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Key moments of supreme importance

If you want to effectively change the world, it helps to know which levers to push, and which ones can be moved most effectively. For instance reducing HIV suffering through the treatement of Kaposi’s sarcoma is about a thousand times less efficient that treating HIV through peer and education programs for high-risk groups. So if you were doing good through donating to the first types of intervention, you can do about a thousand times more good by switching your donation to the second.

I didn’t know that fact; I had to look it up. Charity evaluators like Giving What We Can or Givewell do the hard work of finding these key levers for us. Because it isn’t easy to sift through the list of things that we could do, to find those things that are of great significance. At the Future of Humanity Institute, we like to believe we’re pulling on the levers of human history, pressing to avoid the bad futures and promote the good ones. In the most effective way this small institute can.

But that’s extremely hard to do! Even before we can start to think about our own putative influence over events, we have first to figure out what changes are important in the first place. If we follow the path of human history, it isn’t easy to see what were the key moments, and what were basically bumps in the dross of passing time. Some important moments are obvious – Pearl Harbour was pretty big, Watt’s steam engine had some uses, and Columbus’s trip was not the most insignificant event in human history. But others are much more obscure: Norman Borlaug‘s contribution to the green revolution saved millions of lives, and Cai Lun‘s invention of paper has probably changed the world more than any other single invention. And there are other important events that lie forgotten or overlooked.

In a hundred year’s time, nobody will know who won the X-Factor. But in a hundred year’s time, barely anyone will remember who Obama, Cameron, Hollande, Merkel, Manmohan Singh or Hu Jintao were either. Not that memory is a reliable guide to importance; but nearly every event that occurs today, up to and including most wars, will leave no long term mark on the planet and on our species.

But some will. And if I had to hazard a guess, one of these monumental events is coming up soon. Tomorrow, on the 19th of May, if it isn’t delayed (yet again), SpaceX, a private space exploration company, will attempt to launch a rocket into space and have its payload reach the International Space Station. If anything will make a difference to humanity in a century, then the potential success of private sector space-flight ranks very high on the list. Close your eyes and imagine how different the future looks in SpaceX succeeds, or if it (and all similar endeavours) end in failure. A key moment is probably upon us.

Now we just need to isolate a key moment that we actually have influence over…

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