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2700 BCE, An Unnamed River-Valley Civilisation

Karami looked out on the large town from the roof of the temple, watching the tiny rice-grain specks of people moving about on makeshift docks, pulling up sopping nets from the river. Most people were out in the fields; it was nearly the rainy season and the grains had to be sown in time for the deluge. Across the river, another temple was being built, a great hulking thing made of limestone blocks so large that they had to be dragged by twenty men.


Karami looked out at all this, and felt that strange feeling stir in her chest again, the feeling that had moved in her since childhood. But on this day, with the sun sluicing its pale rays through the clouds, touching gentle fingers on the waters, the feeling came stronger. Before, the feeling had been ill-formed, a general impression that seemed to say we could do things better. The sensation reached out over the temples and huts and fishing boats, and hinted at a different world, a world where her people thought hard about how to improve their lives, and acted together on their decisions. Today, the feeling came with ideas, more fully formed than ever before. Like a thunderclap it came to her, and before she knew it she was rushing down the stairs of the temple. Through the streets she ran, gathering the elders and the people of the village. The town had regular meetings, so though the timing was strange, people emerged from their homes and lifted their heads from their work and followed her back to the temple.

She stood on the dais and bowed to those who had gathered: a small sea of faces, young and old, fishermen and farmers, parents and priests. Karami was only a fisherman’s daughter, but her father managed many boats and was respected by the community. She knew this gave her at least some credibility. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time she had spoken at a meeting. She took a deep breath and began.

“My friends, we all work hard to improve our town, this cannot be disputed. But I worry that sometimes, our most earnest efforts are misplaced. It is not enough to want to do good. We must think hard about how to do good, and how to do it well. The kindest farmer can kill his crops with crowding,  and the most industrious fisherman will catch nothing with holes in his net. We must combine our hearts and our minds.”

Someone called out then. “How are we to do this?”


Karami smiled then, in the excitement of revelation. “I have thought of three measuring sticks that we may use to judge our actions,” she said.

“The first measuring stick is Importance. Before giving our time, effort, and resources to a problem, we must ask: how important is this to our community? Is it as important as putting food in our bellies, and healing the sick? Or is it merely a small thing which pretends to be important? We must always ask ourselves: how many people will this help, and how much will it help them?

“The second measuring stick is Traction. Like the plow that cleaves easily through soft soil, we must decide which problems we can make progress on, and which problems are yet out of our grasp. A man may struggle fruitlessly for days to move a boulder from his field, when instead he could clear a hundred smaller stones to make way for crops.


“The third measuring stick is Neglect. As individuals, we must ask of a problem: how many other people are working on this already? Imagine coming upon two fields: one is being plowed by twenty men, and the other by only three men. If I choose to help the twenty, my efforts will be wasted; they do not need my help! But if I help the three men, my efforts have a great impact, and the field is plowed much faster.


“So it is my suggestion that we consider which of our problems are Important and Neglected, where we may have some Traction, and focus additional effort to solving these problems. What say you?”


There was great and excited discussion in the hall of the temple then. Some argued that their town already did these things: what could be more important than fishing, farming, and prayer? Others argued that her measuring sticks were foolish, or that such concerns should be left to the gods. Still others claimed that different measuring sticks should be used.

But in all the great discussion that followed, some heard Karami’s words and caught a glimpse of a different world: a world where kindness and reason were forged together, where the works of men were good and true, and made a difference. These people, with this gentle vision in their hearts, stepped forward and said that Karami was right, and that they wished to help her.


And so, it began.


They gathered twice a week by the docks, and considered what the most important problems were. On the first day, many problems were suggested. And yet, most were found to fall short of the measuring sticks.


“We must do something about crocodile attacks!” one fisherman cried. “It is surely a serious problem. Three moons ago a man had his hand bitten terribly by one of those beasts.”


Karami thought on this, and replied.


“How many crocodile attacks have there been this year?”


The fishermen discussed, and came to a count of eight.

“And how many of those attacks resulted in a man being seriously hurt or killed?”


The fishermen discussed again, and came to a count of five.

“And how many people are in this town?”


The priests checked their stone tablets, and came to a count of one thousand three hundred and twelve (approximately).

“It seems to me,” Karami said, “that crocodiles only seem to be a terrible problem because of how fearsome they appear, and how stories of crocodiles capture our attention. But this year alone, perhaps three hundred people have died in our village from Mosquito Illness. That is…” she counted in her head… “sixty times more than deaths from crocodiles. And yet, because it is less exciting, we consider it less important.”


There was great excitement at this revelation, until someone called out “but what of Traction and Neglect?”


Karami thought on this, and asked the fishermen: “what measures have been tried to reduce crocodile attacks?”

“We have already built walls on the town banks, to stop crocodiles from nearing the houses,” one mused. “But they mostly attack men on boats anyway. We do not near the edges of our boats except to haul netting of course, but that doesn’t help much on smaller boats. We have tried spearing crocodiles to reduce their number, but there are many of them. We are even building that new temple to the crocodile god, to appease their appetite.”

