Planet of the Altruists

This past week we bore witness once again to the unimaginably destructive forces of nature. The rest of the world could do nothing but watch as chaos and devastation struck one of the most technologically advanced nations on Earth; as nature shook Japan like a lion slings a helpless baby antelope back and forth to break its neck; as whole towns were washed away by unstoppable walls of water, thousands of people went missing, and as survivors rummaged frantically through the demolished remains of their homes looking for whomever of their family members might still be alive.

But you’ve heard about the tragedy. You’ve seen the pictures, the videos, and the recollections from people who’ve lost their homes or loved ones. Let’s talk about something slightly different for a moment — namely humans and how peculiar creatures we are.

Nearly every person who has witnessed the kind of meaningless destruction that struck New Orleans, Haiti and Japan will have felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness, and probably broken into tears. The reason for that is simple: Nearly every human has a great capacity for empathy and compassion. When we see a fellow human get hurt, we feel their pain. We hope they will be okay. We try to help them. (Frankly, we feel horrible if we do anything but.) We do this oblivious to things like race, creed, bloodline, religious orientation, or any social designation or classification. We ignore whatever seemingly insurmountable differences that separate and divide us in everyday life. Some will even brave dangers with reckless disregard for their own safety if they think they can save the life of somebody they know nothing about. (And when we or our fellow human stand face to face with death, the things that tend to divide us seem truly meaningless and insignificant.)

But why? From a purely evolutionary standpoint, how does it make any sense for us to put ourselves in harm’s way for somebody who brings us no gain?

The answer is that it doesn’t. However, our evolution has granted us something which renders such fight or flight banalities much less significant in most contexts: Our incredible intelligence, and thereby our ability to hypothesize. With it, we recognize, almost instinctively, that somebody in a predicament could have been us. We could have been that person, and they could have been us. Most humans act with this consideration in mind simply because we would have wished the person to do the same for us, had the tables been turned. (Causality, in addition to being a cornerstone of almost every religion, was also the basis for Aristotle’s famous encouragement of this behavior — he said, “We should behave to others as we would wish them to behave to us.”)

If you are reading this, you are fortunate enough to be literate, and to have access to electricity. These are things we often take for granted. But let’s consider for a moment the situation on a global scale:

  • Almost half the world — over three billion people — live on less than $2.50 a day.
  • At least 80% of humanity lives on less than $10 a day.
  • 1.6 billion people — a quarter of all humans — live without electricity.
  • Every day, 360,000 children come into the world. Less than 300 of them are born in Sweden. If you were born again, your chance of being born there would be only 0.08%. See other countries.
  • 22,000 children die each day due to poverty. And they die quietly in some of the poorest villages on earth, far removed from the scrutiny and the conscience of the world. Being meek and weak in life makes these dying multitudes even more invisible in death.
  • Around 27-28 percent of all children in developing countries are estimated to be underweight or stunted. The two regions that account for the bulk of the deficit are South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Number of children in the world: 2.2 billion; number in poverty: 1 billion (every second child on this planet)
  • Nearly a billion people entered the 21st century unable to read a book or sign their names.
  • The poorest 40% of the world’s population accounts for 5% of global income. The richest 20% accounts for three-quarters of world income.
  • Less than 1% of what the world spent every year on weapons was needed to put every child into school by the year 2000 and yet it didn’t happen.
  • An estimated 40 million people are living with HIV/AIDS, with 3 million deaths in 2004. Every year there are 350–500 million cases of malaria, with 1 million fatalities: Africa accounts for 90 percent of malarial deaths and African children account for over 80 percent of malaria victims worldwide.
  • Some 1.1 billion people in developing countries have inadequate access to water, and 2.6 billion lack basic sanitation.
  • 1.8 billion people who have access to a water source within 1 kilometre, but not in their house or yard, consume around 20 litres per day. In the United Kingdom the average person uses more than 50 litres of water a day flushing toilets (where average daily water usage is about 150 liters a day. The highest average water use in the world is in the US, at 600 liters daily.)
  • Some 1.8 million children die each year as a result of diarrhea
  • Millions of women spend several hours a day collecting water.
  • 10.6 million died in 2003 before they reached the age of 5 (same as children population in France, Germany, Greece and Italy)
  • 1.4 million die each year from lack of access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation
  • 2.2 million children die each year because they are not immunized
  • 15 million children were orphaned due to HIV/AIDS (equal to the total children population in Germany or United Kingdom)
  • In 1960, the 20% of the world’s people in the richest countries had 30 times the income of the poorest 20% — in 1997, 74 times as much.
  • A mere 12 percent of the world’s population uses 85 percent of its water, and these 12 percent do not live in the Third World.

Sometimes the amount of despair in the world can be difficult to bear for more than a few moments at a time, and sometimes we look away even though we know we could probably do something to help somebody in need, somebody “far away”. We try to rationalize. We use our intelligence again, only this time it’s counter-intuitive: It tells us that there is such an abundance of sorrow and tragedy that any contribution we could possibly make is meaningless in the grand scheme of things. We use this to justify doing nothing and trying to forget what we see — and sometimes we feel good enough about our “rationalization” that we let our minds go back to being at ease. We shift our focus to other, more comfortable things like listening to music on our iPods, or telling our friends on Facebook that we’re bored.

But tell me: Would you help somebody left for dead in the street? Then tell me: What, besides distance, is the big difference between somebody left for dead in that street, and somebody left for dead in a street halfway around the world? Is it any less significant? Is it any less meaningful if there are hundreds of people left for dead in streets all around the world? Why, at some point, does it become a statistic that we discard when we would normally go out of our way to help?

For the most part, we humans care deeply about each other. In times of crisis — of which it seems we can’t have enough right now — this is as clear as day. The global community offers an overwhelming amount of support to fellow humans who have been beaten down, regardless of any truly meaningless differences and details. They do it because, at the end of day, we are all human.

Sometimes we forget that, even after the crises and headlines, there are people elsewhere on the planet suffering silently whom we have the means to help. You can profoundly impact and improve the life of another human being — probably several, if not hundreds of others. Because you are so very fortunate to be where you are on planet Earth, you wield the power to do that.

Will there be people who need help after the presses stop churning from the Japan incident? Could you do more to be there for them like you’d have wished them to be there for you, had you drawn a less desirable ticket in the lottery of life?

Think about how nice it feels to give a gift-wrapped present to someone. Then consider how nice it must feel to give somebody a life without poverty and unimaginable despair.

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone, if possible, Jew, gentile, black man, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each other’s happiness — not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another.

In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way. Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost.

– Charlie Chaplin as The Barber in The Great Dictator. Full speech.

Poverty data courtesy of Global Issues and Save the Children.