Violent Generosity, The Way It Should Be

A cloud of huffing fog emanated from the breath of shivering humanity, shining in the neon lights of the dark parking lot.  The air was cold and crisp, with the sharp scent of snow stinging the nostrils of all those that dared to deeply inhale the night chill.  The parking lot itself gave the impression of a snow globe, the bright lights washing out the stars and covering the sky in a murky haze that put a claustrophobic ceiling above the huddled masses.

The shoppers had been there for hours to buy some new things, having just eaten a meal that signified all of the things they were thankful for.  The wind was unforgiving, coming straight down the parking lot and cutting through the clothes in all of the gaps.  Rich people with money playing homeless for a night, but just half a night, because in a few hours they were going to splurge their wallets with reckless abandon.  They crowded up against the wall of the store, bundled up in their winter gear as they waited for the blackest of night, when Black Friday truly began.

The crowd, with one mind, started chanting down a countdown from 20, as various models of last year’s cell phone verified that midnight was within reach.  Excitement stirred up the masses as they prepared themselves for the American version of the Running Of The Bulls.  What had been a collective of social solidarity huddled outside for warmth was going to turn into a capitalistic nightmare at the end of this countdown.   The stampede was ready; it just needed someone to open the gate.

When the countdown reached five, some unsuspecting cashier opened the door, just barely jumping out of the way to save her own life.  The first in line were sprinting, sprinting, to get to the most coveted of deals.  The race to the riot was on, but in this store things were slightly different.

The Heifer Project International (HPI) had finally opened up its first large box store to compete with other large box stores like Wal-Mart or Best Buy.  Customers could go in and buy miniatures of animals, farm equipment, water filters, and many other boons for the developing world and those that struggle to survive in it.  These miniatures could be turned in for the real thing, which would be sent to a family in need in some third-world developing country.  This year they decided to partake in the madness that is Black Friday.  They were a new store.  They weren’t ready for the swarms of people that had arrived, wallets in hand.

The first display to be demolished was the heifer stand.  What took a minimum wage warehouse worker and two volunteers 2 hours to set up in a glorious display was torn apart in seconds.  The display was a sprawling mass, arms writhing about to grab, lift, pull, and even steal any box that had a picture of a cow on it.  These cows were 20% off, after all, and those savings were worth the shivering, sweat, tears, and blood.  The last few boxes were pulled in various directions by an unrelenting tug of war.

The shouting match had begun.
“Let go!  I need this for a noble Peruvian soul who is trying to start his own farm from nothing!”
“No way!  This heifer is going to a recently orphaned teenage boy in Chad that is raising his sisters!”
“I’ve got a girl on my list, who needs a cow to restart her farm in Ecuador.  Give it to me!”

Shoppers were now fighting each other at the heifer display, and the chaos spread throughout the store.  The water buffalo stand was hit next with a fury of ravenous commercial hysteria.  One man climbed from behind the display, falling over once he grabbed a water buffalo figure someone else had their hands on.  He fell into the current and was never seen again.

The mob was not contained to just that.  The rabbit isle was cleaned out in 4 passes by one man with a shopping cart and a mission.  He simply stuck his arm out and ran forward, fashioning a make-shift snowplow that dumped every last rabbit avatar into his cart.  He was the first to sprint to the check-out desk, but not without losses.  As he pushed through the ever-expanding cluster of humanity coming through the doors, people reached into his cart to steal a rabbit or two.  He made it to the check-out counter with half of the two thousand rabbits he had started out with.  The clerk started to scan them as quickly as she could.  “Got a thing for rabbits?”

The man just smiled at her with the radiance of unrestrained competitive generosity.  “I’ve got enough rabbits for all 100 families in need on my list.  I’ve been saving up since September to make them happy.”

The cashiers hadn’t been hit yet, but they would be.  The shoppers were still pouring into the store and fighting each other.   In the “Women’s Empowerment” section of the store (yes, HPI has a Women’s Empowerment section, your local Wal-Mart doesn’t?), a group of third wave feminists were having a shouting match with a group of first wave feminists over which was more helpful: sending girls to school or launching small businesses.  The second wave feminists had all grouped their money together for a gift of reconstructing an economic structure in Rajasthan, India, and they were on their way to check-out, forming a human wedge to protect the carrier of their purchase.

