I was writing a message to a friend about how to think better about cause prioritization and decided to write a short story to illustrate the points better.
I was trying to convey these themes:
- Not all causes are of equal importance.
- Things that seem more virtuous on the surface are often not, or at least they’re much more complicated than they appear (e.g. banning plastic bags or buying local)
- Presentation and persuasive ability matter.
And these were some of the articles I was thinking about while writing:
“Eight villages in our district have had significant to total structural damage from mudslides. Furthermore, the weather conditions conducive to mudslides have only been increasing in the past decade.”
Professor Cristian Avendaño clicked the button and a list of temperatures, wind conditions, and annual rainfall popped up on the screen. He looked every bit the absent-minded professor in his weathered sport coat with elbow patches. But his mind was far from absent.
“As you can see, the water accumulation is a serious problem.”
More graphs and figures appeared.
The professor glanced up and saw half the council nodding politely and the other half trying to stifle yawns. Most of the villagers were on their phones or peering around the auditorium.
If they would have read the slide, they would have seen that the professor’s model predicted the chances of a mudslide destroying their village were one in three in the next five years.
The head of the council pressed down on his mic.
“Thank you for your presentation, Professor. We’ll take your suggestions under advisement. Now, Ms. Zelada, you have something you’d like to speak to us about?” his voice perking up at the end.
Eliza Zelada stood up confidently and smiled.
“Yes, thank you, Councilman Ricardo.”
Her stroll up to the lectern would have been equally at home on the runway with her long, red dress flowing around her. She leaned forward and tapped the mic.
“I am here today to talk to you about a grave problem that requires our immediate action,” she said, spreading her arms out for effect.
The villagers began sitting up in their seats and clearing their throats. The room was suddenly at attention.
She clicked the remote.
A giant photograph appeared on the screen. It was of a bunny huddled in a trash pile, surrounded by plastic bottles and dirty newspapers.
Gasps filled the room.
“Is the bunny okay, Mamá?” a little girl quietly sobbed.
Eliza paused and took in the moment before continuing.
“How can this be our lovely village? How can this be our Salgar? We must do something about this! Immediately!”
Cheers filled the room. Councilman Ricardo clapped the loudest of anyone. It had been rumored the councilman and Eliza were having an affair.
Gerardo the restaurant owner stood up. “From now on, I will only use sustainable products!”
Applause. Eliza nodded approvingly.
Mrs. Domingo, the matronly figure who watched many of the village’s children while their mothers worked, stood up. “We will switch to reusable diapers!”
The professor started scribbling some calculations on his yellow legal pad. His brow furrowed. Taking into account the energy required to manufacture reusable diapers and the cost of washing them, he doubted they would result in a net reduction in pollution. It might take years to break even. They would also pose an increased risk of spreading disease, especially given the shoddy hygiene standards of some members of the village.
Edgar, the shopkeeper, promised to get rid of plastic bags.
Eliza was speaking again. “Councilman, how much is in the emergency fund account?”
The councilman cleared his throat and adjusted his tie. Obviously, a little uncomfortable at having to actually put a figure on it. “Around 50,000.”
“It’s not nearly enough but it will be a start!”
All of the villagers stood up and met her words with thunderous applause. Councilman Ricardo looked a little less enthusiastic but clapped nonetheless. The cheering and assurances to act closed out the night.
The village held another meeting the following month.
“Now, an announcement! Reusable totes with a lovely illustration of a bunny on them will be available for purchase after the meeting. A percentage of the proceeds will go to the Beautify Salgar Project!”
Councilman Ricardo watched nervously as his wife and Eliza smiled and exchanged banter. Eliza had designed the bag and his wife had drawn the bunny. They had gone to great lengths to find material for the totes within the region after an anxious villager brought up “the importance of buying local”.
Avendaño knew that it was much cheaper and required much less energy to produce material in the East than here and that the efficiency in global transport would make the travel cost a pittance. He thought about proposing the village focus on its comparative advantage but had learned enough to know that the work of Adam Smith and David Ricardo would be lost on the villagers.
“The bunny will soon be nesting among the totes.” he muttered to himself.
