We aren't passengers on spaceship Earth, we're the crew. We aren't residents on this planet, we're citizens. The difference in both cases is responsibility.
-Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart
I believe that a friend of mine had it right when he said that one of our principal jobs in life is to leave the campsite cleaner than we found it. Imagine what America would look like if each and every American were seriously engaged in his or her own act of cleaning the campsite. Some might take on healing our fragile environment, and others might take on ending hunger and homelessness. Still others might focus on transforming our schools, especially for those who are most often left behind. I really believe that if every American embraced this idea, there wouldn't be enough problems to go around.
So why don't we? Why does it seem that there are too many problems to tackle and that one individual can't make a difference? Is it that we don't know much about the problems we face and the opportunities that exist to solve them?
I grappled with these questions more than 20 years ago when I first got involved in ending world hunger. It took me on a journey through the uncharted world of political action. I had lived in Miami all of my life. I was 31 years old, had studied music, taught high school, and played percussion instruments in the Miami Philharmonic for a dozen years. None of these are major credentials for a budding career as an activist. And to make matters worse, I felt absolutely hopeless about solving any global problem. So what were the steps that took me from hopelessness to action?
In 1977, I went to a presentation on the Hunger Project. Up until that point, I hadn't thought about world hunger much, but when I did, I was quite sure that hunger was inevitable, mostly because there were no solutions. It had to be that way, because if there were solutions, they certainly would have been implemented. But at the presentation it became clear that there was no mystery about growing food, becoming literate, and gaining access to clean water, better health, and nutrition. When I looked at it honestly, I discovered that I was not actually hopeless about the perceived lack of solutions. No, what I felt hopeless about was human nature! People just couldn't be counted on to do the things that could be done to end hunger. I also realized that there was one human nature that I did have control over-my own.
This was an epiphany for me, and it forced me to confront my whole relationship with commitment. Up until that point, for me, commitment had a kind of 'I will if you will' ring to it. 'I'll recycle if you will,' I might think. 'Oh, you won't? Then I won't either.' But at that moment, commitment began to shift from an 'I will if you will' to an 'I will whether you will or not.'
The hopelessness I carried was not unique to me. We all have our own versions of it. And we must face the sluggish, sticky ugliness of the hopelessness we carry around if we are to make any headway. So start with Step 1: Get in touch with your commitment to serve, your commitment to leave the campsite cleaner than you found it. You might do this by remembering a time when you were moved by some simple act of kindness, from one person to another or from one person to many others. You might think about a time when you were moved by one person's courage, perhaps a person of limited means or limited power having the courage to take a stand.
Then go to Step 2: Face a problem that concerns you, preferably something about which you could feel passionate-something that lights you up. If nothing comes up at first, that's probably an indication of deep resignation about addressing local, national, or global problems. Don't worry, you are exactly where you should be. Give it some time and thought.
That will immediately lead you to Step 3: Face the hopelessness you feel about the problem. Maybe you were very active in the past but have given up in some way. Your inaction or limited action on the problem is probably a symptom of your hopelessness.
Step 4: Look for solutions. This step requires a little research. What is the best thinking on the problem? What ideas or interventions could make a real difference if people got behind them?
Try this one on. UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, states that each day, 32,000 children die from largely preventable malnutrition and disease. Yes, that's 32,000 children dying every day and, yes, from largely preventable malnutrition and disease (such as malnutrition coupled with measles or malnutrition coupled with pneumonia). Thirty-two thousand children die each day. I know, it's very hard to let something like this in. Recently, I had a glimpse of what it might mean.
A few weeks before beginning this essay, Washington, D.C., the city where I live, was hit by a snowstorm that was followed days later by an ice storm. While carrying my 22-month-old son, Micah, I stepped off the curb and slipped, and both of us fell to the icy pavement. He was unhurt, but he could have suffered a severe, even fatal, injury. In the days following that fall, every time that I let myself consider the worst-case scenario, waves of grief swept over me. I know that the 32,000 sets of parents who will lose their children today feel a far deeper grief than I felt at just the thought of losing my beautiful son.
