First published by Fairfax Media/Stuff. This is an expanded version of the original essay, which is republished here with permission.
A lazy afternoon in Jakarta. The Big Durian! An enormous, foul-smelling fruit, oozing sugar and rot, swarming with 10 million souls. There’s nothing better to do than go get lost in the anthill, so our driver drops us on the outskirts of a random kampong.
Despite being in the middle of a megalopolis, this part of town has never had a white visitor before. Grandmas’ faces crinkle into gummy smiles as they invite us into their homes. Everyone wants a picture, even though they’ll never get to see the photos. Boisterous children crowd around to high-five us, pull their most obscene hand gestures, and show off their knock-off football shirts. Soon we’ve attracted an entourage of barefoot little ones, following us up the street like the Pied Piper.
No-one tries to sell us anything or ask for so much as a single rupiah, although the women keep making jokes. One of my companions, Lincoln Tan, speaks bahasa: They’re asking me to marry them, he grins. He doesn’t translate the cruder offers.
I’ve never been proposed to once, so getting five offers in the space of a few hours is a bit surreal. Of course, there’s no ego-boost in any of this. The women want out. They’re desperate for a better life by any means necessary.
Inside one of the houses, four people sleep sardined together in a dark concrete-slab cell. Stinking mounds of rubbish are everywhere, spilling down the banks of the river behind the shacks, where people bathe in the putrid broth.
It’s one hell of a hard cut from earlier in the day.
The opulent apartments on the top floors of Ciputra World’s 50-storey structure are like something out of the movies. The luxury tower block was built by New Zealand engineers, so I’m getting a guided tour from my countrymen.
On a smogless day, you can lean out over the balcony and take in a breathtaking view of the Jakarta skyline. You’re so high up that at first you don’t notice the shanty towns around the bases of the skyscrapers.
It’s a strange and unsettling vista. Here I am, standing in a hotel room with a US$800 rack rate, looking out over the slum dwellers who don’t earn that much in an entire year. In cities like this, these sort of jarring juxtapositions are on every corner.
You are the 1 per cent
That day in Jakarta is seared into my memory. It was the first time I’d ever been walloped over the head with my own incredible luck – a point driven home over and over during my subsequent travels.
Maybe you don’t feel particularly lucky. But anyone reading this article is by definition English-speaking, with an Internet connection, some leisure time, and born during the wealthiest and most advanced period of all human history. This seems utterly normal, because all our neighbours and friends and families live in the same little bubble as us. We think of ourselves as regular Janes and Joes, not one of those greedy bankers or CEOs who make up the global elite.
The truth is, we are the 1 per cent.
If you’re earning more than US$52,000 a year, yes, you’re in that top percentile of much-maligned fat-cats. If you earn at least US$28,000 — the typical income for United States workers, and about the same in New Zealand — you’re in the richest 5 percent of the world’s population. Even someone living below the US poverty line is still richer than 85 percent of the people in the world.
Numbers and facts are not very good at persuading people. If you’re anything like me, your brain is already going into overdrive, conjuring up objections and justifications. We hate holding onto two competing ideas at once. Instead, we double down on whatever it suits us to believe, keeping us safely ensconced in our bubbles.
Bursting the bubble
People who live in far-away lands mostly don’t have faces. They’re abstracted away to a ghostly column of numbers in a newspaper headline, which we struggle to convert back into real, living, humans. As Stalin observed, the death of one is a tragedy, but the death of millions is just a statistic.
I could idly munch on a bag of chips while the TV played an ad of a fly crawling across a starving child’s swollen belly, and barely notice what I was watching. Developing this sort of hardness is a necessary defence mechanism, or we’d be total wrecks 24-7, incapable of getting through a news bulletin without bawling our eyes out. The risk is that after a while, you start to get inured to pretty much anything.
Travel is visceral. When you’re sitting at home watching the news, you can’t smell the shit. You never get shaken down by corrupt cops. You don’t have to physically shoo away hard-eyed children begging at 3am, while their handlers lurk in the shadows, and your heart breaks into a million pieces in your chest.
The other thing travel teaches you is that wherever you go in the world, people are people. Countries and nations are nothing more than squiggles on a map – arbitrary abstractions that only exist as collective myths.
While our tribal instincts were crucial throughout most of our evolutionary history, they’re misfiring badly today. To rise above them is to fight tooth, nail and claw against our very psychology.
“Well, we have to tidy our own backyard first.”
This sentence used to sound perfectly reasonable to me, but it doesn’t stand up to a moment’s scrutiny. What makes a New Zealander or American more valuable than an Indian, or an Indonesian?
