Even in 2020, Humanity’s Biggest Challenge Remains the Same It’s Always Been
We’ve survived disease and disaster for millennia — thanks to a skill we mustn’t lose
Every year, 1.5 million people die from diarrhea. That’s more than from suicide, homicide, conflict, and terrorism combined. It’s also more than all the victims of AIDS, malaria, and the measles. One in three of those deaths is a child under the age of five.
“Diarrhea?” you might wonder. “Really? I have never even heard of anyone dying from this in my entire life!” Yes. Really. Neither had I, and it shows just how lucky you and I are: We’re so far removed from the problem, we don’t even know it exists.
Neither did the richest man in the world.
On January 9, 1997, this headline adorned the front page of the world’s most respected newspaper — a newspaper delivered to over one million people each day — The New York Times.
The article was written by Nicholas Kristof, a man who went to Oxford and Harvard and has won not one but two Pulitzer Prizes. Kristof is a living legend in journalism.
On assignment in India, Kristof asked a woman where he could pee. She pointed to a gutter. It ran right into their supply of drinking water.
In Germany, many toilets charge 0.50 €, especially around highways. I often say it’s inhumane. I think no human being should ever have to pay to pee or poop. That’s a big lawsuit I’d one day love to bring.
Then again, the situation in India and Africa makes 50 cents look like a joke. The people there might not pay with coins, but they pay with their lives and children’s lives later. That’s actually inhumane.
Kristof was shocked. Here we were, after 2000 years of civilization, yet millions of people still died from complications around the most basic of human needs — and no one had even heard about it.
If that’s not a scoop, I don’t know what is. It absolutely deserves the front page. Yet, when an interviewer asked Kristof about his article 20 years later, all he had to say was:
“This article was quickly forgotten, except that it had a couple of important readers in Seattle.”
With an endowment of around $50 billion dollars, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is the largest charitable organization in the world. Without Kristof’s article, it would look very different today. It might not exist at all.
“By then, we had a young daughter,” Melinda says, remembering the piece. “And I knew if this child that I’m holding had diarrhea, I’d go to the pharmacy. I’d go to the doctor. If I was a mom in the developing world, this child might not make it.”
Millions of people read Kristof’s piece, many of which had millions of dollars, many of which were parents. Bill and Melinda stood out not because they were rich, but because they decided to focus on it — not just with words, but with deeds.
Until then, they had failed at spending the foundation’s money effectively. Sending computers to Africa didn’t help. Kristof’s article opened their eyes: These people don’t need PCs. They need toilets.
After 20 years, millions in investment, and countless prototypes, Bill and Melinda struck a deal with Lixil, a Japanese manufacturer. They committed to mass-producing a sustainable, $10 toilet the foundation had developed. The toilets will improve hygiene for 20 million people around the world.
While I can smell another scoop for Kristof, I don’t think it’ll hold a candle to his 1997 piece. “It’s the most important article I’ve ever written,” he says.
When she thinks about losing her child to diarrhea, Melinda Gates shudders: “You can feel, I think, as a parent, that capacity of how tragic that would be — and how needless and senseless. Just because the world won’t focus on it. Are you kidding me?”
Won’t. Focus. On it. In four words, Melinda Gates has captured humanity’s biggest challenge: Attention.
Our greatest struggle isn’t coronavirus. It’s not climate change. These are important, global issues, no doubt — but they’re only two such issues in a long series of challenges humanity has, historically, overcome.
We survived the Ice Age for over 10,000 years. We survived the Spanish flu. We survived these things because we focused on them. We spread the message around the world, and — tools or no tools — we did it until every citizen was informed, until every person could take action. We gathered our collective attention, and we directed it to the most pressing threat of our time — and that’s why we’re still here.
Channeling our attention is a skill each generation must learn anew, but, as a species, it’s a skill we must not lose. For the last 20 or so years, however, our grip on what matters has been slipping.
Thinking about his own profession, Kristof says:
“In journalism, we tend to cover what happened today. We’re all over a press conference, an explosion. We don’t cover things that happen every day.
We tend to miss those stories about the everyday suffering. And we miss the stories about everyday improvement in living conditions. Because things that happen every day are never quite news.”
What happens every day may not be news, but it’s what determines the future of mankind. If we don’t look out for it, the “everyday” will sneak up on us.
Coronavirus is a good example. Everyone had a chance to see it coming — and almost everyone turned away. We saw the news. We heard the reports. We had all the tools we needed to inform the entire world in a day, and yet, dozens of countries failed to focus on what blatantly stared them in the face: This illness is serious, and if you don’t act today, your people will pay for it.
The irony is tragic: We are more informed than ever, but we choose to meet said information with ignorance rather than action.
That’s how, “suddenly,” the world changes around us, for better or for worse, and once it has, it’ll feel like it did so without our own doing — even though it happened right in front of our eyes. That’s the price of not paying attention.
We live in a world where information drives everything. At the same time, the systems we use to spread, dissect, filter, and consume information are fundamentally broken.
We pay journalists for views instead of news. We use technology to make false information look real. Our biased brains struggle, and our phones are just echo chambers, feeding us more and more of what we think we already know.
The media. Social networks. Apps. It’s all riddled with flawed incentives, conspicuous design, and toxic consequences for us, the attention payers. It’s funny, this phrase. “Paying attention.” Never has it felt more accurate.
Managing our attention may seem like yet another half-relevant, unimpressive problem, but it’s not. It’s our biggest.
If we don’t focus on whatever threat currently looms nearest to humanity’s survival, eventually, one of those threats will swallow us whole. And if we don’t pursue those threats to elimination — not just in parts of the world but everywhere, they’re never really gone.
Mastering our focus is a task bestowed on humanity as a whole, and yet, it’s a challenge we can solve only at the individual level. You’re reading articles online. You’re already winning. Don’t give up your pole position.
Curate your sources of information carefully. Treat them like a garden. Weed out what makes you sick, and cherish what nourishes you.
Don’t get lost in status games. Don’t use what you believe to score points on the social hierarchy board. Your opinions will change based on those points, but what we really need is for you to think for yourself.
Don’t let technology hijack your brain. Impose boundaries. Detach. Make sure you come to the information fire hose with a clear and structured mind, so that when you come to it, you can figure out what’s drinkable and what’ll only poison you.
Unlike the water in India, what you pay attention to may not be a matter of life and death for you, but for someone else, it might be.
It’s easy to let important ideas slip by. Kristof’s article had every advantage in reaching the people who were able to do something about it — and yet, only two of those people truly did.
If you don’t decide to focus on something, you can’t expect that thing to change. If it’s not important to you, why should it be to anyone else? To make that decision in the first place, however, you must control your attention.
Should civilization ever disintegrate, it won’t be because we were careless or didn’t try hard enough to save it — it’ll be because, for way too long, we paid attention to all the wrong things.
It’s not too late. Manage your attention. Focus on what matters, and you’ll force the world to do the same.