Optionality Saves Lives

James Titchener / @mistertitchener

We have a lot of options today. A trip to the cereal aisle will attest to this. And frankly I hate having too many choices. Nothing overwhelms me like deciding between Captain Crunch variations. But I think we tend fail to take advantage of options in the places that actually matter.

I first started thinking about optionality after reading Nassim Taleb's Incerto series. Optionality as I understand it is the degree of available options you have. Like in the cereal aisle of a Walmart your optionality is stupidly high.

While I don't think having 100 options for cereal is very important or even desirable, there are places where having a lot of options is better than having no options.

The Costs of Optionality

Optionality becomes essential in environments of consequence and high volatility. And we've seen the consequences of lacking optionality in the US government's reaction to the corona virus.

We lacked the option of mass distributing masks, ventilators, ICU beds and testing because we lacked national reserves, we lacked mass production capacity, we lacked time to prepare as our president failed to see that this was cause for immediate action, and we lacked the option for action free of bureaucratic hoops in time of national emergency.

This all despite months of warning, the guarantee that deadly pandemics do and will occur, and the warnings from smart people like Bill Gates that we are obviously unprepared for pandemics.

So why did we fail to take advantage of optionality when literally lives were at stake? Well, there's a cost to optionality.

In the case of preparing for pandemics and specifically for corona the costs were:

The problem with using optionality in this case specifically, is that the best-case scenario looks like an overreaction. The spread is stopped before it really gets started, so the problem is never really made salient. But if we wait to react until the problem is really fucking salient and people are dying, we've lost the option to react effectively. The growth rate of pandemics is exponential and the consequences of the infection have a time delay. The infection and death rates now don't reflect the severity of the infection and death rates later (especially when testing is ineffective).

The Costs of Lacking Optionality

Preparedness and preserving optionality will always bear some cost. What matters is the relationship between the cost and rewards.

In the cereal aisle, the cost of optionality is low but so is the reward. Your local corner store might not have eight choices of Honey Nut Bunches, but who cares? It's cereal.

The downside of lacking optionality when it comes to pandemics is on another scale entirely. According to The Precipice: Existential Risk and the Future of Humanity, pandemics of our past have wiped out as much as 10% of the population. And while our ability to understand and treat pandemics have increased since say the 1918 Spanish Flu, so has our global interconnection. It's not impossible to reason that a pandemic could have even greater deadliness than a mortality rate of 10% of the global population.

So what cost are we willing to bear in order to prevent the possibility of losing over 10% of the world population within a span of 18 months?

I'd argue that the costs for preparing for and reacting to pandemics like the corona virus far outweigh the cost of lacking optionality when this scale of lives are at stake. And looking beyond the corona virus, we should be paying far more than we do now to maintain the optionality to deal with future pandemics and the many other existential risks facing humanity.

If we all die, we've lost optionality altogether.

The range of human experience and the scale of our possibilities outlined by Toby Ord in The Precipice, while difficult to fathom, for me is awe inspiring. In the near future, we may have the option to spread humanity throughout the solar system, galaxy and universe. But again, we lose our optionality if we all die to a pandemic, nuclear war, climate change or unaligned artificial intelligence. The stakes cannot be higher, and the risk of failure (in Toby's estimation) is frighteningly high.

So if there's any silver lining to be found in this horrible pandemic, I hope this acts as a dress rehearsal of sorts. We need to get our shit together. Lacking optionality can be deadly. And extinction risk removes optionality not just for ourselves, but for the countless generations of human life that could come after us.


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I've had a hard time taking existential risk seriously since being introduced to it by the Centre of Effective Altruism. Effective altruism, in general was an unintuitive concept for me as it is for many. But I'm convinced this is important. It's become a north star of sorts for me when it comes to thinking around money and how to spend my time. I'm far from being in a place where I feel that I'm contributing effectively, but 80,000 Hours has been a invaluable resource for figuring out how to get there. I don't think it's ever too late to think about making a career change, taking up new volunteer opportunities or donating money to effective causes, so I'd encourage you to check 80,000 hours out.

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