Engineers, plumbers, and other blue-collar construction workers were the best organized, distributing the various water wells, irrigation pumps, and water purifying stoves between them.  With less money to spend than some of the other shoppers, these guys and gals weren’t able to wipe out their section of the store as quickly, they just wanted to hang around and see other folks with the same priorities.  Each purchase of a water system for them was a victory for each of them, unlike the bedlam of the sustainable farming section which was overwhelmed with environmentalists, vegans, and vegetarians attempting a coup over the faculty of HPI.  A loud thud trumpeted their victory as an entire shelving unit was pushed over, sending more figurines on the higher shelves sprawling on the floor.  A carpet of people hit their knees to grab the various plastic figures of crops, fruit trees, and garden baskets.

The store was bankrupt of inventory in 45 minutes.  Shoppers late to the brawl waited near the warehouse entrance, where the stockpilers would come out with a cart full of new figurines from the back.  They never made it further than 10 feet into the store before they were ambushed.  The warehouse workers took to the new strategy of loading up a cart and just pushing it out into the store, chumming the waters for the shoppers.

The checkout tables were an uproarious ruckus.  It was 1 in the morning, and HPI had not anticipated the crowds for today.  Swiping the purchases as quickly as they could was not quick enough.  The lines grew restless.  Some took to calling out for gifts from their neighbors.

“Anyone got a beehive?  I’ve an elderly couple in Guatemala that can’t do the hard labor for the veggies or live stock.”
“I’ve got seven girls on my list, and I want an education for all of them!  Anyone got any leftover educations?”
“I got an entire village set with gardens, educations, and live stocks.  I need an irrigation system to complete the set!”

The closer the crowds got to the cashiers the more obnoxious they got, each yelling for the cashiers to hurry.

“I need to go to the HPI store in the next city over!  I didn’t get all the geese I wanted!”
“When do you restock?  I’m not leaving until hunger is solved or my bank account runs dry!”
“Do you have an online catalog?  I wanted to help five hundred families, and I only got three hundred varieties of plants before you ran out!”
“Are you sure there aren’t any more educations to hand out?  Can someone check the back?”

The cashiers went as quickly as they could.  Money was being literally thrown at them; they were not able to keep up.  Tills were being run to the office, overflowing with cash.  Credit card machines were going down as they couldn’t take the violent swipes from the throng of people.  Checks were pulled out next.  Sometimes people further back in line would throw money at the cashier just to clear out the person in front of them so they could make their own purchase.  To further facilitate the chaos, the crowd started chanting “No change! No change! No change!”   Even when the cashiers tried to shove money into the hands of their customers, the customers wouldn’t take it.  “No Change!” they yelled, and ran off into night, dumping their figurines in a recycling bin, finally ready for Christmas to begin.

Ice Bucket Killjoys

Today is Friday, the day I talk about the issues.  Today’s issue is that there are people out there being killjoys about the Ice Bucket Challenge.  In case you’ve been living in such a way that you could find this obscure blog but miss the social phenomenon that has taken over every form of social media and the news, the Ice Bucket Challenge was a fun publicity stunt designed to raise a lot of money and awareness about ALS research.  The idea is that if you get challenged by someone, you have to send $100 to ALS research.  If you don’t have $100 or don’t want to send $100, you can instead dump a bucket of ice water on your head and send only $10 instead.  Then you chain letter 3 other folks and make them do it.  It seems that most folks opted for the ice bucket and then sent the $100 anyway.  As a publicity stunt it worked wonders!  Celebrities got involved, the public got involved, and for the month of August it was all the rage.  There were more than 739,000 new charitable donors and raised $41.8 million dollars in the space of one month (double what they got last year).

Of course, we can’t have a giant phenomenon where millions have a good time, lots of disposable income is pushed to a good cause, awareness of the terrible disease is increased, a readily replenishable resource is used, and people are temporarily discomforted for the amusement of others without the killjoys raising their voices in protest.  The killjoys are a group of folks that have to be outrageously upset about something that doesn’t impact their lives in the slightest bit.  They are obstinate gadflies who just want to poo-poo whatever it is that their pretentious ire is aimed at.  I’m not sure if it is out of spite, out of jealousy, out of a need for attention, or out of a dark soul that bemoans goodness and joy in any form, but the killjoys are here to talk bad about the Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC).  It’s just so easy to sit there, doing nothing, and complain about something while other people are out doing something.

