March 23, 2017

August 20, 2014


Got Ice Water?

I ran across this image recently as a commentary on the ALS ice-water challenge, and I wanted to say something about it.

The meme is either an attempt to characterize Americans as wasteful and frivolous, or it’s a particularly mean slam on Africa as hopelessly backward. I find it very hard to believe it’s the latter, so I’m going to assume it’s the former.

Now I happen to think the ice-water challenge is frivolous, and while it’s certainly raising awareness of ALS, it seems to be more successful in giving a lot of people the opportunity to be the center of attention for a few moments during which they imagine they’re doing something meaningful for charity. I know this points the finger at a lot of people (including many friends), but I’m not saying they don’t contribute to charity - just that this ice-water thing is a lot like Michelle Obama’s hashtag activism, or her husband’s hashtag foreign policy: It “says” something perfectly reasonable, but also something that should be perfectly obvious and shared by everyone: We care about curing Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The problem with this image, which attempts to trivialize the ice-water challenge, is that it also attempts to characterize Americans as frivolous, and wasteful of a resource that literally means life or death to millions of African children. Who can think kindly of Americans dumping gallons of water over their heads, when that poor child on the bottom is hanging onto life by a capful of water? There go the Americans - again - with their callous, wasteful habits. Sniffing and eye-rolling commences, and America-haters are sated.

To be sure, Americans - like citizens of all countries - can be thoroughly frivolous at times. But the idea that we shouldn’t be able to indulge in something silly like the ice-water challenge because millions of African children are dying of thirst, says nothing about the wastefulness of Americans, and everything about the utter inability of Africa to take care of itself.

Westerners have been showing Africans how to dig wells for the past 150 years. The whole time, we’ve explained the science and importance of clean water. We’ve given them endless tons of machinery to help them create and maintain access to it. On top of that, we send thousands of people (mostly Christian missionaries) to repeat the process every year. Is water scarce in the Sahara? Yes. But most of Africa is overflowing with natural resources, including water; and as Nevadans and Californians have proved, it’s not impossible to get water into and out of the desert. It might be expensive, but it’s not impossible, and ultimately just points out the inadvisability of living in the desert, no matter what color your skin or the affluence of your community.

And not to put too fine a point on it, but you don’t need specialized machinery or advanced scientific expertise to dig a well - it can be done by a few guys with strong backs and a couple of shovels - something Africa has in abundance. And yet, large parts of Africa remain crippled because of a lack of clean water.

Yes, millions of gallons of water are being dumped onto the ground in this ice-water challenge, but it’s not because Americans are wasteful, and certainly not because they’re not doing anything to help the world’s less fortunate, least of all in Africa. America’s contributions to global relief efforts dwarf the rest of the world’s, and Africa gets the lion’s share of it. When can we stop congratulating ourselves on our clean water efforts, and start asking the question: Can we now expect the Africans to manage their own water systems, so we can devote our charitable resources to other needs?

Dumping millions of gallons of clean water on the ground in an effort to raise awareness of ALS may or may not be terribly effective, but it’s not a sign of America’s wastefulness or silliness, or its callousness toward places like Africa where clean water is scarce. Rather, it’s of sign of the triumph of the west over simple things like providing itself with clean water, and the abject failure of Africans to do those simple things for themselves. The reason so many Africans can’t get silly and dump gallons of clean water over their heads has nothing to do with America, and everything to do with themselves. At some point, in the interest of being good stewards of our own charitable giving as well as moving Africa from dependence on western assistance to self-sufficiency in something as basic as clean water, we need to question the wisdom of continuing to do some things for people who should have long since been doing them for themselves.


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9 comments

Amen!  Good to have you posting again, Greg.  You’re always spot on.

[1] Posted by evan miller on 8-20-2014 at 11:17 AM · [top]

This argument is just as silly as mothers telling their children to “remember the starving children in other countries” and eat all their food.  That food on the plate isn’t going to help anybody else, anywhere.

[2] Posted by Katherine on 8-20-2014 at 11:52 AM · [top]

I second 1.

[3] Posted by Br. Michael on 8-20-2014 at 04:26 PM · [top]

I have to go more with Katherine here.  Water’s not like food either.  It simply is or isn’t available based on geology.  You can destroy a loaf of bread and you need to go through substantial efforts to make another.  Water depends on your natural environment.

You may disagree with the optics, but the water will either evaporate, to come down somewhere else, go into sewers which may be retreated for drinking water, or flow into a river, lake, or ocean to rejoin the water cycle.

I fully despise the “awareness” industry because it provides feel-good moments where you don’t actually have to DO ANYTHING, but I think you’ve missed the mark on this one.  The links are barely tangential, if at all.

If you want to argue that curing ALS should take a back-seat to digging wells in Africa, so be it.  You could argue that we should give money to help provide money to Africa over inner-city literacy efforts as well and make a solid argument for it.  People will let their monies flow where their hearts tell them to.  I don’t want anyone to go thirsty or die of ALS either, but because my priorities may not be theirs, I’m not going to rip them over it.

[4] Posted by Bill2 on 8-20-2014 at 05:05 PM · [top]

My post is sort-of off topic (as usual), but amid the good coming out of this ice-bucket challenge we need to call the ALS Association to account for their support of the pro-abortion fraud of embryonic-stem cell research.

[5] Posted by William on 8-20-2014 at 09:54 PM · [top]

A good point, William #5.  The (Catholic) Cincinnati Archdiocese is calling for its members to donate to an alternate fund to support ALS research, one which does not have an association with an embryonic stem cell research project.

[6] Posted by Katherine on 8-21-2014 at 01:39 PM · [top]

This article takes a sadly predictable turn from pouring water on our heads does not detract from lack of access to clean water to Africa is a screw-up for not being able to have access to clean water. The premise of the article and the conclusion you’ve arrived at is astounding.

[7] Posted by iojet on 8-21-2014 at 06:17 PM · [top]

Good article.  Your article and the triggering events remind of two things.  One, no matter how much good the ALS Bucket Challenge might be doing, there will be people in America with so little to do they’ll campaign negatively against it and criticize it.  Two, I’m reminded of a book that came out a couple of years ago by a young woman from Africa whose main argument was that the best thing the world could do for Africa was to stop helping them and force them to grow up and take care of themselves.

[8] Posted by ADaniel on 8-22-2014 at 02:54 PM · [top]

The bishop of Pittsburgh and a priest with ALS are doing the ice bucket thing,  but directing the money to a program not using embryonic stem cells.

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/deaconsbench/2014/08/in-a-first-a-bishop-announces-plans-to-take-the-als-ice-bucket-challenge/

The story about the priest is really sweet. Clearly,  priest and people have a lot of mutual love.

[9] Posted by Words Matter on 8-24-2014 at 10:52 PM · [top]

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