Write a Book?

March 15th, 2023
ea, meta
I've been thinking of maybe writing a book about effective altruism. I've been blogging about these ideas for a long time, but a book would offer the opportunity to go into more depth and to be more thoughtful about some concepts I originally wrote up quickly and casually. Many of these ideas are also worth revisiting; I've learned a lot in the years since!

Looking back over my EA writing I've touched on many aspects, but the bit I've covered the most and would be most excited to expand on is integrating EA ideas into your life:

  • How should you decide whether to donate? Change careers? Volunteer? Go vegan? Live more frugally? Not have kids? Avoid flying? Which options are basically never worth it, and which are dependent on what you value? Some sacrifices people commonly consider are shockingly poor tradeoffs. You'll usually have the largest impact if you focus your altruistic efforts, but our culture generally encourages a people to take on a wide range of smaller things without considering their tradeoffs.

  • How does our family put these ideas into practice? Where does our time, money, and attention go? How did we handle the intense pull to do unsustainable amounts, and how has this changed over the years with getting older, having kids, and lifestyle creep? How much does EA influence what we do outside work?

I'd also include a short introduction to EA, key ideas from my other posts (ex: The Privilege of Earning to Give, Responsible Transparency Consumption, Milk EA, Casu Marzu EA), and concepts from related EA blog posts (ex: Purchase Fuzzies and Utilons Separately, Cheerfully). I would want to stick to the "nonfiction" genre and not "memoir", with the focus on EA and only using our family's experience to the extent necessary to illustrate the application of these ideas. I could also see chapters on how some specific other EAs have applied these ideas, interviewing them and writing it up as prose?

There are already several books aiming to introducing EA to a general audience, and if I thought that everything I wanted to say had already been said I wouldn't be very interested in this project. Looking over these books, however, I do think there's a place for what I want to write. The main EA books (Doing Good Better, The Precipice, What We Owe The Future) are primarily moral arguments. While they do get into the more practical side (ex: chapter 10 of WWOTF) I think there's a lot to expand on, especially by connecting EA concepts to specific decisions EAs have needed to make. There's also Strangers Drowning, which does consider how altruists have put their beliefs into practice, but only two of the chapters are about EAs and it covers a time when no one had been an EA for very long yet.

Existing EA writing is also generally aimed at an elite audience. I see why some people have decided to take that approach, but I also think it's really important to have a presentation of these ideas grounded in common sense. If we ignore the general public we leave EA's popular conception to be defined by people who don't understand our ideas very well.

One question is whether I'm the best person to write this. Advantages include that I've been thinking about this for a long time, understand EA ideas well, have a lot of relevant personal experience, have lots of practice at being public about things, and expect to be relatable to many readers (mid-career parent, etc). Disadvantages are that I don't have relevant credentials (not a philosopher or social scientist), am demographically similar to authors of other EA books, and have written enough publicly that almost anyone could find something to dislike. Overall, I think EA would benefit from a less centralized public representation, and adding someone writing from a non-academic perspective would be good.

Co-writing with Julia would be better, but I suspect it wouldn't go well. While we do have compatible views, we have very different writing styles, and I understand taking on projects like this is often hard on relationships. I could see co-writing with someone else? Let me know if you'd be interested!

There's also the question of opportunity cost: what would writing trade off against? A lot of this depends on how I approach it: is this something I should work on after the kids go to bed, when I typically write blog posts? Or should I consider trying to go part-time at work, take leave, or quit? I haven't yet talked to people at work about this, but I would lean towards taking leave or going part time: if this is worth doing it's probably worth focusing on. That I think what I'm currently doing is valuable, though, means that there's a higher bar than just "does this seem like a good book to exist."

Is this a book you'd be interested to see? Advice on the nonfiction industry? General feedback?

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