A List of Very Bad Things

[trigger warning: everything]

What’s the point of any of this?

This is not for the purpose of cause prioritization. Unfortunately, the severity of a problem is not necessarily related to its tractability, especially for lay people looking to donate money or time. If that’s your interest, check out the 80,000 hours problem profiles.

This is also an explicitly short-termist list. There’s no mention of climate change or existential risks. There’s no mention of abstract causes like “failures of international cooperation”, even if these may be the “underlying cause”.

The point is:

  • Gain perspective to avoid being distracted by relatively minor heat-of-the-moment crises.
  • Provide a corrective against the optimistic Steven Pinker / Our World in Data style worldview
  • Motivate myself to work on problems that actually matter

There’s a bit of a tension here. I both believe in the severity of current problems, and the Against Empathy-style argument that we ought to avoid reasoning too much from passions in our attempts to alleviate suffering. Since most of my work is abstract and future-oriented, the severity of concrete and short-term problems forces me to more seriously justify this stance to myself. Maybe that’s a distraction, but I think it’s a worthwhile one.

But aren’t things getting better?

Our World in Data shows decreasing famine mortality, decreasing deaths from genocide, and decreasing deaths from armed conflict.

These are good trends, but they’re no guarantee. Things can always become arbitrarily bad.

There’s also a Omelas-style argument to be made here. The more technologically advanced and glorious human civilization becomes, the worse it is that we allow any level of tragedy to persist. As Scott Alexander put it: “It is glorious that we can create something like this. It is shameful that we did.”

The List

Uyghur genocide
Scale: ~1,000,000+ detained
Type: “Forced abortion, forced sterilization, forced birth control, rape (including gang rape), forced labor, torture, internment, brainwashing, organ harvesting, killings”

Famine in Yemen and Blockade of Yemen
Scale: 85,000 children dead of starvation, 2 million children acutely malnourished, estimated 50,000 new child deaths per year, adults unknown, 24,000,000 people “in need of humanitarian assistance”, 500,000 cases of cholera
Notes: “U.S. is regarded as an indirect partner for Saudi Arabia in the war and blockade on Yemen.”, “UK government has officially supported the Saudi-led coalition”

Rohingya genocide
Scale: 24,000+ dead, 18,000+ rapes, 116,000 beaten, 700,000 – 1,000,000+ refugees
Type: Ethnic and religious persecution, Genocide

COVID-19 pandemic
Scale: ~2,700,000 deaths. 126 million confirmed cases, 780 million estimated cases (October 2020)

Syrian civil war
Scale: 388,652–594,000 deaths, 117,388 civilian deaths, 7,600,000+ internally displaced, 5,116,097+ refugees
See also: Refugees of the Syrian civil war, European migrant crisis

Tigray War and Mai Kadra massacre
Scale: 1000 – 100,000 deaths, ~2,500,000 displaced
Type: Mass killing, Ethnic cleansing

Sinicization of Tibet
Central African Republic Civil War
Democratic Republic of Congo Humanitarian Crisis

Long Lasting (> 10 years)
Crisis in Venezuela
Lord’s Resistance Army insurgency
Colombian conflict
War in Darfur
Papua conflict
Moro conflict
Arab–Israeli conflict
Mexican drug war
Kurdish rebellions in Turkey
Kivu conflict
Kashmir conflict

US Specific
Incarceration in the United States
Scale: 2,200,000 incarcerated, 4,751,400 on probation or parole

Opioid epidemic in the United States
Scale: 399,000 deaths

Intensive animal farming
Annual Scale: 9.2 billion chickens, 124 million pigs, 34 million cows, 3.8 billion finned fish, 43.1 billion shellfish, 23 billion bycatch deaths, 68 billion feed fish
Notes: Non-wikipedia source
See Also: Wild Animal Welfare

Human rights in the United States
Type:systemic racism,[15][16][17] weaker labor protections than most western countries,[18] imprisonment of debtors,[19] criminalization of homelessness and poverty,[20][21][22] invasion of its citizens’ privacy through mass surveillance programs,[23] police brutality,[24][25] police impunity and corruption,[26][27] incarceration of citizens for profit, mistreatment of prisoners, the highest number of juveniles in the prison system of any country, some of the longest prison sentences in the world, continued use of the death penalty despite its abolition in nearly all other western countries,[28] abuse of both legal and illegal immigrants[29][30][31] (including children),[32][33][34] the facilitation of state terrorism,[35] a health care system favoring profit via privatization over the wellbeing of citizens,[36][37] the lack of a universal health care program unlike most other developed countries,[38] one of the most expensive and worst-performing health care systems of any developed country,[39] continued support for foreign dictators (even when genocide has been committed),[40][41] forced disappearances, extraordinary renditions, extrajudicial detentions, the torture of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and black sites, and extrajudicial targeted killings (e.g. the Disposition Matrix).[23][42][43][44]
See also: Immigration detention in the United States, Human rights violations by the CIA


You left out X / You shouldn’t include Y.
Feel free to let me know if I’m missing something, and I’ll consider adding it. The initial list was off the top of my head, so I am probably missing many things.

The (very rough) inclusion criteria is 100,000+ dead, or 1,000,000+ displaced, or an immediate threat of genoicide.

I would like to limit links to Wikipedia or Our World in Data.