The ENVX Symposium, now approaching its 23rd year of existence, is one of the major symposiums held at Lewis & Clark College. It is a string of events which helps students, and the public, frame new ideas and challenging assertions which are designed to call into question their own worldviews. It is a common connector of all symposiums that they need speakers, ideas to discuss, discourses to be preached, and organization. Perhaps the largest demand, however, other than the passion to innovate, is the need for capital; hosts must be paid, food must be bought, and speakers must collect honorarium. Like all other symposiums, ENVX needs money to operate.
Effective Altruism (EA) is an idea which champions the donation of money as one of the key roles to solving problems. In order to maximize the amount of good done with one dollar, EA looks at logical routes to its implementation. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) are perfect examples of groups which can do massive amounts of good so long as they are funded, and although much of this funding comes from countries and international bodies, a large chunk comes from individuals across the globe who seek to help. Although the existence of medics, aid workers, and logisticians is key, without funding they are unable to operate.
However, like all things, Effective Altruism has its pitfalls. When implemented correctly, this system has the ability to do untold amounts of good, but nothing is perfect. In many cases, foreign aid hasn’t actually gone to the people it was donated for, or in some cases, has been squandered or even embezzled. Money isn’t a fix-all for our world’s problems, and handing it to someone without prior research is tremendously dangerous.
Furthermore, the question of who the dollar is doing good for arises when we observe the concept closer. When a western NGO is contracted to help the starving population of Somalia, what we may see as the best way of doing this could be completely wrong because our solutions do not factor in the opinions of the starving Somalis. Where is the food being moved to? What cities and regions are being ignored so that “the greatest amount of good is done”? And when we decide what is the “greatest amount of good”, what exactly does that mean? The answers to these questions are not simple, and we cannot avoid their complexity by ignoring them.
In regards to relatively small amounts of money, doing the most good with a single dollar takes on a new meaning. Because the Lewis & Clark ENVX Symposium operates largely through the club fee of the school’s students, scrutiny by the school remains very high. More often than not, this organization has to make do with much less than they anticipate. When a committee doesn’t have their perfect budget, what sorts of sacrifices must be made? In terms of choosing keynote speakers, who exactly is the perfect person to have? There’s lots of hard questions to ask when deciding how to navigate the intersection of capital and presentation, and Effective Altruism offers an interesting perspective into this problem; it is a utalitarian appraoch which is simple and effective.
Looking now back at the ENVX Symposium, Effective Altruism takes on another face; one which is more complicated than we initially suspected. When it was decided that the 23rd annual symposium would focus on conservation, and it begins to ask for donations from different groups to achieve these ends, where this money comes from is just as important as how it is utilized. Equally as important, ENVX must pay careful attention to how it situates conservation. In order to respect its own roots, topics which span borders and social divides need to be found; if the topic of conservation only focuses on wilderness areas in rich nations, then what barriers have been challenged? The ENVX Symposium must balance carefully in order to ensure that all views are heard, and with the help of donations and scrutinization, this goal is very much attainable.