Monday, September 27, 2010

A Cholera Outbreak in a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Given the magnitude of the universe in which we live, I presume that intelligent species abound. I also presume that these species are located on planets so far from one another that no two will ever make contact. (Regardless of what James Cameron tells you, it's very unlikely that humankind will ever travel to the star system next door, let alone traverse the galaxy like the USS Enterprise—especially since taking care of matters on earth always will be higher on the to-do list than interstellar travel.)

Recently astronomers have discovered that large, spiral galaxies "eat" their smaller neighbors. For those of us on earth, images of one galaxy consuming another are spectacular. But who knows how many civilizations have been devoured by a hungry spiral galaxy. Shouldn't we mourn for our peers on other worlds who are destroyed by astronomical phenomena? Maybe. But given the immensity of our universe, it is possible (probable?) that, at any given moment, an intelligent species goes extinct.

At this point I'd like to propose what I call the law of emotional proximity. This law says that our emotional investment in a tragedy is inversely proportional to our distance from that tragedy. A murder or suicide in one's neighborhood likely will leave one sad and shaken. A murder or suicide in another part of the world likely will have a negligible affect on one's emotions.

Here's an equation based on the law of emotional proximity:

The emotional impact of a tragedy on an individual is equal to the severity of the tragedy divided by the proximity of the tragedy to the individual.

In other words, a natural disaster in Mongolia must kill and/or displace millions of people in order to provoke an emotional response from someone in Missouri equal to that provoked by a natural disaster in Illinois that kills and/or displaces dozens. We care more about things that happen close to home that we do about things that happen in other nations (or other galaxies). It makes sense. The most effective way to meet all people's needs is for localities to take care of their own. And for much of human history, a tragedy on another continent may as well have stricken a far-away planet. One thousand years ago, someone in North America would have been oblivious to a disaster or epidemic in Africa or India, and certainly would not have had the means to help any victims of such a crisis.

Today things are different. We have access to news from other parts of the world; we have means to raise awareness and to donate money and supplies. And we probably have a responsibility to stay informed and to act. Once upon a time, people made their clothes, grew their food, and bought and sold goods locally or regionally. Today, most anyone who lives in a developed nation wears clothes, uses electronics, owns toys and/or knick-knacks, and sets things down on furniture that was manufactured elsewhere in the world. Since we rely on the global community to provide us with inexpensive goods, we should pay attention to when our global neighbors are suffering.

I say all of this because recent months have seen a major cholera outbreak in Cameroon and Nigeria that has killed more than 1,000 people and infected several thousand more. But after much searching, I've determined that no one—outside of the group that set up this project at Global—is doing anything. The Global Giving project is seeking the modest sum of $4000 just to help people in the northern provinces of Cameroon. In more than six weeks, it has only raised $60. So stop by and donate $10 (or more) then check with your favorite international aid agency and ask, "Are you doing anything to help cholera victims in Nigeria and Cameroon?" Then ask, "Dude. Why not?"

See also: Pakistan Needs Help

Update: Read this report on the cholera crisis from the Cameroon Tribune.


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