The first thing that the killjoys latch onto is that the IBC is “wasting water”.  I’m not sure what to say about that, because the idea is really stupid.  These folks are acting as if the Conservation of Mass was not in effect, that once the water is dumped out it is gone forever.  The Earth has 321 million cubic miles of water, and even if the water from these IBCs did disappear from the universe, we’d be fine.  Of course, the water does not disappear, it rejoins the water cycle.

Maybe these folks aren’t scientifically illiterate and are more concerned that we are taking water and dumping it on the ground.  The USGA predicts that 2.08 billion gallons of water are used to irrigate all the golf courses in the US every day.  To put that in perspective, that is everyone in the United States doing the IBC with a 6 gallon bucket every single day.  Not for charity, but so that a few well-off suburban dads (mostly) can enjoy their really green playground that poor people aren’t welcome to.  Granted, most of that water for the nation’s golf courses is pulled from ponds, lakes, and it isn’t sanitized.  But that doesn’t stop Americans from dumping sanitized water on the ground all the time.  The typical American household has a sprinkler system that uses 265 gallons of water per hour.  They should only go for 15 minutes, which is literally taking sanitized drinking water and dumping it on the ground at the rate of 66 gallons every day, about 200 every week with 3 days of sprinkling.  That is, if they aren’t overwatering (which is a widespread practice).  If wasting water really offends you, start the campaign for outlawing lawn watering.

How about just dumping water down the drain?  A typical load of dishes uses 20 gallons of water if you do the dishes by hand and leave that pesky faucet on, 10 gallons of water if you are using a modern dishwasher.  3-ish gallons per toilet flush if your toilet isn’t new, 1.6 gallons per flush if it is.  A full bath can be about 40 gallons of water, a shower is 5-ish gallons per minute (Americans average a 50 gallon shower).  I haven’t even talked about washing the car, cooking food, actually drinking water, laundry, or many other water intensive activities.  A nice little water-conservative family of 4 living in suburbia USA uses about 280 gallons of water a day, 1,960 a week, and 8.4K gallons a month.  It’d be such a shame if 6 gallons of water went to a charity event.

Really, if ‘wasting’ water bothers you that much, you could instead do a charity of your own where you donate $88 dollars to buy someone with an older toilet (3-5 gallons per flush) a high efficiency toilet and another $29 on a WaterSense shower head (2 gallons per minute as opposed to the average of 8).  You’ll save about 42 gallons of water per person that uses that bathroom exclusively.  It would require effort, though, and that’s why I don’t expect the killjoys to take this idea and run with it.  It’s a shame, because I’ve got a great plan to kick-start this charity.  Let’s have folks dump 42 gallons of ice water on their heads to show how much water could be saved a day with just a donation of $117 dollars.  That’d definitely raise awareness!  Or have an Office Space moment where people take baseball bats to the old toilet.  I bet all sorts of people would watch toilet destruction videos.  Of course…then the killjoys will say that everyone is being wasteful and over-burdening already full landfills.  They just have to be offended by something.

Drinking water isn’t a precious resource in the United States.  At my current rate in New York, where everything is expensive, I can get a gallon of water out of my tap for less than a penny.  We have plenty of infrastructure that lets us convert absurd amounts of water to be safe enough to drink.  6 gallons here or there doesn’t really matter.  That’s 6 cents worth of water.  The ice costs 25 times more than the water.

The second complaint I keep seeing is that there are lots of people without drinking water, and the IBC is affecting them in some way that…um… well the killjoys never seem to finish their thought.  It’s the same thinking that an American child needs to finish their vegetables because there are starving children in China.  The thoughts aren’t related.  I’m not sure why this complaint is a thing.  Are they mad because we dumped that readily accessible resource on the ground rather than boxing it up and sending it UPS over to some unspecified thirsty individual?  Are the killjoys mad that thirsty people without access to drinking water weren’t given a plane ticket so they could come over to participate in the fun?  What is the complaint?  You might as well get mad at those kids in Alaska for throwing snowballs at each other and wasting the snow when there are kids in Hawaii that have never even seen a snowflake.  One place has the resource in droves and the other doesn’t.

