Boston was good to me last week — I got to see two talks from two particularly inspiring and heroic people, a day apart. (And a Rodrigo y Gabriela gig on Friday, which perhaps wasn’t as heroic, but was also awesome: check out Tamacun, Orion and Captain Casanova on Youtube.)
Now, on to the talks:
When he was 14, William Kamkwamba built a working windmill at his house in Malawi, despite having dropped out of high school a few years earlier because his parents weren’t able to afford to send him anymore. He knew what to build by looking at pictures of a windmill in a science textbook in a library, using a dictionary to translate the words that referred to the pictures from English to his native language of Chichewa, and believing that the presence of the photo meant that someone must have built one before, therefore it must be possible for him to do it too. He also had some experience with repairing radios, taking them apart and working out what each component was doing by trial and error. His story is so inspiring because he lacked enough schooling in English and Science to be expected to gain the knowledge of electromagnetics he picked up, lacked any money to buy parts to work with, but somehow achieved his goal anyway. He gave a humorous and fascinating talk at MIT last week with Bryan Mealer, the co-author of the book that tells his story: The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.
Reading the book after the talk totally changed my understanding of what he’d done and why, though; the background for his wanting to build a windmill is not always mentioned in articles and interviews with him. The season before he started, there had been a famine throughout Malawi — there was a drought, and corrupt government officials had sold off the country’s strategic grain reserves and kept the money, meaning that the government did nothing to help feed millions of subsistence farmers (including William’s family) who were left with a small fraction of the amount of food they needed for that season. William’s family lost a lot of weight, sold their possessions and dropped out of school to pay for food, and watched many of their friends and other villagers waste away and die from hunger over a period of months. The book contains detailed descriptions of what it’s like to live and go to bed hungry, after maybe a few mouthfuls of food all day, that make me deeply ashamed that we allow this to happen to anyone in the world.
Given all this context, it becomes totally obvious what William was doing the next year at the library: the textbook said that windmills could be used to power water pumps, which would mean freedom for his village from having to go through another drought and famine. The surprising conclusion you’re left with is: “Of course he built a windmill, teaching himself a massive amount of electronics that was described in a language he barely understood in order to do so — what else was he supposed to do?”.
The second talk was from Peter Singer, who’s an applied ethicist at Princeton, and writes about modern ethical questions from a utilitarian perspective. He wrote Animal Liberation thirty years ago, which is thought of as having founded the animal rights movement; his work persuaded me to start approaching vegetarianism, then become vegetarian nearly three years ago, and mostly-vegan earlier this year (vegan at home, vegetarian when eating out with friends or if it’s difficult to find vegan food). Lately he’s been writing about poverty and the nature of our responsibility to people suffering due to poverty in countries other than our own, and has a powerful argument that we aren’t doing nearly enough. I first encountered his anti-poverty work with What Should a Billionaire Give — and What Should You? in the New York Times, and he’s since written a book on the subject, The Life You Can Save. The book is excellent — as well as describing the moral basis for aid, he handles common objections to charitable giving, including what responsibility we have when others aren’t accepting their share of it, where it’s okay for us to stop and feel like we’ve done enough, why we shouldn’t be giving money locally instead, and how we can find efficient and life-changing charities to donate to. Here’s the book’s opening and most provocative question, first proposed in his 1972 paper Famine, Affluence, and Morality:
“On your way to work, you pass a small pond. On hot days, children sometimes play in the pond, which is only about knee-deep. The weather’s cool today, though, and the hour is early, so you are surprised to see a child splashing about in the pond. As you get closer, you see that it is a very young child, just a toddler, who is flailing about, unable to stay upright or walk out of the pond. You look for the parents or babysitter, but there is no one else around. The child is unable to keep his head above the water for more than a few seconds at a time. If you don’t wade in and pull him out, he seems likely to drown. Wading in is easy and safe, but you will ruin the new shoes you bought only a few days ago, and get your suit wet and muddy. By the time you hand the child over to someone responsible for him, and change your clothes, you’ll be late for work. What should you do?”
Of course, we all answer that the minor inconvenience of having to buy a new pair of shoes and change our clothes are not valid excuses for refusing to save a life, and the follow-up hits you like a ton of bricks: there actually are people dying from poverty every day, around 30,000 of them, and we really can save a life for not much more than the cost of a good pair of shoes. Furthermore, more than two and a half billion people live on the equivalent of less than USD $2 per day. How, then, can we say that we’re different from the person who walks by the lake, sees the child drowning, realizes they could save them, and does nothing?
Singer’s book explores the differences between the two situations — primarily that in one a child is next to you while in another they are far away — and concludes that this cannot be a sufficiently different situation to present a different moral answer, if we claim to hold ethical beliefs like “the value of a human life is the same no matter where in the world it is” and “a human life is worth more than a pair of shoes”.
Now, I didn’t mean for this post to make you feel guilty — in fact, I’m feeling very optimistic about this issue. Singer observes at the beginning of the book that the struggle to reduce suffering due to poverty has historically been a sort of climb towards an unreachable, unknowably distant mountain peak; but now we have cleared the clouds and can see the summit, our ability to do this is clearly within our means. I want other people to enjoy life the way I did at the gig on Friday night. While I can’t give everyone tickets to go to concerts, I can certainly work towards them having enough food so that the William Kamkwambas of the world can, rather than trying to fall asleep in darkness and hunger, enjoy a full stomach and some good music with a radio they’ve managed to repair.