The Malaria Paradox: Should We Sacrifice People to Save the Planet? E-mail
Thursday, 12 April 2012 10:00  |  Written by Steven Kotler | Commentary

Children in Poverty with Preventable Diseases, photo by Venetia Joubert Sarah OosterveldIn a book written in 2009, The Life You Can Save, Princeton philosopher Peter Singer created the ethical quandary now known as the pond example.

This week, in his column for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof introduced the pond example and applied it to the participants in the G-8 summit. In his version, the world leaders are walking by a pond and spot a young girl drowning. There are no cameras around and the leaders have very pressing concerns with profound global implications that a rescue operation will delay addressing. In short, every second counts.

The pond example asks a simple question: what should they do?

Of course, this is a trick question; the obvious answer is save the girl. The reason this is a trick question when applied to the G-8 is this: if these leaders are willing to risk much to save one girl, why are they lagging in meeting long-established humanitarian-aid pledges to save other children? (Singer, by the way, uses this same example to ask why we are so lagging in stopping the spread—and outright cure—of malaria, which kills hundreds of thousands of children a year)?

Unfortunately, this is actually a trick question packed inside a trick question.

“Carrying capacity” is a term used by population biologists to describe how many residents a given eco-system can have before resource scarcity causes implosion. The current population of the Earth is almost seven billion people, while its carrying capacity, according to most of the top scientists who have attempted to address this question, is somewhere around two billion (though MIT’s Marvin Minsky believes, especially if people insist on an American standard of living, that number could be as low as 100 million).

This is a radical disparity. The math is frightening. Worse, we now live in a very interconnected world and, as we have been endlessly told, we are running out of resources. From this point onward, we are borrowing from Peter to pay Paul.

This means that for every one child we bring into the world, three more children will most likely not survive. If they do manage to eke out an existence, it will be meager and hardscrabble and will—if they survive more than a few decades—most likely end horribly.

The point is that it is no longer a question of should you or should you not save the drowning girl. It’s the fact that even if you do save her, so many others are going to die as a result. That’s the frightening math.

The truth of the matter is that the pond example is quaint. It’s an already outdated philosophical quandary. Here in the 21st century our version is so much more complicated.

Take the malaria crisis that Peter Singer was originally interested in solving. Certainly, malaria is a terrible disease, the leading cause of illness and death worldwide. And it is almost completely preventable (with the simple solution of five-dollar mosquito nets or spending the money needed to develop a viable vaccine).

But malaria kills one-and-a-half to three million people each year—and right now, considering our ongoing environmental problems, that may be a terrible version of a necessary evil.

So the modern version of the pond example is really the malaria paradox. Save those several million who annually die from the disease and we condemn triple that amount to a far worse fate. So what should we do?

Before I attempt to answer this question, I want to bring up one other point. Last year, in a New Scientist interview, James Lovelock—one of the best global-warming experts around and the man who discovered the ozone hole (that older global-warming problem)—pronounced that the future itself is in question.

As Lovelock put it: “I think it's wrong to assume we'll survive 2°C of warming; there are already too many people on Earth. At 4°C we could not survive with even one-tenth of our current population. The reason is we would not find enough food, unless we synthesized it. Because of this, the cull during this century is going to be huge, up to 90%. The number of people remaining at the end of the century will probably be a billion or less. It has happened before: between the ice ages there were bottlenecks when there were only 2000 people left. It's happening again.”

For this reason, all of these problems are actually a nesting box of woes. But the outer shell of that box will, at least for the foreseeable future, always be our environmental problems.

Right now, we are working our way from the interior of the nest (where things like malaria sit) to the exterior (where climate change resides), but this is a backwards paradigm. We can cure all the disease we want, but it’s only going to exacerbate the situation. This is the awful, hard truth.

Another such truth is that no one wants to ignore the drowning girl, so we’re back to the paradox. Again, what should we do?

There is an obvious, albeit radical, solution: a portion of every dollar spent on humanitarian aid should be funneled to environmental causes, specifically (at least for the immediate future) to fighting deforestation, which annually accounts for 25% of global emissions of heat-trapping gases.

People are going to say that I’m suggesting we save trees instead of people, but that is the incredibly myopic view. What I’m really suggesting is that we save less people and more trees now, so that we can save far, far, far more people later.

The rainforests of the Amazon, Congo Basin and Indonesia are the lungs of the planet. As a recent Global Canopy Programme (an alliance of leading rainforest scientists) report stated: “If we lose forests, we lose the fight against climate change.”

The reason I’m suggesting this is because there is no other way. This is not a question of now or later. It’s a question of now or never. If we don’t start saving those trees, then there really will be no saving us.

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Comments (1)add
Written by TJ , July 14, 2009
The writer's argument, although attractive on the service, just plays into the hands of capitalistic greed by assuming we can't both cure the sick and save the planet. We certainly could--if our politicians weren't beholden to the fat cats who are making huge amounts of money from endeavors that contribute mightily to global warming, including war to protect their international exploitation. This stops the politicians from passing stringent enough environmental regulations and convinces them they haven't enough money for humanitarian projects. Also, it is important to mention that once countries move out of poverty and educate their citizenry, birthrate drops. So saving a few people now from horrible poverty and disease does not necessarily doom us to greater catastrophe later on.
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