What would it cost to save most of these lives? Maybe a few cents' worth of measles vaccine, maybe a dollar's worth of antibiotics. These figures make the following statement by retired Oregon senator Mark Hatfield even more prophetic. Speaking in 1984, at the height of the nuclear freeze movement, Senator Hatfield said, 'We stand by as children starve by the millions because we lack the will to eliminate hunger. Yet we have found the will to develop missiles capable of flying over the polar cap and landing within a few hundred feet of their target. This is not innovation. It is a profound distortion of humanity's purpose on earth.'
Think about it. We live in a country in which the will to develop missiles is much stronger than the will to save millions of children each year. That's something worth getting passionate about. And isn't that one of the major reasons we are here, to find and correct profound distortions of humanity's purpose on Earth?
This inevitably leads you to Step 5: See the warrior inside of you, the person of courage that maybe you've never really expressed. You'll need to connect with your courage because you'll face constant pressure from yourself, friends, and the culture to not get involved or to give up when things get hard.
Here is another way to look at the kind of courage I'm talking about. For the last few years, I have been director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign. It is an effort to reach, by the year 2005, 100 million of the world's poorest families, especially the women of those families, with credit for self-employment and other financial and business services. I have a small, young staff. Whenever I do an interview with a prospective staff member, I let them know what I am looking for in an employee. The first thing I say is that I am looking for someone who is committed to expressing his or her greatness. 'What does that mean to you,' I ask, 'and when have you expressed your greatness?' It is fascinating to see how people react to that question and hear how they respond.
For me, expressing your greatness is doing something that you can't see yourself doing. It's going beyond your perceived limits. There is an anonymous quote that begins to touch the place about which I'm talking. 'Be outrageous. It's the only place that isn't crowded.'
So you've 1) gotten in touch with your commitment to serve, 2) faced a problem that concerns you, 3) faced the hopelessness you feel about the problem, 4) looked for solutions, and 5) connected with your courage. That logically leads you to Step 6: Find others to work with, both locally and, if it's a national or international problem, with an institution and people that are working at that level. In other words, don't do it alone. If you try to do it alone, you'll never make it.
I moved through these 6 steps and started a journey that I could never have predicted. In 1978, I began speaking to high school classes about world hunger. Between 1978 and 1979, I spoke to 7,000 high school students. In preparation for my first presentation, I read statements from Jimmy Carter's Commission on Hunger and from the National Academy of Sciences Food and Nutrition Study calling for the 'political will' to end hunger. At that point, I wasn't sure what political will was, but I knew it might start with a basic awareness of who represented us in Washington. So I asked that first high school class to tell me the name of their representative in Congress. I was shocked to learn that only 4 out of 28 knew the answer. So I asked the next class, and none of the students knew. Do you have any idea how many of the 7,000 students knew their U.S. representative's name? Two hundred.
I started RESULTS, a citizens' lobbying organization dedicated to creating the political will to end hunger, as a result of this gap between the studies calling for the political will to end hunger and my experience with these 7,000 students. When things got difficult, the experience with these 7,000 students served as part of my foundation, part of my grounding. It gave me a direct sense of what needed to be done. We had to find a way to generate political will. We had to teach the skills of democracy and acquaint people with their government, starting at the most basic level.
That was in 1980. Due largely to RESULTS' leadership, U.S. government funding for UNICEF and the Child Survival Fund (a foreign-assistance program focused on basic health measures like child vaccinations) has grown from $42 million per year in 1984 to about $455 million a year in 2000. Child death rates have declined from 41,000 a day in 1986 to 32,000 today, saving some three million young lives each year. This is real progress, but the child death rates are still scandalously high.
Michael Rubinstein, a RESULTS volunteer leader in Maryland, tells of his first RESULTS International Conference in 1986 and provides a glimpse into how this shift in priority and funding occurred. He describes a Congressional staff panel on increasing the Child Survival Fund from $25 million to $75 million.
'The Hill staffers told us we shouldn't ask for more money,' Michael remembered. 'We were lucky, they told us, if we got a slight increase. If we asked for the full $50 million increase, we would just alienate members of Congress.