If we accept the backyard-tidying premise, it raises some pretty troubling questions. Is one American life equal to, say, 10 Australians? 100 Filipinos? 1000 Nigerians? These are absurd, horrible comparisons to make. But we’re effectively making these decisions every single day.
A sense of perspective
When the bubble bursts, perspective comes flooding in. You realise how utterly fucking insane it is to insist on having the latest iPhone, or give two shits about what sort of car you drive, or to engage in petty status-signaling games with your fellow bubble residents.
I am a fan of frugality for this very reason. There’s no hardship in living a slightly less opulent life, but there are big benefits. No matter how far you push it, you’ll always be better off than 99 per cent of people who have ever lived, and most people alive today.
If travel helps gives someone a sense of perspective, that’s a pretty good start.
But this is not a heart-warming parable about #inspirational poor people making the best of things, and how we should remember to count our blessings before we gorge ourselves at dinner later tonight. Poor people are not props in a play, who exist only to further our character development. No amount of gratitude journaling and sanctimonious think-pieces will put food in their bellies.
Talk is cheap. Why not do something?
Not because I say so. Not out of guilt. And especially not to try and atone for being born with the wrong skin colour, or the wrong bits between your legs.
The hideous doctrine of original sin is sweeping back into fashion. The priests and priestesses are thugs, more interested in wielding the whip than in actually helping anyone. The self-flagellation they demand has no end. If you succumb to this madness, you’ll make yourself so weak that you’ll be no good to anyone.
Funnily enough, telling people they’re evil is not a good way to win support for a cause. So let’s rephrase it: What we really have is an amazing opportunity.
How would you like to get rid of malaria forever? By the way things are going, it could be vanquished in our lifetime. You can tell your child or grandchild that you personally helped to eradicate the single deadliest disease humanity has ever known:
To put it mildly, this is really fucking exciting.
These problems may seem too big to tackle, but there’s actually never been a better time to make a difference. Poverty and preventable diseases are shrinking fast, and every dollar hastens their demise.
A treated mosquito bed net costs the same as a cup of coffee. I just bought 300, which works out to the equivalent of an iPhone. Saving the life of child costs around $2000 to $4000, if you donate to the most effective charities. It only takes a few small lifestyle changes to free up that that sort of cash.
When a bystander pulls someone out of a fire, they get a plaque, and a commendation of bravery, and an aw-shucks interview in the newspaper. You could save a life every single year of your career, and never once have to brave the flames. You won’t get a plaque, but you can be a secret superhero. Every year, another child gets to learn, and love, and hope, and grow old. And it’s because you did something.
I don’t know if this article will resonate with people (send me an email and let me know if you buy any bednets!) There are a few different things that have led me down this path, but I feel like travel has played a large part.
Mostly, being a traveler is self-indulgence and fun and racking up a whole lot of likes on Instagram. But now and again, there are experiences that rattle your brain around your skull and light a little fire in your belly.
Each time, the faceless masses get a little less faceless. And that can only be a good thing.
Interested in learning more? Here’s a bunch of resources on the most effective ways to help make the world a better place.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. It’s an introduction to the fast-growing ‘effective altruism’ movement, which is all about taking a calculated approach to doing the most good possible, rather than chasing feel-good fuzzies. By giving to effective causes over the course of our careers, it outlines how any normal person can become a hero, saving perhaps 100 times as many lives as a doctor. The author, Will MacAskill was the youngest philosophy professor in the world when he joined the Oxford faculty. He’s a fascinating guy in his own right, and this is one of the most exciting books I’ve ever read.
Cynical about whether aid and philanthropy actually makes much of a difference? You absolutely should be! Thankfully, we now have GiveWell: an independent nonprofit that puts thousands of hours of meticulous research into analysing the effectiveness of charities. It has a constantly updated list of the most high-impact causes to support at any given point in time, in terms of lives/quality of life per dollar donated. Have a look at the top recommendations here.
Here’s the pitch: You’ll spend about 80,000 hours of your life working. If you make the right career choices, you can help solve the world’s most urgent problems, while also having a more rewarding and interesting life.
Even if you only use this resource for ‘selfish’ reasons, it’s a pretty amazing career guide as to the pros and cons of various pathways, with loads of free advice based on years of research. Take 30 minutes to work through the decision tool here. They also put out loads of cool stuff on Facebook.
This is one of GiveWell’s top-ranked causes, and my personal charity of choice. Malaria infects 400 million people a year, and kills half a million of them. Seventy per cent are children under five, and many are pregnant women. There’s a huge opportunity here, in that every single death is preventable: Insecticide-treated bed nets are cheap and highly-effective – it only costs a few thousand dollars to save a life, on average. If everyone pulls together, we have a good chance of wiping out the deadliest disease in human history. Join the fight here.