Why We Should Attack One Cause at a Time

I recently wrote a post on Causecast stating the relative harmlessness of the H1N1 virus in comparison with other illnesses and traumatic events. Not to take away from the pain of those who've been affected by swine flu, but in the grand scope of international tragedies, this one is hardly worth panicking about.

In my research for the article, I looked for common, preventable causes of human suffering the world over. I came up with the standard array of horrifying numbers: 40,000 die a year in the U.S. in car crashes, two million women worldwide are forced into sexual slavery, 5,000 children die every year from unclean drinking water. These numbers were a means to an end for me, a way to paint swine flu as a relatively minor blip in the long, torturous list of tragedies to befall our species and life on Earth.

To actually think too hard about these numbers and analyze what they mean to human existence is, after all, a bewildering and inescapable drop into hopelessness. I can say this as someone who works at an organization dedicated to helping nonprofits provide aid and comfort to people the world over. Causecast works with only 50 of the more than 900,000 registered 501(c)(3) nonprofits currently operating in the United States. One can very easily suffer from "cause overload" when presented with the unmanageable number of drastic problems we face.

It made me wonder if there was a better way we could attack these causes. Certainly a day will never come when we'll say, "Thank God all that's taken care of! Finally, I can crack open my new George Pelecanos book." There will always be problems in the world. However, complete eradication is something we rarely think about in conjunction with our primary causes. The 20th century wonderfully eradicated things like smallpox and voting booth discrimination (mostly). What we need do now is focus all of our energy on actually eliminating these problems, not simply chipping away at them with donations, events and awareness campaigns.

That's why, yesterday, I suggested to a co-worker my Swiftian "modest proposal." This plan involves organizing every fully-functioning nonprofit organization in this country. Let's tell all those people to take a month off whatever they're working on, be it cleft palate awareness, director's guild contracts or National Ornithology Day, and put everyone to work on the most horrible, debilitating cause we can think of. I would propose this cause to be one of three things: Giving sustainable sources of clean water to the billion or so people who don't have access to it, eliminating once-and-for-all the genocide in Darfur, or providing food sources for the hundreds of millions that go hungry every day in this country and around the world.

It's certainly up for debate, but those would be, in my mind, the three things that are in most need of complete eradication. Let's take care of those things, and then we can work on the next three and then the next three.

Don't think me callous. Using this system, in terms of human suffering, it might be a while before we finally overturn Prop 8 or find a way to adequately approach teenage depression, but wouldn't it feel good to really solve something? How good would this country feel, in the face of nearly endless bad news, if we could solve the problem of world hunger or genocide or dehydration?

(Note: I don't think cleft palates, the DGA or ornithologists should be mocked. I just needed something to seem slightly less dire than world poverty.)