A) I’m not impervious to sadness or horror and I completely understand the wonderfully human desire to help people in a tragic time of need. I realize that devastation can shock even the hardiest individual and regardless of all other factors, watching people die in disasters, natural or otherwise, is horrific.
B) In this article I am talking about the big picture. I won’t be saying that helping or giving is bad or stupid or a waste of resources. I’m making a point about maintaining perspective. I’m saying that putting things into a larger context is often more helpful than simply taking reflexive action trained in by years of televised human tragedy.
C) After you read this, even if you hate yourself for thinking it… your thought process on this will be altered. You may end up making the same choices as before, but you will consider this line of thought as part of the journey to that decision.
OK, so here we go.
By now everybody knows about the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that occurred 80 miles off the north eastern coast of Japan in mid March. You would have to be living under a rock not to have seen the images and the videos of homes, cars and entire villages washing away repeated in endless loops on TV, MSN, Google and YouTube. You would have to be heartless not to feel the gut wrenching sadness in the screams of the kids on the hillside overlooking the small town where they got the vast majority of video coverage as they struggled to process the cataclysmic events unfolding before their tear filled eyes. And you would have to be callous beyond belief not to see the shear scale of the event as hundreds of cars and boats wash across the landscape and fight each other to squeeze under highway overpasses like floating paper cups going down the drain. And you would have to be without imagination not to believe at least some of those cars, trucks, train cars and overturned boats contained humans in their last moments of life.
So, when I say this, remember I said that.
The first indication that I had of the earthquake and tsunami was an email and facebook notification from a person in my friends list to give money. The wave had not yet reached Hawaii. The news of the event, at least to me, was preceded by the plea for money.
I have a strong reaction to this. I’m not opposed to charity and many people around the world could use the help, but, as countries go, Japan is rich. They really don’t need our money; certainly not as much as we do at the moment. I’m ok with helping the neighbors fix stuff in their backyard, but we should really work on fixing our own stuff first. They might need a few extra radiation suits but they probably have that covered as well. Those people really know how to organize and they have been living on the dragon’s back for thousands of years and they’ve lived with a nuclear reality since 1945.
Something I recently learned was most important for a place that gets hit with a gigantic natural disaster was when New Zealand got smacked last year. The government of New Zealand wanted to make sure that people around the world understood that if they stopped coming for vacations because they were worried about damage from a flood or earthquake, etc. that the economy would suffer greatly and that they best thing people could do for them was not to send money, but to just keep their reservations.
Point being, if you have plans to visit Japan, keep them. They got the earthquake stuff covered. What they really want you to do is keep your reservations as long as you’re not going to the affected areas.
I’m not being flippant or mean. I’m serious. Japan, New Zealand, regular first world places like that; you don’t need to send money. They have money. In fact, they have most, if not all, of the stuff they need for a disaster and in the case of Japan, they probably have more of it than us. But if you have a trip scheduled (unless it is scheduled for the exact place that got torn up.) don’t not go because you’re afraid of being in the way or that things will be problematic. If they want you to stay away they’ll say so. Also, if they need the help, they’ll ask for it.
In this case, if feels like Japan is that wealthy family down the street; the ones with the house that’s bigger and prettier by half than everybody else on the street. Somebody there just had an accident. It’s gonna be ok in time, but right now it’s pretty serious. They don’t need me to give them money. They have money. They have insurance and all the stuff needed in place and ready to handle this including friends, family, infrastructure, faith; whatever. They don’t need anything from me and if they do, they know that all they have to do is ask because that’s the kind of street we live on. The best thing I can do for them is to stay out of their hair. And, without putting too fine a point on it, they have a really nice house and 3 brand new cars in the driveway and a big-ass boat out back. They vacation 2 times a year in places I only get to see in pictures and their kids will all go to really expensive colleges and never work “really hard” a day in their lives. So maybe instead of passing the hat for them, you can find somebody who really needs the help.
