a formulated a variable critical level utilitarianism.
Anticapitalism. I participated in anticapitalistic actions, although there is much evidence that currently known socialist/communist systems are worse than many capitalist economies, and evidence is lacking that transforming capitalism into a new kind of good socialism is more feasible than improving capitalistic systems. Revolutions to destroy capitalism are also dangerous, with possibly many negative side effects.
Antidote: instead of criticizing capitalism, I criticize privatized economic rent (monopoly power, privatized excessive scarcity benefits) and propose fair and efficient economic market mechanisms that are compatible with capitalism.
Degrowth. I supported the degrowth movement, although degrowth cannot sufficiently reduce our environmental footprint, can be harmful (in terms of decreasing economic welfare, employment, scientific research and resilience against natural disasters, and increasing poverty and inequality) and distracts from more effective environmental solutions (in particular market mechanisms and technology).
Antidote: I focus on effective market mechanisms such as a carbon tax and funding research and development of clean energy technologies.
Interest-free money. I was very critical about the money system, stock markets and financial speculation, and supported alternative interest-free money systems. This was targeting the wrong enemy. I now see more benefits in financial markets.
Antidote: instead of promoting interest-free money, I focus on the real problem: privatized economic rent (e.g. fractional reserve banking that only allows for big banks, increasing monopoly power of banks). Positive Money promotes the idea of capturing the monopoly rent of commercial banks, by criticizing the system of fractional reserve banking.
Organic food. I promoted and bought organic food, although there are no clear health and environmental benefits but it costs much more than non-organic. Organic food has lower yields and hence a higher ecological footprint compared to conventional food. It can also have slightly higher eutrophication levels and an Environmental Impact Quotient of more toxic and less effective organic pesticides.
Antidote: instead of buying organic food, I buy the cheapest food and donate the saved money to effective charities that promote vegan food. Veganism has all the benefits that organic food incorrectly claims to have, plus many more, and with much stronger evidence.
Antinuclear. I did many actions against nuclear energy, although nuclear energy has a carbon footprint and a death footprint (deaths from accidents and pollution per kWh electricity) comparable to renewable energy and much lower than fossil fuels. Eliminating nuclear power could increase the use of fossil fuels a little bit, causing more harm from climate change, accidents and pollution, and it could prevent research and development of new generations of nuclear power plants that are safer, able to treat nuclear waste and limit monopoly power of electricity producers.
Antidote: instead of criticizing nuclear energy, I focus on effective market mechanisms such as a carbon tax and funding research and development of clean energy technologies.
Human overpopulation. In my environmental activism, I spoke a lot about the problem of human overpopulation, although there is no strong scientific consensus that human overpopulation is a real risk that requires strong population control measures. Rather than a human overpopulation, we can speak of a non-human animal overpopulation problem, because basically all animal populations (with humans as a rare exception) use a high fertility reproductive strategy, which means that every new generation, a huge percentage of newborn animals die from hunger, diseases, parasites, predation and other harms that could be associated with the harms from overpopulation.
Antidote: instead of focusing on human overpopulation, I focus on wild animal welfare, promoting safe and effective means to control wild animal populations (e.g. immunocontraception or gene drives) in order to improve the welfare of all newborn animals.
Glyphosate ban. I did actions to ban the herbicide glyphosate, although glyphosate is perhaps the least toxic herbicide and a ban could increase the use of worse pesticides. For example, one study indicates that a global ban on glyphosate could result in a loss of farmers’ income and global welfare worth $7 billion a year, an increase of 12% of the Environmental impact Quotient of herbicides, an increase of 2.6 million tons of CO2 emitted per year and an extra use of 760,000 hectares of agricultural land (hence extra deforestation).
Antidote. Instead of banning glyphosate, I focus on livestock reduction, because livestock agriculture has huge environmental and health costs.
Feminism and identity politics. I strongly believed and emphasized the notion of patriarchy, although there are many reasons to doubt the existence of a consistent patriarchal system in most Western, developed countries. I became more worried that the focus on patriarchy distracts from other, more important root causes of sexism, that the notion of male privilege is too often used as an ad hominem against men, that identity politics (and some elements of feminism) results in group discrimination such as sexism and racism.
Antidote: instead of calling myself a feminist, I feel more comfortable with calling myself an equal rights activist or an antisexist. I focus on all kinds of sexism and discrimination of both women and men.
Fair trade. I bought a lot of fair trade products, even though only a small fraction of the fair trade premium price reaches the farmers, those farmers are not the poorest of the poor, and the fair trade system could incentivize overproduction resulting in lower incomes of non-fair trade farmers.
Antidote: instead of buying fair trade, I buy the cheapest products and donate the saved money to effective development organizations recommended by GiveWell, such as GiveDirectly. Their unconditional cash transfers target the poorest of the poor, have maximum efficiency and do not create overproduction.
Boycott sweatshops. I did campaigns to boycott products made in sweatshops, although such consumerist actions have negligible impact and worsen the situation of poor people. When boycotts result in the closure of sweatshops, workers are often made worse off (becoming unemployed or having to work in worse conditions elsewhere).
