A Young Cryptocurrency Billionaire Turns to Philanthropy, Zeroing in on Catastrophic Threats

Wealth accumulation and generational transfer combined are minting waves of new millionaires and billionaires, often relatively young (China alone gained 55 new billionaires in 2017, many young tech entrepreneurs). Along with intensifying societal instability, such inequality is creating a new generation of wealthy donors setting out to become philanthropists. 

One of the latest to join this club is 35-year-old Ben Delo, the U.K.’s “youngest self-made billionaire,” who obtained his wealth through Seychelles-based cryptocurrency platform BitMEX. Delo wasted no time starting his philanthropic career, and he’s going about it in an unusual way, as outlined in his recent Giving Pledge announcement. While committing to effective altruism, a philosophy that appeals to a lot of young donors in tech and finance, Delo has placed an explicit focus on future catastrophic threats like nuclear war, pandemics, artificial intelligence, and extreme climate change.

Effective altruism seeks to maximize good per dollar distributed, commonly prioritizing cost-effective global health interventions. But one interesting strain within the philosophy looks at existential risks, with the logic that even if there’s a small chance philanthropy can prevent global catastrophe, it would impact entire future generations of humanity. So, you know, a real bang for the buck.

Related: Important But Neglected: Why an Effective Altruist Funder Is Giving Millions to AI Security

One compelling thing about Delo’s pledge is his specifying extreme climate change as one of those threats. While receiving some attention from effective altruists, climate change hasn’t been a top-tier issue for its largest practitioners and advisors, though it is the most pervasive threat humanity faces. Could effective altruism’s particular lens on long-term catastrophic risk serve as an on-ramp for more emerging philanthropists to engage with climate change?

Much has been written about effective altruism, which started out as a small niche within philanthropy. There’s a certain kind of geeky media type that gets fascinated by the idea (myself included, I guess). But it’s essentially promoting rational thinking in the practice of donating money. So rather than giving to what tugs at the heartstrings, a donor ought instead to calculate where their dollars would do the most good possible.

It has a lot of followers. One of the biggest affiliated outfits, the Open Philanthropy Project, recommended well over $170 million worth of grants in 2018, including toward global health causes like malaria prevention and controlling disease caused by parasitic worms. It’s also expanded giving in areas like animal welfare, and policy issues like criminal justice and immigration. 

Delo’s future giving will be in collaboration with Open Philanthropy Project and U.K.-based shop Effective Giving, and advised by Oxford philosopher and effective altruism champion William MacAskill. He’s also backing effective altruism-related research, and is affiliated with the EA community Giving What We Can. So he’s very invested in the concept. 

Effective altruism evokes a lot of strong opinions within the philanthropy sector. Its adherents cite a clear moral calling in the potential for strategically placed donations to alleviate suffering directly. Critics find it technocratic, reductive, and too fixated on quantifiable outcomes—sort of like strategic philanthropy on steroids. I tend to have mixed feelings, appreciating the intentionality and grappling behind it, but wary of the tendency to avoid the messy work of movement building or tackling systemic problems. On climate change giving, for example, the uncertainty and the fact that it’s difficult and expensive to gain traction have made it a lower priority in EA circles. 

That being said, the philosophy seems to be evolving in some interesting ways. Open Philanthropy, for example, has embraced policy work, realizing the outsized impact it can have. Taking on future catastrophic risk is also gaining traction. That’s an interesting twist on the EA math problem, in that much of that sort of work might yield little noticeable impact, but could save huge numbers of lives in the long term, making it worth funding by their standards. 

That long-term, high-risk outlook is a potentially powerful function for philanthropy, even independent of effective altruism. In Robert Reich’s excellent book Just Giving, the Stanford political scientist takes a critical look at the institution of philanthropy, finding that it’s often incompatible with liberal democracy, especially in its current form in the U.S. Reich does, however, identify some potentially important roles for philanthropy within democracy, one of which is funding needs with long, intergenerational timeframes. 

Reich raises the idea of “presentist bias,” in which democratic governments tend to favor immediate preferences of their citizens rather than tackling long-term problems that extend well beyond a legislative term. Businesses have similar requirements to satisfy existing markets and shareholders. Foundations, Reich suggests, have no such accountability, so are uniquely structured to make long-term or high-risk allocations, with future rather than present generations in mind. Effective altruists seem to have come around to this principle, although currently limited to a handful of specific threats.

Climate change is a textbook example of such a need. One reason nations have failed to take meaningful action on the issue (besides corporate denial and strong-arming) is that it’s always felt just beyond the radius of current need or political will, although that may be changing. Philanthropy, though it rarely does, ought to be swinging for the fences on climate action, simply because, structurally, it can.

It’s not clear whether effective altruists will embrace climate change in a big way, or what that would look like. EA tends to focus mainly on “extreme” climate change, the most severe scenarios that could threaten human civilization (at what point does it become sufficiently extreme?). Open Philanthropy told Inside Philanthropy not long ago that while it’s not among the outfit’s focus areas, it has made climate-related grants—including $2.5 million to Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program—and that climate change could become a larger focus in the future.

Even if you disagree with some of effective altruism’s conclusions, its practitioners deserve credit for clearly wrestling with the societal role and morality of philanthropy. Hopefully, that leads more of its donors toward a conclusion that they have a unique ability to focus on complex threats like climate change, even if that involves tolerating more messy uncertainty.