Haiti’s ruins and Pakistan’s flood

A plea for charity alone is not, I’ll admit, compelling reading. Here, then, are some actual reasons to believe we may be less inclined to help Pakistan after the floods than we should be.

Keith a few days ago drew some fascinating conclusions from the fact that a post of his on AIDS evoked no comments: AIDS now evokes ennui, to both good and bad effect.  It would appear that my post on Pakistan suggesting that people send money to both UNICEF and carbon offset funds was equally boring.  I deserved it: this is an intellectual blog, and though I implied intellectual reasons behind my call for charity, I didn’t spell them out.  I will now.

First, there is every reason to believe that global warming made the flood worse.  (Monsoons themselves are natural; this is a different case from James’ outstanding post on how certain high-intensity storms, in places that never used to experience them, are probably caused uniquely by global warming.) The storm itself is part of a trend in which global warming is making extreme weather events of all kinds more common. Specific details about the climate in the region suggest—with less than perfect confidence, but with no reason I can see to demand such—that storms just like this one are becoming more frequent and stronger due to warming trends. In this case, the fact that the Himalayan glaciers are melting has likely also made things worse.  Millions of people have been left homeless by the storm and at risk of starvation or cholera.  That the fate of one of those people can be chalked up to the amount of CO2 one of us produces throughout a lifetime seems pretty likely.  My headline “Peccavi,” Latin for “I have sinned,” was an intended reference to the famous Punch cartoon portraying Charles James Napier saying this after illegally conquering Sindh province.  Like him, we’ve done something to Sindh, and like him we’re guilty.

Second, we’re almost certainly giving less in response to this disaster than we give in response to others that are equally catastrophic or even less so.  Part of this is “poor marketing” by Pakistan’s government.  (Sad commentary on being as poor as Pakistan: your people’s welfare hangs on the quality of a PR job regarding their misery.)  A New York Times story today blames several other factors: the low initial death toll, slow media coverage (and no telethon, e.g. like this one), the global recession, donor fatigue, the August vacation season, and Pakistan’s bad image as a center for war, terrorists and loose nukes.  But unnamed “aid groups” seized on the main reason, I think:

Images of people slogging through water did not generate the same kind of sympathy as a leveled city, even though the dimensions are similar, aid groups noted, especially since, according to the United Nations, more than 15 million people have been affected and are often difficult to reach.

Ruins are like accidents: they’re fascinating.  Burke in his work on The Sublime and the Beautiful noted that “numbers from all parts” would visit London in ruins after an earthquake who would never care to visit when it was standing—even though almost nobody is so wicked as to want it leveled.  He further, and rightly, noted that this apparently morbid interest is socially salutary as long as it’s paired with sympathy: the fascination leads us to seek out disasters, and then the sympathy makes us want to help.  But floods aren’t as impressive; they don’t seem violent or disastrous.  They evoke images of wading to higher ground where help will arrive. We can’t picture a reality in which the help, in an unimaginably large area, has also been flooded out.

With all that as preface, here’s take two:

UNICEF United States’ page on the Pakistan floods
ClimateTrust.org, Sustainable Travel International, or NativeEnergy.com: the U.S.’s top-rated carbon offset funds (per this report, .pdf)

Author: Andrew Sabl

Andrew Sabl, a political theorist, is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Toronto. He is the author of Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics and Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England, both from Princeton University Press. His research interests include political ethics, liberal and democratic theory, toleration, the work of David Hume, and the realist school of contemporary political thought. He is currently finishing a book for Harvard University Press titled The Uses of Hypocrisy: An Essay on Toleration. He divides his time between Toronto and Brooklyn.

3 thoughts on “Haiti’s ruins and Pakistan’s flood”

  1. Perhaps the problem is in your chosen vehicle for absolution, carbon "offsets," which are nothing but a scam for turning yet another sector into an arena for financial gamesmanship and neo-colonialist enterprise.

  2. I think offsets are both efficient and appropriate. They largely finance projects within the U.S. that save energy more efficiently and on a larger scale than is possible with individual action. To the extent that offset funds operate in the Third World, their actions are all voluntary and typically involve things like making garbage dumps produce less methane or subsidizing local alternatives to burning wood or coal. (No offset company sends armed soldiers to India demanding that it stop growing.)

    But my point was to encourage action, not to determine the shape it takes. By all means, if you prefer, send all your money to UNICEF, or fight global warming by spendung money and time on energy-efficient lighting or weatherproofing or opposing Proposition 23 or writing your representative urging yes votes on cap-and-trade.

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