Everyone in this room knows that children in Africa are starving to death. We see it on TV, we read about it in the newspaper. We throw it out casually at the dinner table – “There are children in Africa who don’t have any food, so make sure you eat all your broccoli!”. We are distantly aware that people the world over are facing terrible situations, that these people suffer. And sure, we have things such as the 40 Hr Famine, and maybe some of us even go beyond that and do more, but I have to pose the question: what is society as a whole doing about this suffering? The truth is, most of the people living in first world, ‘privileged’ societies don’t spare much thought for it. We find ourselves plagued by conditioned apathy, turning a blind eye to the needs and goodwill of many. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the vast majority of the public does nothing. We have become individualistic and inequitable to the point of pain, losing our ability to sympathise and to provide unselfish aid to those with whom we should feel a connection. I can’t help but think that if everyone in the ‘first world’ knew the truth and the depth of the atrocities faced by those in poverty, in starvation, in wars and famines and slavery, then we would be making a more impactful difference in their lives. But we aren’t angry, and our range of impact is limited.
There are many aspects of today’s society that are at the heart of this problem; I could argue that our profit driven society wants us to believe we live in a safe happy world where we can spend money on luxuries guilt-free, so aims to distract and blind us. I could argue that this has created an attitude of commodity, in which we hold material belongings over all else, including the wellbeing of others. I could argue that we are stuck in the mindset of: ‘If I’m all good, everything’s all good’. The rise of individualism has stunted our ability to care, to imagine what it feels like to watch your family starve because there’s nothing to eat, to lose everyone you love to a war that you have no part in – because as long as you’re fine, then you can’t fathom someone else’s pain. I could argue that we find ourselves plagued by the delegation of responsibility – we’ve all, at some point in our lives, thought: ‘It’s not my place to intervene. There’s nothing I can do. It’s up to someone else.’ And I could argue that the cause of the entire problem is the conditioned apathy of society as a whole. We are exposed to these articles and features on the TV so often that we have become desensitised to it – we no longer see the suffering of our fellow human beings. We shake our heads, say ‘That’s terrible, it’s horrible, what a shame’ and then move on with our lives. We feel no desire to get out and help, to discover the truth and then change that truth.
And the truth is this: I am in the top 34.56% of richest people in the world. There are roughly 5 billion people in this world who earn less than me every year. Me, a high school student, with no degree and minimal qualifications, working a weekend job. Every 7 seconds, a child is lost to hunger and starvation. Worldwide, there are currently 1.2 billion people living in extreme poverty – more than 250 times the population of New Zealand. Nearly half of the world’s population live on less than US $2.50 a day. An estimated 33,000 people are forced to flee their homes every day to escape war and persecution. This is the truth. No matter what anyone likes to think or believe or ignore or acknowledge, the truth is that there are people suffering all over the world. But we can change this truth.
In fact, if the richest people in the world pooled their wealth, they’d have enough money to solve global poverty several times over. To add statistics to this – the richest 0.7% of the population hold over 40% of the world’s total wealth while the poorest 68.7% of the world only own 3.0% of the world’s wealth. The key to change is flipping around our reaction to suffering. Instead of an attitude of commodity, we need to embrace an attitude of humanity – putting people in front of products and considering what will be beneficial to all of us. And instead of thinking ‘If I’m all good, everything’s all good’, which isn’t fair, we need to think ‘I’m all good when everyone’s all good’. Instead of delegating responsibility, we need to take ownership. This is our world. We are responsible – every single one of us – for what happens here. There are no sweatshops in New Zealand, no forced slavery, but guess what? If you buy clothes from a company that uses sweatshops, you are endorsing that type of production. And there’s a simple solution to this: stop buying clothes from these stores. You will stop supporting this method and help enforce a change that will directly benefit billions of people who work in horrific conditions for little pay.
And finally, instead of conditioned apathy, we need to feel righteous anger. To redevelop our ability to feel sympathy for the plights of the less fortunate and to actively search for ways to help, in our families, our communities, our countries, and our world. We have the ability to stop such atrocities as sweatshops, an action that will be beneficial to all concerned. Our societies have the capacity to be more diverse and interconnected than ever before, to see ourselves in relationships with other countries and cultures, and to promote goodwill and friendship where it was not before. It is simply unfair that anyone should have to live in poverty while someone on the other side of the world earns thousands of dollars every hour. So I ask again: what is society as a whole doing about this suffering? And more importantly, what are you?