Antidote: instead of boycotting sweatshops, I donate to effective antipoverty charities (recommended by GiveWell), and I support more effective economic measures to fight poverty and poor working conditions (e.g. freer migration, antitrust law to decrease the monopsony power of large companies on the labor market).
Anti-trade agreements. I demonstrated against international trade agreements, although international trade is overall beneficial in terms of economic growth and development, and trade agreements can improve the efficiency of global markets. Free trade is a net gain for society, according to an economic consensus.
Antidote: instead of limiting free trade, I support efficient trade (with corrections for market failures, such as a tax on carbon emissions) and free migration (open borders). Free migration offers many benefits, especially for immigrant workers (and workers in poor countries).
Red meat reduction and ovo-vegetarian products. In lectures and writings, I focused a lot on the environmental impact of meat (which is highest for red meat) and the health risks of excessive meat consumption (which are highest for red and processed meat). I also participated in campaigns against animal suffering of cows and pigs. This could potentially result in a shift from red meat consumption to chicken meat and eggs. However, the number of animals killed and the hours of animal suffering is roughly ten times higher for chicken meat and eggs compared to beef and pig meat. Also vegetarian (non-vegan) meat substitutes that contain only a small percentage of egg-protein quickly has twice as much animal suffering than an equal-sized portion of red meat. In other words, if a reduction of red meat consumption is accompanied with only a small increase of chicken meat or eggs, or a shift to ovo-vegetarian meat substitutes, animal suffering increases.
Antidote: next to focusing on environmental and health problems of meat consumption, I prioritize reducing the consumption of chicken meat and eggs, and I’m involved with vegan corporate outreach to ask producers of vegetarian products to veganize those products. I avoid promoting ovo-vegetarian products.
Idealistic animal activism. In my early days of animal activism, I mostly had an idealistic approach, focusing on strict veganism and rigid (deontological) rules, although such an approach could easily backfire (offering bad publicity for veganism). I now moved more towards a consequentialist instead of a deontological approach of activism, focusing on the results of our actions.
Antidote: I developed a method of ‘deep canvassing for animal rights’ that is more positive towards the not-yet-vegans.
Helping predator animals. I helped as a volunteer in a wildlife rescue center, helping predator animals (birds of prey). I petitioned against shark fining, protested against tuna fishing and promoted the reintroduction of predator animals in natural parks. However, it is far from clear whether these actions improved overall wild animal welfare, because one adult predator harms and kills many other animals.
Antidote: before intervening in nature to help predators, I first support scientific research to estimate the costs and benefits (the positive and negative impact) of having more predators in nature. I focus on all wild animal suffering (including suffering of prey animals), by supporting organizations like Wild Animal Initiative.
Activism and volunteerism
Alarmism. In my environmental and climate activism, I often used pessimistic, alarmistic messages (with doom scenarios), although such messages could backfire (e.g. making people more skeptical about climate change and less motivated to engage in environmentally friendly behavior). Looking at scientific and human progress, I became more optimistic.
Small problem focus. I did many actions about small problems, such as actions against the use of ponies at funfairs, the cutting of trees at city streets, and advocating for bicycle lanes, city gardens, consumer boycotts of Israeli products, selling locally grown grains, local sharing initiatives,…
Antidote: instead of diving into small problem activism, I engage in effective altruism and spend much time doing cause prioritization.
Vague demands. I did a lot of actions with vague demands (e.g. anticapitalist protests, actions for sustainable agriculture).
Antidote: I became more specific in setting my objectives.
Individual behavior change. I focused a lot on individual behavior change (e.g. campaigns to drive less, recycle more, buy local, replace light bulbs, turn off stand-by,…), instead of focusing on institutional change (system change) and technologies. Spending time and money on clean energy technology developments or market mechanism campaigns (e.g. carbon taxes) can be far more effective than spending time and money on individual behavior change campaigns. Veganism is the exception: a reduction of the consumption of animal products is likely the most effective behavior change that benefits human health, the environment and the animals.
Antidote: except for vegan consumption, I no longer spend much time promoting behavior change. As for veganism, I invest in developments of animal-free products (e.g. vegan burgers, clean meat), to facilitate behavior change. I keep sustainable behavior in my personal life, because there is no cost in convincing myself to live more sustainable.
Donation spreading. I supported too many organizations a little bit, instead of a few highly effective organizations a lot. This increased the relative overhead costs of my donations.
Low effective organizations. Of the many organizations I supported, I estimate that more than 2/3 are low effective, and a few are even counterproductive (e.g. anarchist and communist organizations).
Antidote: I focus on highly effective organizations. e.g. Effective Altruism Funds.
Risk aversion. In my donations, I preferred low risk, low impact organizations and projects above high risk high impact projects. This made me less effective. Most altruists are risk averse, which means that high risk high impact projects are more neglected. Therefore, it is easier to find highly effective opportunities among the high risk high impact projects. Also, pure, impartial altruism requires one to be risk neutral when it comes to helping others and saving lives, because there is no decreasing marginal utility in helping others. And when a group of altruists invest in many high risk high impact projects, many of which will fail, it does not matter which of those altruists is the lucky winner who realizes the high impact.
Antidote: I look for high risk high impact projects.