Save yourselves! No, really – save yourselves!

Slow sand filtration schematic

Slow sand filtration schematic

Don’t get me wrong – I very much care about health and living conditions in the more remote reaches of the globe. But I’m getting tired of seeing the PSA messages on TV where the teary-eyed children are shown collecting putrid water which, so the story goes, is all they have to drink. Enter well-intentioned white people who, through a charitable organization funded by similarly inclined people, are going to show up and save the day.

Really? There have been bio filtration methods available since the early 1800s* (and primitive forms of sand filtration even existed in ancient times!). You don’t have to be well-educated to look at nasty water and know that it’s nasty. Assuming that a community did not just spring randomly out of the soil, but was established in a particular spot, what reason would there be to establish it there? The presence of water would be a top one. If the water wasn’t very good, would the people of the community really not be able to figure out for themselves that it needed to be purified? Would no one among them be aware of any development anywhere else in the world that might offer a tenable solution to the problem?

There’s a big problem today with missionary zeal. In her book, “Dead Aid,” Dambisa Moyo writes, ‘Aid has been, and continues to be, an unmitigated political, economic, and humanitarian disaster for most parts of the developing world.’ In short, it is (as Karl Kraus said of Freudianism) ‘the disease of which it pretends to be the cure.’

We need to get our New World sensibilities turned around so that, if anything, we’re helping others to figure it out for themselves. We can’t always just be about raising enough money to solve other people’s problems. We keep trying to maintain the illusion that we’ve got it all sorted out and we’re so ahead of the game that we don’t even have problems of our own. We go out and “solve” these remote problems, instilling a bit of the “American Way” out there. Once they derive the benefit, others soon believe they want to be like us, and eventually there’s a McDonald’s in the middle of Vanuatu.

If that’s what we really want the world to be, if that’s really the best idea we can come up with, then yeah, we’re on the right track. On the other hand, if we maintain that diversity is a good and necessary thing on a global-macro scale, then we have to stop rushing to fill the void whenever and wherever one materializes. There are more organic processes that can solve problems, over time, that offer more lasting improvement at less expense to the individuality of the community, and these I think are what we should be striving to promote and maintain.

If a community truly can’t solve its problems on its own, even over a certain period of time, sure, let’s send some help. Sometime however that help may be nothing more than a simple diagram, or a manual, on how to produce a slow sand filtration system, say, rather than raising millions of dollars to go there and create an advanced and energy-consuming system that would dramatically change the focus of the people’s lives.

We don’t always need mega-solutions. We have to get out of that mindset. “Small is Beautiful” is not just a slogan, or a book title. It’s a key to having a future worth having.

[* See Biosandfilter.org for the reference]

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