I’m not saying don’t help people. I’m saying let’s make sure, especially when we need resources ourselves, that the people we help actually need the help before we send it.
How about not just assuming that if there’s a flood or an earthquake that the first thing we do is start shoveling money at it. That reaction is more about us than them and what they might or might not need. It’s about us trying to feel good about how good we are and showing other people how much we help, even when the helpees haven’t asked for it.
When another tsunami tore up Phuket a few years ago… that place was in horrible need of many things, most of which, could be helped with money and people. Their country was poor and the primary industry was tourism and palm oil so sending money and sending people was a very good idea (even though it took weeks to get the logistics straightened out and billions of dollars in food rotted for lack of distribution).
But this is Japan we’re talking about. On the lists of who’s doing well in the world Japan is consistently a high placer. They are currently ranked 3rd in the size of their economy behind the US and China. They have systems in place to help themselves when tragedy strikes. They have tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of trained rescue workers of their own. They have logistics teams. They have fuel and food reserves and distribution plans. They have vehicles, personnel and resources. The probably have more than we have. They are a careful and prepared nation. When it comes to earth quakes and tsunamis, they are the most prepared nation in the world.
I understand that good people have good intentions and that giving in order to help is, at the most basic level, a very good thing. Really, I’m on board with that. But I also think perspective is important.
So here’s a little perspective:
- There are 9,500 dead and 14,600 missing (approx) at this point in time. The numbers will probably shift a little but they’ve had time to figure out who’s missing and who’s not. Round that number up to 25,000 and consider them all dead. Japan has a population of 127 million people. 25,000 is .00019% of the population. .00019% of the population is dead or missing. A population the size of Japan loses twice that many people every day due to normal attrition. .00019 is statistically zero.
- The damage estimate is bouncing wildly back and forth from $200 to $300 billion. Japan’s GDP is $5.179 trillion per year. So, .0057% of GDP lost to damage. Crop loss in the United States every year accounts for a larger percentage of loss to our GDP. .0057 approaches statistical zero.
- Area effected is .00012 of land mass. Again, that’s statistically zero.
Oh, and the radiation leaks!! Don’t forget those.
- The average x ray exposes you to 10 mR of radiation. The area of radiation that they are concerned about in Japan extends 13 miles from the reactors in question and averages 18 mR (less than 2 x-rays) and hasn’t as yet, gone above 30 mR anywhere. You will get more radiation laying out at the beach for 2 hours, 3 days in a row. Also, it’s a coastal area and the radiation moves out to sea, spreads out, dilutes and becomes the normal background radiation of the planet way before it even crosses halfway to Alaska.
What’s my point?
My point is this makes great TV. The endless loops of dramatic footage of houses floating and sinking in rivers of stuff that should not be in rivers of anything and causing everybody to hold their hands over their mouths and gasp in horror thinking what if this happens to me helps fills minutes and hours on 24 hour news networks, but, this is a flea’s bite on the ass of an enormous rhino. Japan will be fine. I promise.
I would never in a million years think that my voice, alone against the chorus, could ever stop the tsunami of aid dollars, people and resources that will wash over that country in the next few months. But I am saying that of all the places that need our help right now, this is one of the few lists upon which Japan doesn’t sit anywhere near the top.
I understand that this is not a popular sentiment. It is especially unpopular within a community (us) who has been so well trained to react to tragedy by wringing their hands and charging donations to their VISA cards while watching endless hours of “dramatic footage” over and over again. I know. I get it.
But still, I would like to suggest an alternative.
If you have money that you want to give to somebody in order to help. Go downtown. In whatever city you live, there is a place where people have next to nothing. Go there and drop off $100 of food. Buy some coats or shoes or underwear. Give an elementary school a box of paper and a case of crayons. Find somebody who can’t afford their medicine and buy a few of their prescriptions for them. When we have covered all of those bases; when nobody here needs anything else and old people don’t have to eat cat food to live, then, throw as much money at Japan as you want to.