“When then,” said Karami, “it sounds as though the crocodile problem is far from Neglected. Perhaps people even worry about it more than they should. It also seems as though it is difficult to get much Traction beyond the floodwalls that we have already built.”

“Then what of the Mosquito Illness?”


Karami reflected. “Well it certainly seems Important. And I fear we may have Neglected it also. What have the people of our village tried to avoid the illness?”


“We have tried fires, in the hope that mosquitoes dislike the smoke” a woman volunteered. “But it only works for a  short time.”


“What of Traction?” another asked.


“I do not know,” Karami admitted. But then a young man spoke up.


“I had an idea some moons ago,” he ventured tentatively. “Mosquitoes tend to become active in the evenings, and bite us while we sleep. If we made… a net of sorts… like a fishing net but finer… a kind of fabric covering that people could place over their beds. Then the mosquitoes could not get through.”


An old lady spoke up next. “My mother always told me that our neighbouring town grew citronella plants for their oil. She said they would rub the oil on their arms and necks before going out on the water because mosquitoes dislike the smell.”

It began to dawn on the group that although mosquitoes were small and unassuming, in reality they were far more fearsome and terrible than crocodiles. But this had only been discovered through what Karami called ‘neutrality’ – looking with clear eyes at each issue and seeing what the evidence told you. Another spark had also been lit, a spark of hope that they could do something about it.


They went on like this, considering problems and solutions, the group scribe writing down their conclusions in a simple script of his own design (Karami thought that clever writing systems were probably Important and Neglected, so she encouraged him to teach his script to the group).

After two weeks of discussion, they had a list of problems that they thought were Important, Tractable, and Neglected. They were:

Preventing Mosquito Illness

Teaching People About the Measuring Sticks (and Perhaps Writing and Arithmetic)

Researching Better Materials and Energy Sources

Reducing Risk of Warfare Through Trade (and Festivals?)

Mitigating Flood Risks Through Proper Drainage

Researching Other Causes We Have Missed


And one day, it was time to start doing. Theorising was important, and perhaps a little too enjoyable. But as one elder noted, they would learn more about Important problems and their solutions by trying things than they could by merely discussing them. And so they began the process, with great tenderness and quiet hopefulness, of making the world a little better.

One group recruited seamstresses and net-makers, and designed a kind of ‘bed-net’ that could protect a person from mosquitoes while they slept. They distributed these through the community to whoever would take them. Some scoffed at the idea, especially the older fishermen who considered themselves above such cowardice. But over the next few months, it became clear that households who used the nets suffered from Mosquito Illness far less than others. And so, before long, bed-nets were so popular that the group were nearly run off their feet with demand and had to recruit more fabric workers. Meanwhile, the lady who had suggested citronella oil made a trip to the nearby town, and persuaded a few of their fishermen to show her how they extracted oil from the plants’ leaves, and how they applied it on their arms and necks before entering the reeds to hunt eels. This too was regarded with suspicion by the local community (a foreign gimmick perhaps) until it seemed to work. Soon you could tell a fisherman by the sweet smell of citronella lingering on his sun-warmed skin.

That year, fifty three people in the town died of Mosquito Illness. They were each mourned, each given a promise from the townsfolk that they would do better, try harder. But since the previous year, around two hundred and fifty people’s lives had been spared, snatched from the jaws of a statistical terror by bed-nets and oils alone. Two hundred and fifty living, breathing people with families, friends, hopes and passions, who would have died of a monstrous disease but had not. Karami’s heart nearly burst with the joy of this revelation.

Meanwhile, others worked on building a school, where they could teach people to write in the script the scribe had developed, and do some basic mathematics. This turned out to help with measuring grain stockpiles and the hauls of fisheries, giving the townspeople a much better understanding of how much food they had and needed in each season. They also taught about the Three Measuring Sticks, which were critiqued, modified, and improved by newer members to the community. There were many arguments, many disagreements over what was important, or neglected, or tractable. But there was never antagonism: they all felt that they were on the same team, fighting for the Good. All they had to do was work out the details.

And work out the details they did. Soon some of the local priests and scholars lent a hand, helping to measure and research problems and their solutions. The school became an Academy, a beautiful building of sandstone and marble, with three interlocking sticks over the door as a symbol of progress.


Some of the community travelled to distant kingdoms in search of new and valuable information. One came back with scrolls showing a new kind of material. Apparently, if they could melt copper in their pottery kilns, and add a certain proportion of tin (which Karami had hardly heard of) then they could make a new material, a metal the foreigners were calling ‘bronze’. Bronze was said to be strong and durable, ideal for making all sorts of tools far more sophisticated than the stone, pottery, bone, and ceramics that they currently used.