'The message that the Hill staffers shared with us had no impact whatsoever,' Michael continued. 'The 300 RESULTS partners in the room listened carefully, asked questions, were polite and respectful-even enthusiastic. But they were completely unmoved by the discouragement. Nothing was going to stand in the way of our vision. Children were dying and they needed vaccines. The politics were irrelevant. I have seen too many starry-eyed, pie-in-the-sky dreamers. But this was different. Behind the vision was a hard-nosed practicality. . '
Michael saw the hard-nosed practicality when one of the RESULTS staff asked him to call the local television affiliates to try to get a viewer commentary. 'I said, 'Gulp,'' Michael recalled. 'I was familiar with the idea. I remembered an episode of 'All in the Family'in which Archie did a viewer commentary opposing gun control. It had never occurred to me that I could do such a thing. The idea terrified me. It took me about 3 days to screw up the courage before I called the three stations. Amazingly, the NBC affiliate accepted my script.'
Michael faced his next challenge, looking presentable. 'At the time,' Michael recalled, 'I was never much into looking good. I was young and never took myself very seriously. I looked into my closet and found a navy blue blazer that had been lent to me by an acquaintance in college. He had never come back to pick it up. I noticed that I had a pair of blue pants that matched the color perfectly. I now had a suit. I had just gotten a haircut for the occasion, cutting my 'Jewish Afro' really short. I put on a necktie, a very rare occurrence for me, and made myself look as good as I could.
'I went to the station at the appropriate time,' Michael continued, 'sat down in the chair, my throat dry, looked into the camera, and said, with all the passion I could muster, that the deaths of 3.5 million children each year due to vaccine-preventable diseases is a holocaust of staggering proportions. .
'Then they flashed my completed viewer editorial up on the television monitor. I saw my name and my town on the screen, below a face I didn't recognize. There was this respectable young man, a community spokesman, up there on the screen, speaking in strong terms about an important issue of the day. I had never seen myself in that light before, and I have never been the same since.'
As Michael's television editorial was airing, the last of 90 newspaper editorials in support of increasing the Child Survival Fund was published. Congress got the message and agreed to the full $50-million increase. What did the additional $50 million mean? In 1986, UNICEF estimated that it cost $5 to fully immunize a child, from manufacture of the vaccines to injection. As a result of this $50 million increase, 10 million children would be immunized, saving, by UNICEF's conservative estimate, 125,000 young lives. Fourteen years later, U.S. government funding is more than five times greater, helping to save millions of lives annually.
This progress occurred because of actions like Michael's. His story is about who we are as problem solvers-people who overcome their hopelessness and act as spiritual warriors committed to service. It is an example of what America could be in the 21st century: a nation that cares not only for itself but for all of humanity.
Some of you might ask: Aren't our elected officials the ones to take responsibility for the state of our planet and its people? I think Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart answered this question best when he said, 'We aren't passengers on spaceship Earth, we're the crew.'
But most of us see ourselves as passengers, not as crew, in the mission of stewarding the health of this planet and its people. At about the time that Michael was doing his television editorial, a number of us began to get up out of our passenger seats, walk to the cockpit, and realize. .there was nobody up there.
Those cockpit seats are 'our'seats. This essay is about the migration to the cockpit of ordinary citizens. I have tried to show how some of us have started and how the rest of us can follow.
My journey took me and others into civic and political action. That may not be your path; it might be hands-on work instead. But don't let the rage that most people feel about government and politics keep you from working in that arena if you feel pulled there. I think that Israeli diplomat Abba Eban touched upon our deep discouragement with politics when he said, 'Governments can be counted on to do the right thing, but only after they have exhausted all other possibilities.'
What Michael Rubinstein and his colleagues were doing was making sure governments did the right thing without wasting so much time.
Be true to yourself. Get involved. Listen to your thoughts and feelings. If you feel a need to pull back, decide whether it's because it's hard or because it doesn't feel true. Listen to the latter, not the former. Remember the words of futurist Buckminster Fuller, who said, 'The things to do are the things that need doing, that you see need to be done, and that no one else seems to see need to be done.'
Then answer this question: Isn't it time to find your way of leaving the campsite cleaner than you found it?
Sam Daley-Harris is the founder and head of RESULTS, a nonpartisan citizens' lobbying group that fights hunger, poverty, and death due to preventable disease. He is the author of 'Reclaiming Our Democracy : Healing the Break between People and Government.