Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Starfish Fallacy

I realised today that I hate the Starfish Story.

You know the one. Everyone knows it. It's the one about the guy walking down a beach after a storm, with thousands of bright purple starfish littering the sand. He sees a boy in the distance, who picks up a starfish and throws it back into the ocean. Then he does it again, and again. The man goes up to him and says, "What are you doing? There's thousands of starfish on this beach. You'll never be able to save them all. You're not going to make a difference." And as the boy throws the next starfish into the water, he says, "It made a difference to that one." Cue moral, rainbows, butterflies, etc.

I used to have so much feels for this story like you, but then I took an epiphany to the knee. Now all it tells me is that life's a beach.

So here's why the Starfish Story rankles. It's been told so many times it's become a cliche, and, in a sense, the basis of our societal moral system. The idea that as long as you are doing something to help, it's good enough, because you're making a difference to the specific individual you're helping. You are convinced that you can ignore the rest of the stranded starfish as you slowly make your way across the shore - or at least, it is not your moral prerogative to help them, because what you're doing is the best you can do.

And that's the problem. The Starfish Story has created a society where people are satisfied with helping the individual without any consideration about fixing the system, so that the problem won't happen again. Instead of launching asteroidea back into the Pacific by hand one at a time, what about inventing a machine - a circle of shovels around a waterwheel - to fling them back at a faster rate. What about a giant rake mechanism to comb the shoreline and drag them back into the sea? What about erecting subterranean beach nets, which surface through the sand, capturing all stranded sea creatures flinging them back into the ocean? What about a weather-control device which regulates the severity of violent storms to prevent the starfish being stranded in the first place?

What I'm trying to get at here is the problem of "good enough". Our solutions to global problems aren't focused on fixing the broken system on a grand scale. We're focused merely on helping individuals tide through the imperfections: a stopgap measure, helping them conform to a broken system which might not be the best solution for that situation. I get the image of a child, standing in a circle of light, with a perfectly built tower of blocks, saying "Look what I did!", while the rest of her room outside of the light is in a messy chaos.

I bring up the example of Jacqueline Novogratz, who did a TED talk about a third way of thinking about aid. In it, she describes a cheap, simple irrigation technology that allows farmers to multiply their crop yield in the harshest, driest conditions, even throughout the year. She says that farmers are seeing massive increases to their incomes and stability in their life patterns. That's great and wonderful and everything, but their solution still only targets one small segment of the system, without addressing the problems of the rest of it. Assume a simple three-part system: farmers, who sell their produce to the transporters, who bring the food to the market. Everyone is in poverty, but you target the farmers to increase their yields. If you don't simultaneously find a solution for the drivers, who now cannot cope with the increased yield, all that extra food never reaches the market and is going to waste. You can hope that there is a positive feedback mechanism, where because the farmers' lives are improved, it sets off a chain reaction which brings the whole system out of poverty. But there was no mention of that in the video. You see pictures of happy farmers and you think, "She made a difference to that one," but none of the narratives tell you to think, "But what about all the ones she didn't make a difference to?"

This is annoying, and it bothers me. I find it uncomfortable that our society is content with settling for mediocrity, on settling for a "good enough" solution, on patching up holes in a shirt that might actually need to be replaced with a completely new one.

That is not to say that we shouldn't be helping at all. No, obviously helping is going to make some sort of impact, especially for the individual. That Pakistani farmer is going to be so happy; that's a great and wonderful thing. But what bothers me is that we stop there, and we focus so much on making farmers happy that we forget that the country is starving.

People are going to say that my theory isn't practical, that no one person can change the whole world. That this sort of thing is better left to governments, who are the ones who have a better understanding of the big picture. I'm just a small boy on a beach, this is the best I can do. That's the problem: you're not just a small boy on a beach. Each and every one of us has the potential to be something better, and has the capability of dreaming up or creating or designing or inventing something bigger than the limits of our feeble human frames. Generations of starfish in the future will forever be grateful for the orbital starfish relocation system that you invent today. We can do so much more.

If only we stop holding ourselves back.
The Edna Man

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