In 2008, I spent a summer in Chile as an exchange student. It was that pivotal experience that launched me from being an American teenager into embracing world-conscious adulthood and made me see everything differently.
While there was plenty that I loved about living there (far more good than bad), I was saddened by the amount of poverty I saw.
Some people lived in shacks barely held together. Starving street dogs roamed around looking for food.
I stayed with a family that was considered upper middle-class — a newer car, a decent house, steady jobs, plenty of food — so I was somewhat cushioned from the worst of it.
(And frankly, Chile is a rich country for Latin America. The richest, in fact, south of the United States. Yet we also have a shameful number of homeless people living in the U.S.A., don’t we?)
There was one time, however, that I was out with my host father, and he had to make a stop at someone’s house. The guy was a friend from church, and my father, Sergio, was going to help him with something I’ve since forgotten.
At one point, I asked to use their bathroom, and they politely showed me where it was. On my way there, I observed just how poor these people were.
They lived in what was basically a shack. But what really opened my eyes was when I saw the bathroom.
I don’t recall if there was a door or not, but I don’t think there was. And then there was the toilet. It was dirty and there was no seat on it, and since I had to go number two, let’s just say my calf muscles got a workout.
I didn’t think to wonder, at the time, about whether they had clean water to drink.
Needless to say, I was glad when, the next time I needed to use a bathroom, it was clean and had a seat. What a blessing it is when you don’t have it — how simple yet important!
Now, when you begin to think about how many things seem wrong with the world — like the poverty I saw in parts of Chile — it can be overwhelming. That, in turn, can make you throw up your hands and say, “What’s the bloody point? There’s just too much to do.”
I don’t like focusing on lack or negativity very much, so I tend to avoid spending my time reading about things I can’t control.
Still, sometimes it’s worth discussing, because we are far more powerful than we think to affect change, especially when we take a huge, seemingly insurmountable problem and break it down into smaller pieces.
Take the issue of global poverty. Theoretically speaking, we know that we could completely eradicate poverty fairly easily. There are 1,426 billionaires in the world as of 2013, who possess a collect net worth of 5.4 trillion dollars — yes, that’s trillion, with a t.
With even a small portion of that money, we could bring the entire world out of poverty.
Of course, prying money from the grasp of those men and women isn’t as easy as talking about it, and then you run into cries of socialism and government overreach.
Add to that the reality that throwing money at a problem doesn’t just make it go away — you also need a plan and a hell of a lot of people to implement it — and you’ve got yourself a seriously complex issue.
Complex, but not impossible. Let’s start where we can affect a change immediately.
That takes us back to the toilet and water issue. (This article from NPR’s horribly named health blog “Shots” was what got me thinking about it.)
The impoverished family whose toilet I used actually had a toilet that flushed — albeit a dirty, hardly functioning one. I don’t know whether that toilet was responsible for spreading disease, honestly, but sadly, that wasn’t the worst toilet option for some people.
Consider these words Andreas Lindstrom of the Stockholm International Water Institute:
“It’s still more risky to go to the bathroom in many countries than [it is to do] any other activity.”
With my small bladder, that would mean trouble for me. Seriously. That shouldn’t be something people even have to worry about in the first place.
Examining this from the 10,000 foot view, only 4.5 billion people in the world have working toilets. About 6 billion people — 1.5 billion more — own cell phones.
But what if everyone had access to sanitary toilet facilities? There would far less disease, infant mortality rates would drop, life expectancies would rise, and more people would have clean water as a result.
I don’t think this is too much to ask of the world to provide everyone with clean toilets and water. It would take planning and money, and it wouldn’t solve all our problems, but it would be a big step, and it’s a step that needs to be taken. We owe this to our fellow human beings.
Matthew Stensland-Bos explores consciousness, love, wellness, healing, and global issues in Know This Love, a weekly SFBay opinion column, as well as on his blog, Conscious and Nutritious.