The town had access to copper, but needed to trade resources for tin from the towns over the hills to their east. This was perfect, as the group had decided that preventing warfare through trade was important on its own merits already. And so the town sent spokespeople, diplomats, merchants and tradespeople, and helped to pave roads between the nearby towns. They traded fish for fabrics, grains for medicines, and copper for tin. And so, they began smelting bronze. Karami could not believe the ingenuity of her townspeople. Some young men designed better plows, and one woman made a great curved blade that could reap a field of grain in half the time. There was speculation that if they could get their kilns hot enough, they may be able to make even stronger metals.

Trade flourished, relations were good. One of Karami’s cousins organised a grand festival for the solstice at the trade crossroads, where all towns were welcome. The revelry was wild and joyous. Late into the night, Karami found herself dancing around the great fire with a man from the nearest village to her own. The flames lit his eyes with a curious intensity and he smiled.

“My friend says that you have a hand in all this.”


Karami thought back eleven years, to an impossibly young version of herself, standing on that temple roof. She grinned.


“I helped.”


He laughed at this modesty, and spun her around, joining a group of cheering townsfolk. In that bright night it was impossible to tell where a person came from. Her town? The next? One beyond? And in the midst of that great festival, Karami realised that they had been focusing exclusively on their own town. Were not the people of these other towns worthy of concern? Was it not true that some of them were far poorer than her people? Did they not have the resources to spare?

And so, they expanded their sights, over the hills of their valley, to other people in other places. Yes, they still built better drainage for floodwaters, and improved their agricultural techniques through careful experimentation, and researched ways of making energy (Karami’s husband, the man from the festival, was sure that the flow of the river could be harnessed by a great wheel of some sort). But now some of their group set their sights beyond their own town. They brought surplus grain in great caravans to drought-stricken villages, and bed-nets to other towns further along the riverbank. They helped towns to set up their own Academies, to develop their own economies. They shared their most useful knowledge on curing and preventing diseases, and improved agricultural practises. It was as though, from their little valley town (now a far busier place) a great circle was expanding, bringing a combination of goodwill and rigorous reasoning.


Karami had daughters, funny and clever little things that grew like wheat stalks and surpassed her in height before she could come to terms with it. One traveled, seeking out new knowledge in lands across the mountains to the east. Another fixed her sharp mind on farming, and was shocked by the treatment of animals. At a town meeting she made a strong argument from the Three Measuring Sticks: animals acted like they could suffer, and so perhaps they could. If that was true, then it was Important, Neglected, and Tractable to be gentle to them. Karami, a woman from a different time, was unsure; but a town majority carried the measure, and farming practises began to adjust to make the lives of cows and sheep better.


Fifteen years passed, and Karami grew old. Those younger than her, with the energy and fresh eyes of youth, toiled at the Academy, working on new problems and their solutions. Above the front entrance, the words had been engraved: Think Clearly, Help Better.



One day, Karami lay in her home surrounded by children, grandchildren, friends, and her sweet husband, grey of hair and beard. She knew that had little time left in this world, in this valley, with these people. She had helped, she had made things better. And now, she felt she could rest, safe in the knowledge that others would carry on this torch.


And so, she gathered her grandchildren close and told them a story. She told them of a young girl, standing on a roof, heart aching with desire to do good, not knowing how. She spun a tale of bed-nets and the first bronze-tipped plow, of fields turned from pitiful plots of seed to seas of golden grain. She spoke of diseases extinguished, floods moved aside, empty bellies filled. She talked of towns laying down their weapons and coming together in pursuit of shared goals, of an expanding circle that grew from their valley and may encircle the world.

And then she told them a new chapter, a chapter that no-one had heard. She told them of new metals, great water wheels, and unthinkable iron ovens which chewed up materials and spat forth powerful steam. She told them of great discoveries, inventions which had yet to be conceived which could make new medicines, new ways of travelling and making food.


She spoke of terrible dangers, furious weaponry and new sicknesses, risks that came with riches. They would have to be smart and good and true, she told them. But oh, the world you might build my children. We can scarcely imagine. A world where we drive back disease and death, poverty and want, war and catastrophe. A world where the combination of heart and mind tip the scales of humanity’s great struggle and people are free to live in ways they please. Great gleaming cities, horseless carriages, music that would make the gods cry. And beyond that, a world where we can reach out and touch the firmament, and make homes among the stars, and make our world a shining garden, a place where we write the story of our own lives and where the worst tears are wiped away. This is my gift to you, my children, if you can help to build it.

And the children looked up with starry eyes, full of love for all, and excitement for the future, and a determination to be kind and clever and to make the world a good world. We inherit their legacy, and the journey continues. A golden road beckons us into the future, the great adventure of our time.


Author’s note: Karami is fictional, but her ideas are real. They form the basis of a movement known as effective altruism, with members around the globe. To learn to think like Karami about the world’s important problems and how you can help to solve them, visit effectivealtruism.org, or sign up for a virtual program at effectivealtruism.org/virtual-programs/





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