Kelsey Piper on "The Life You Can Save"

by Aaron Gertler1 min read4th Jan 20213 comments

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COVID-19 pandemicMotivation
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Most of the cross-posted article is a straightforward review of the book. But I thought this segment at the end was especially well-put, even compared to other messages of its type. (Emphasis mine.)

In many ways, The Life You Can Save is a straightforward success story. Singer made his case for helping people, and thousands of people listened, changing the global development world and promoting the growth of new charities that are even better at helping people.

But in 2020, that success story should be — at least slightly — qualified. The year-over-year decline in global poverty will reverse this year because the coronavirus has caused economic disruptions worldwide.

Compounding that is the overwhelming feeling of exhaustion that many of us feel after such a trying period. We’ve all made very real sacrifices this year for our own safety, the safety of our families, and the safety of others. It feels almost unfair to ask for anything more. Beyond that, there may be the matter of morale. For those who have been giving regularly, it was encouraging to participate in a movement to drive down global poverty and needless death year after year after year. 2020 has been the opposite of encouraging. Instead of getting better, many things got worse.

But the core message of The Life You Can Save actually matches some of the lessons of 2020. When you can save someone’s life with steps that might not be easy but are not overly burdensome, you should do so. The challenges we face might feel overwhelming, but the steps we can take are quite concrete and simple. If wearing a mask saves lives, you should wear a mask. If donating $50 or $100 or $500 or 10 percent of your income — whatever you can reasonably give — to the poorest people in the world saves lives, you should do that if you can afford it. You don’t need a grand theory of how you’ll solve the whole problem to save a life. You can do it when the whole world is on your side, and when the whole world is ignorant and ignoring you.

Here’s where the stubbornness of The Life You Can Save ceases to feel like a shortcoming of the book, and starts to feel like its greatest virtue. In many ways, the worst thing about 2020 has been the helplessness. And The Life You Can Save is a book that persistently, repeatedly, point by point refutes all our justifications for helplessness. There are problems that seem so vast and confusing that we may want to believe they couldn’t possibly be our problems. But the challenges that the world’s poorest face — infectious disease, malnutrition, extreme poverty — are easy to beat if the organizations fighting them have the resources they need. And we have the power to help in that fight.

The Life You Can Save is intimidating because it argues you should help people. But it is empowering because it argues that you can help people. At the end of a year shaped by forces beyond our control, that epiphany is a gift.

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Thanks Aaron, I wouldn't read this if you hadn't posted it, and I think it contains good lessons on messaging.

Thanks for posting this! This can be pretty helpful for figuring out from which angle to approach broader audiences and people who are more skeptical about our ability to make a change.

Nice, thanks. I use this message a lot during broader outreach outside of the EA world, I think it works!