The Life You Can Save

This is an excerpt from Peter Singer’s book The Life You Can Save, which helped inspire the foundations of One Percent Collective through its simple call to action: if everyone contributed a small amount, we could create some positive change in the world.

When he saw the man fall onto the subway tracks, Wesley Autry didn’t hesitate. With the lights of the oncoming train visible, Autry, a construction worker, jumped down to the tracks and pushed the man down into a drainage trench between the rails, covering him with his own body. The train passed over them, leaving a trail of grease on Autry’s cap. Autry, later invited to the State of the Union Address and praised by the president for his bravery, downplayed his actions: “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular. I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”

What if I told you that you, too, can save a life, even many lives? Do you have a bottle of water or a can of soda on the table beside you as you read this book? If you are paying for something to drink when safe drinking water comes out of the tap, you have money to spend on things you don’t really need. Around the world, a billion people struggle to live each day on less than you paid for that drink. Because they can’t afford even the most basic health care for their families, their children may die from simple, easily treatable diseases like diarrhoea. You can help them, and you don’t have to risk getting hit by an oncoming train to do it.

I have been thinking and writing for more than 30 years about how we should respond to hunger and poverty. I have presented this argument to thousands of students in my university classes and in lectures around the world, and to countless others in newspapers, magazines, and television programs. As a result, I’ve been forced to respond to a wide range of thoughtful challenges. My book, The Life You Can Save, represents my effort to distill what I’ve learned about why we give, or don’t give, and what we should do about it.

We live in a unique moment. The proportion of people unable to meet their basic physical needs is smaller today than it has been at any time in recent history, and perhaps at any time since humans first came into existence. At the same time, the proportion of people with far more than they need is also unprecedented. Most important, rich and poor are now linked in ways they never were before. Moving images, in real time, of people on the edge of survival are beamed into our living rooms. Not only do we know a lot about the desperately poor, but also we have much more to offer them in terms of better health care, improved seeds and agricultural techniques, and new technologies for generating electricity. More amazing, through instant communications and open access to a wealth of information that surpasses the greatest libraries of the pre-Internet age, we can enable them to join the worldwide community – if only we can help them to get far enough out of poverty to seize the opportunity. 

The economist Jeffrey Sachs has argued convincingly that extreme poverty can be virtually eliminated by the middle of this century. We are already making progress. In 1960, according to UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, 20 million children died before their fifth birthday because of poverty. In 2007, UNICEF announced that, for the first time since record-keeping began, the number of deaths of young children has fallen below 10 million a year. Public health campaigns against smallpox, measles, and malaria have contributed to the drop in child mortality, as has economic progress in several countries. The drop is even more impressive because the world’s population has more than doubled since 1960. Yet we can’t become complacent: 9.7 million children under five still die; this is an immense tragedy, not to mention a moral stain on a world as rich as this one. And the sharp rise in food prices that occurred in 2008 could still reverse the downward trend in poverty-related deaths. 

We can liken our situation to an attempt to reach the summit of an immense mountain. For all the eons of human existence, we have been climbing up through dense cloud. We haven’t known how far we have to go, nor whether it is even possible to get to the top. Now at last we have emerged from the mist and can see a route up the remaining steep slopes and onto the summit ridge. The peak still lies some distance ahead. There are sections of the route that will challenge our abilities to the utmost, but we can see that the ascent is feasible. 

We can, each of us, do our part in this epoch-making climb. In recent years there’s been a good deal of coverage of some among the very rich who have taken on this challenge in a bold and public way. Warren Buffett has pledged to give $31 billion, and Bill and Melinda Gates have given $29 billion and are planning to give more. Immense as these sums are, they are only a small fraction of what people in rich nations could easily give, without a significant reduction in their standard of living. We won’t reach our goal unless many more contribute to the effort. 

That’s why this is the right time to ask yourself: What ought I be doing to help? 

It may not be possible to consider ourselves to be living a morally good life unless we give a great deal more than most of us would think it realistic to expect human beings to give. If it is so easy to help people in real need through no fault of their own, and yet we fail to do so, aren’t we doing something wrong?

What would your fair share be? One very crude way of calculating this figure is to estimate by how much the income of the world’s poor falls below the poverty line, and then calculate how much money it would take to move all the poor above this line, to the level at which they have enough income to meet their basic needs.

Jeffrey Sachs did this and concluded that in 2001 it would have taken $124 billion a year to raise everyone above the poverty line. The combined gross annual income of the 22 rich OECD nations in that year was $20 trillion. Therefore the contribution needed to make up the shortfall is 0.62 percent of income, or 62 cents of every $100 earned. A person making $50,000 per year would owe just over $300. This is hardly a crippling sum. By comparison, in 1999 Americans spent $116 billion on alcohol. Giving just half of this to the poor would cover all Americans’ share of what needs to be done, and still allow those who enjoy a drink to have one or two.

What does it takes to live ethically in a world in which 18 million people are dying unnecessarily each year? That’s a higher annual death rate than in World War II. In the past 20 years alone, it adds up to more deaths than were caused by all the civil and international wars and government repression of the entire 20th century, the century of Hitler and Stalin. How much would we give to prevent those horrors? Yet how little are we doing to prevent today’s even larger toll, and all the misery that it involves?

Reprinted from The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer ©2009. Published by The Text Publishing Company.

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