"What We Owe The Future" by William MacAskill

Review by Borodutch

It is the second book I read by William, and again he introduced a few ideas I hadn't even considered. In the previous book — "Doing Good Better" — he debunked most of the prejudices born from ignorance about how to matter when doing something altruistically. This work follows the premise of the earlier one perfectly. Before, we learnt that highly-paid professional is better off donating a portion of their salary instead of working at a soup kitchen. This time the author answers why doing all this at all!

William describes the concept of "longtermism" — considering not just a few human generations ahead but thousands, tens of thousands, or even more years past the present. How many people would be alive then? More than have ever lived unless we all go extinct as a species. And these people don't have a voice in the present, don't vote, and we don't consider them "humans" for some reason.

Hence, we're using fossil fuels like the world will end next Tuesday. This way, making this prophecy somewhat self-fulfilling. Imagine what would billions of people living in 1000 years say about our stance on climate change. Yes, our grand^N-kids will hate us for not transitioning to something like nuclear energy sooner.

Besides a variety of historical examples as evidence and lengthy philosophical debates on what is the best outcome to thrive for (e.g. making more happy people or making an average human happier), the author presents us with three main ideas:

  1. We need to think about future generations and future humans.
  2. We can turn the future into something extremely good or dangerously bad.

First of all, after finishing the book, it's difficult to argue against trying to fight for the rights of future humans — after all, they are humans! When making long-lasting decisions, we must think not only about our lifespan or immediate family but also about tens or hundreds of thousands of years in the future. Humans can't think in such a way, but we must try to.

Secondly, we underestimate the role of chance in historical events (again). We think that, for instance, slavery abolition was inevitable. However, history disagrees — most of the time, we "got lucky" that we no longer exploit people. There are phases in human history when change is possible, but the current ways become the norm when set. We're in a phase when we can change how the world looks — but will we change it for the better or the worse?

The least understood part is that the change is accumulative and chaotic. Even the most minor actions today will drastically affect the generations ahead. People's stances will dictate decisions on democracy, nuclear power and weaponry, climate change, clean energy, military non-interference, fighting fake news and propaganda, and many other concepts. We must educate the upcoming generations on complicated subjects' pros and cons.

One of the most peculiar concepts the author touches on is whether to have kids or not. It is logical to believe that children cause more CO2 emissions. However, we must account for these children's role in their lifetimes — and beyond! Could they be a part of a solution to the existential crises lying in front of humanity? We don't know! How, then, can we omit this wonderful nugget of knowledge of ignorance?

Overall, I'd highly recommend reading the newest book by William MacAskill to anyone who tries to grasp the full complexity of the chaotic world — and the future ahead! I certainly enjoyed the read.