Sunday, September 21, 2008

Aw, Nets!

Uh-oh, I can feel my ambivalence rising again. Just saw the bit on the Colbert Report about "Nothing But Nets," donating $10 to this organization to buy a mosquito net for kids over in Africa to save them from contracting malaria. And at first my response is, "Aww, that's great! And only ten bucks!"

But then I start to actually think about it beyond the initial gut reaction that allows me to bask in my own sense of goodness when deigning to help the impoverished.

Firstly, those who don't die of malaria are exposed to plenty of other things (AIDS, starvation, exploitation and war, etc.) that cause suffering and death. Not to say, of course, that we shouldn't bother protecting against malaria... Just that it's the kind of short-sighted goal that allows well-off people on the other side of the world to feel good about themselves while doing, honestly, very very little to actually address their role in the problem. Not to mention if, for instance, this organization was about sending over condoms and other forms of birth control and drug treatments to combat AIDS, don't you think some jerk-off conservative Christians would be up in arms about it? AIDS is by far the leading cause of death in Africa, outstripping malaria by 1.3 million yearly (and that's not including the one-third of HIV-infected individuals who technically die of tuberculosis as a result of contracting the virus). Furthermore, this part of the world already suffers from acute over-population that, combined with the Western exploitation of workers and resources, leads to vast segments of the population starving, consistently if not always to death. If we focus our efforts only on combatting one form of disease, without addressing the education and birth control necessary to stabilize the population or the role that Western capitalist globalization plays in exploiting the poverty already rampant, then really all we're doing is exacerbating the situation.

After all, in a population that is impoverished, exploited and kept intentionally ignorant for the benefit of those living in luxury, preventing one particular disease won't make a dent--there will always be new diseases to come in and take malaria's place. That's how nature works. Over population leads to depleted resources, which leads to weakened immune systems, while at the same time the increased contact of people living in densely populated areas makes contracting and spreading disease all the more likely (not to mention violent conflict and sometimes war). With the exploitation of the capitalist "free market" removing resources and shipping them to the other side of the world, such resources are no longer available to sustain the immediate population, thus the circumstances of over-population are artificially created and maintained--then relief efforts by conscientious philanthropists (whose wealth comes from that very exploitation that created the problem) ship back just enough food and medicine to keep that population alive without removing the real cause of its poverty, if anything worsening the problem by allowing an increase in population in an area already depleted of its natural resources. It's Ecology 101.

But it's also very very hard to argue against fighting disease, especially when the prevention comes at, what seems to us, such a small cost. Ten dollars. I understand why, of course. People want to be good, they want to help, they want to believe it is within their power to save the lives of those who are suffering, they want to believe that they are powerful and that salvation is easy. People want to be good--it's just that they so very rarely bother to figure out how.

So. Before deciding to donate to Nothing But Nets, ask yourself this: why is a huge segment of the world's population so impoverished that they can't even afford that life-saving ten dollar net? What kind of sickening, reprehensible system are we living in that allows kids in this country to earn in two weeks' allowance what children in Africa are dying from lack of? And instead of just saying, here, take my ten dollars, just this once--what can you do to correct the system so that this type of disgusting inequality no longer exists? Does it mean buying locally grown/made organic foods and clothing? Does it mean examining the real cost of each household item you purchase instead of trying to get a good deal at Wal-Mart? Does it mean asking yourself where the oil needed to run your car and make your plastics actually comes from? Does it mean giving up your caffeine, nicotine and other legal and illegal drug addictions so that farmers across the globe can go back to growing food instead of cash crops to keep the wealthy high, buzzed and indifferent? Does it mean living in voluntary poverty in a country that dismisses the political and spiritual efficacy of such a choice as mere "backwardness"?

And aren't all of those choices a lot more difficult than dashing off a check for ten bucks and hoping that somehow someone else will figure out how to solve the problem without asking you to sacrifice the luxury that allows you your comfortable indifference?

Nothing but nets, indeed.

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