What can a student do to reduce global suffering? Part III

Previous posts in this series: part I and part II.

2013: I realised I waste time that I could use to do useful stuff instead.

2016: I realised I waste money that I could use to help others instead.

Sat with a friend wasting time in university dorms, we realised that we wanted to get stuff done but our actions weren't reflecting our goals. So we scheduled up a plan. For a few months, nearly all our time was accounted for. We were able to get so much more stuff done by aligning our time allocation with our goals.

The same principle can be applied to money - align your spending with your goals. I want to help reduce the suffering of those most in need. Money can be used to help reach this goal in so many important ways. So I try to spend in a way that reflects that - by reducing the harm I cause through consumption, and by donating to effective charities.

This leads me on to three more effective ways a student, with low time, money, and skills, can change the lives of others.

7. Cause less harm

The net impact you have on the world is the positive impact of your good actions minus the negative impact of everything else. It is easy to be blissfully (and too often wilfully) unaware of the damage we cause by our choices. Three of the biggest culprits are diet, transport, and waste.


Consider reducing the amount of suffering you cause to hundreds of sentient animals by reducing your animal product consumption and progress towards a vegetarian or vegan diet. Train instead of plane, cycle instead of drive. Recycle as much as possible and choose products with little to no non-recyclable packaging. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re throwing away more than you are recycling, you should think about changing up your purchasing habits.

Bear in mind that these lifestyle choices have vastly different magnitudes of harm. For example, when it comes to reducing harm caused through contribution to climate change, switching your TV off rather than on standby when not in use is hardly worth bothering with, but reducing your meat, dairy, and egg consumption would cut your contribution to catastrophic climate change drastically (not to mention rainforest deforestation, species extinction, water use, and livestock antibiotic overuse).

Many of these lifestyle changes, in particular reducing animal product consumption, will incur no extra financial cost, and could even save you money - win-win! However, if making a positive lifestyle change is costing you significantly more, then consider the comparative marginal impact that not making the lifestyle change, but instead donating the money you save to the most effective charities. This strategy can sometimes increase your impact, and is very much worth considering - see William MacAskill's Doing Good Better for more information on this kind of difficult, counter-intuitive, but worthwhile comparison.

8. Work hard on yourself

In the previous post, I discussed working hard on your studies and career-building activities to increase your future impact. Working hard on your personal development is equally important. Perhaps the most important things to consider are maintaining good mental and physical health - being unhappy or unhealthy will have a large detrimental effect to your ability to succeed in almost any field, as well as reducing your own wellbeing.


Remember that your happiness and suffering matters too! It is of equal importance to those you are trying to help. Don't flog yourself so that you can maximise your impact at the expense of your own happiness.

9. Volunteer effectively

Treat this suggestion with caution! The effective altruists reading this might be a little surprised that volunteering is in this list, and everyone else might be surprised that it is not number one.

Generally, volunteering does not have a high impact. This is because volunteering opportunities are often over-subscribed, they give relatively little career capital gain, and require large administrative costs to manage, so the net impact is often neutral or negative. There are more than enough of these anecdotes to take caution when thinking about volunteering as a way to do good.

That being said, there do exist at least some effective volunteering opportunities. Just like the fact that most charities are not worth donating to, but the existence of some very highly effective charities makes donating to those charities very worthwhile, most volunteering opportunities are a waste of time if the aim is to actually do good, but the existence of a few very effective volunteering opportunities means that it can be a highly effective thing to do.

Effective altruism organisations would be a good place to start. Local EA groups (like the Sheffield effective altruism group I help out with), larger EA organisations, and effective charities provide a way to volunteer in a way that provides a significant positive contribution to the least fortunate. Secondly, and very importantly, volunteering in more effective if you have a particular skill that is in shortage in the community or charity or social intervention that you think are worth volunteering for, e.g. programming, charity effectiveness consulting, or writing. You could voluntarily donate your time on an ad hoc basis to people in the EA community, or those who are doing significant good in the world, so that they can have a greater impact. More info can be found here.

Let’s use our privileged position in the developed world to reduce the ridiculous wealth disparity and help those most in need in the most effective ways. Make tomorrow better than today!


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