I can tell you what the complaint is: Inequality exists in the world.  Inequality in the world is a very serious topic and one that troubles me often, but saying that the IBC is making it worse isn’t valid in the slightest.  It’s tragic that people don’t have access to clean drinking water, but that isn’t affected by the IBC.  Wasting water here won’t hurt or help folks over there.  Preserving water over here won’t hurt or help folks over there.  Locking up 6 gallons of water in a shrine to be revered and honored for generations to come won’t hurt or help folks over there.  Really, the “we’re wasting water when there are people that don’t have water” argument is really dumb because any resource could be used here.  If it was the “Eat 5 Poptarts” challenge, killjoys would be mad about wasting food from a place with an overabundant supply of food.  If we did a “stay awake all night” challenge, folks would be mad because insomniacs everywhere can’t get enough sleep.  Some people just refuse to let a good thing go by uncriticized because they have to be offended.  They need to be offended.

Yes, inequality exists in the world, and one of the best ways to combat that is through charityCharities like the IBC are great to combat inequality.  If you want to talk about inequality, let’s talk about the tens of thousands of individuals suffering from ALS that could greatly benefit from some very expensive research.  If you want to talk about inequality, let’s talk about people in the richest nation on earth using their iPhones and internet connections to help redistribute $41,000,000 of their throw-away change to help people that have it worse off than themselves.

Are there valid criticism of the IBC?  Actually…yes there are.  Some folks don’t like it because ALS research is sometimes done with detriment to animals.  Some folks question where the money would be going to (does it go to actual research or some CEO of a research lab?).  Some folks think that ALS is hogging all of the charitable giving (the numbers haven’t come in on this yet, so I can’t say if it is true or not, but my feeling is that the IBC generated extra giving without cannibalizing a large percentage of donations).  These folks I can tolerate, because they’ve put thought into what they are doing as opposed to throwing an immature hissy fit/temper tantrum in order to gain attention for themselves (my favorite one so far calling the IBC a Satanic Ritual).

What has the Ice Bucket Challenge done right?  More than raising $41 million for charity, it briefly made charity cool again.  For a while, people were talking about charity and giving.  They were excited about giving.  That hasn’t been a common conversation in years.  My wife and I talked about how we’d been slacking off on our giving to our charities of choice and how it would be nice to start that up again (my favorite is Heifer Project International).  The IBC brought with it a spirit of generosity that’s been sorely lacking.  It showed that we are very capable of addressing social issues if we want to.

Final thoughts?  I have a few.  I don’t have any data to back this up other than my gut feeling, but charitable people tend to be really excited about folks being generous.  It doesn’t really matter what the good cause is, charitable people are excited that other people are putting their money into the cause they care about.  If you ever find a charitable person, ask them, and they will tell you all about their charity of choice because it matters to them.  That’s why I think the killjoys really don’t have a leg to stand on, because I don’t think they give to any charities.  They don’t have a dog in this fight.  I have trouble seeing someone with a charitable heart donating hundreds of dollars to one charity and mocking and jeering someone else for donating to something else they care about.  I have trouble seeing a charitable someone missing the point so completely while saying “you’re giving to ALS?  Well I give to cancer research, and they didn’t need a stupid gimmick, so I’m better than you.”  Charitable people don’t talk like that.  Killjoys do…except for that part where they give to something else.  It really just sounds like an excuse to remain selfish.

So to you killjoys of the world, I offer you your own challenge.  You don’t have to dump water on your head or anything.  Just give a little bit of your spending cash to any charity you think is worthy.  $50 should do it.  If you are so offended by the inequality in the world that the IBC highlighted for you, I suggest giving to Heifer Project International.  If you were made aware of people without clean drinking water because of the IBC, I suggest giving to water.org.  I think the simple act of giving will change your heart a bit.  I wouldn’t put your money where your mouth is because I think that bragging about your charity is really just a self-promotional bit of advertising that still helps the cause but robs you of any personal growth you could have enjoyed.  It’s the difference between saying you care about something and proving it.  What will the challenge prove?  Not a whole lot, no one will really know that you did it, but I think it’ll change you for the better.  And if it doesn’t, you can tell me all about it and I’ll apologize to you personally for ruining the good name of killjoys everywhere.