After the meeting, Eliza waved at him on his way out. “Have a good night, Professor. Oh, and take a bag!” She handed the professor one of the totes. The bunny on it was quite cute, he had to admit.
“Thank you, Eliza.”
Avendaño’s mother was getting up in years, so he would visit her every few months to be a good son.
He packed his clothes, some books, and the tote in his worn brown suitcase and lugged it to the bus stop. The clouds in the sky foretold rain. He felt his lips moving and realized he was mouthing a prayer of protection. Something his mother taught him when he was a boy. He knew it was superstitious and silly but couldn't seem to shake the habit, especially in moments of worry like this.
The bus came and they were off. The bus’ lurching up and down the mountain roads made his heart race and he tried not to calculate the odds of a catastrophic accident.
His mother lived in a village even more remote than Salgar. The professor had made many fruitless attempts to set her up with a generator for electricity but she would have none of it. The old woman was stuck in her ways and happy enough.
At least it was a good opportunity to pour himself into his work. That is, when his mother wasn’t telling him stories of how different the world was back then. He looked around the humble home and wondered if his mother knew just how much the rest of the world had changed.
The rains came and poured and poured. He patched some holes in the roof to stop the leaks coming down. His thoughts went to his home and his village but he had no way to reach them.
Finally, it came time to leave. He kissed his mother goodbye.
“Focus on finding a wife, Cristian, as much as you focus on your books.”
She said the same thing each visit.
He walked in the rain to the bus stop, huddling under the awning with the only other person waiting.
“Hello,” said the man. A poor farmer by the look of him.
“Hello,” said the professor. He liked poor farmers. They were honest.
“Quite some rain,” the farmer said, looking up at the storm.
“Yes, quite some rain,” said Avendaño somberly.
The bus made its way back through the mountain roads and by a miracle, didn’t get stuck anywhere despite what seemed to be the driver’s intent.
It finally stopped and he waved goodbye to the farmer.
He suddenly felt light-headed. As he looked up, his knees buckled and he dropped to the ground.
Mud covered everything. The homes that once housed him and his neighbors were now mangled casualties of nature. The belongings of the villagers were now mixed among the mud and trash.
His village of Salgar was no more.
He cursed the villagers and cursed himself for not doing enough.
Some movement caught his eye. A white flash in the brown sea. It was the bunny, hopping off in the direction of the trash strewn village of Magallo. The professor let out a defeated sigh and stood up to join it.
Six months later...
“Professor Avendaño, we appreciate your presentation on uh... ‘the likelihood of H. hampei destroying the local economy in the next five years’. A little bleak and alarmist but I suppose someone should play the pessimist.”
Avendaño sighed. The Councilwoman was already moving on to the next speaker.
“Santiago, you have something you like to talk about?”
“Yes, thank you, Councilwoman Medina. There is an issue we must do something about. An issue that absolutely requires immediate attention! Our church is in vital need of remodeling. Is the House of the Lord supposed to look like a rundown dump? Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe deserves the best!”
“Would the council like to vote on an emergency measure to increase sales tax to raise funds for the church?” Mr. Castillo asked.
“Excellent idea, Mr. Castillo!” said Santiago. In fact, he had arranged for Castillo to ask the question at that very moment.
“Very well. All in favor?” Councilwoman Medina said, surveying the room.
The vote was a unanimous yes except for Salvador, the shopkeeper.
“Old Salvador!” called Santiago. “Always a holdout.”
Salvador scoffed. “I heard that your cleaning company got the contract for this job,” he said. “How much was the contract for, Santiago?”
“Come now, Salvador!” said Santiago with a smile. “We can’t only think of ourselves. How can you put a price on the beautification of our holy church?”
“You deserve to be beatified for your graciousness,” Salvador said, gritting his teeth.
A few weeks later, the professor and the bunny were on their morning walk along the coffee plant fields.
The church was as filthy as ever. Cleaning efforts were supposed to start last week but Santiago was holidaying in the city.
Mrs. Martinez passed by.
“What a lovely bag, Professor! We need something like that for Magallo.”
“Thank you, Julia.”
Just then, he noticed a small black beetle land on her shoulder. He peered down at it. H. hampei. The coffee borer.
Professor Cristian Avendaño groaned, wondering where he and the bunny would go next.