Karma and the Birds

by Sasha Alyson

This website is called Karma Colonialism, because colonialism has a new face. It wants us to all feel good about it. Let’s take a closer look at how that works.

On 24 March, 1989, the Exxon Valdez oil tanker hit a reef in Alaska. It spilled 11 million gallons of oil, killing massive numbers of birds and sea animals. Exxon was guilty of severe negligence and had to pay. But were it even possible to count the dead animals, how would you put a value on their lives? This was new territory; no spill of this magnitude had ever taken place.

Trying to get an answer, researchers randomly divided a bunch of people into three groups, and asked members of each group a different question:

Group 1. “How much should we be willing to pay to save 2,000 birds?”
Group 2. “How much should we be willing to pay to save 20,000 birds?”
Group 3. “How much should we be willing to pay to save 200,000 birds?”

The average answers were $80, $78, and $88. This makes no sense. If we’d pay $80 to save 2,000 birds, then we should value 20,000 birds at $800, and 200,000 birds at $8,000.

Here’s my model for understanding this paradox: People were not pricing the lives of 2,000, 20,000, or 200,000 birds. They were pricing one dose of something which I’ll call “We saved a lot of birds” karma. There was surprisingly close agreement on the value of this nebulous, never-before-priced (hell, it never even had a name till now) commodity: It was worth around $80. You may be dubious that such a commodity exists, but if it doesn’t exist, why do people agree so closely about its value?

Try doing that with oil. Divide a barrel of oil into 100 bottles. You cannot sell each bottle for the same as you’d charge for the barrel. Karma and oil are different types of commodities. But yes, it is a commodity. Ask people to estimate the dollar value of the number 55, patience, or the Kawishana language, and I don’t think you’ll find such consensus.

Aid fundraisers recognize the same principle. In another study , researchers showed a photograph of one sick child to Group A whereas Group B saw a picture of eight sick children. Both groups were asked to help. Group A donated more.(1)

Psychologists have terms (“psychic numbing”) and explanations (giving is an emotional response; logical analysis puts a damper on it) for this. Charities such as Save the Children have a response too. They focus on a single child when soliciting donations. Save the Children grew famous for ads which featured a forlorn child and the caption: “You can help save this child for fifteen dollars a month. Or you can turn the page.”

Karma explains this. The larger the group in need, the less we feel we can bring happiness and relief to any one individual, and it is that feeling which brings us good karma. For anyone seeking donations, the lesson is: Selling karma requires different strategies from selling shoes.

For Hindus and Buddhists, karma refers to the totality of good and bad actions and thoughts, in this life and past lives, which then accompanies you in this and future lives. That, in any case, is my limited understanding of it. Here, I’m using “karma” in the more popular sense, in which a person can feel, and exude, good or bad karma. Good karma is what you acquire when you do good things.

Karma, under this definition, is as versatile as plastic.

* Karma can be purchased and sold. Sponsor a child through World Vision and you get good karma – you’ve satisfied that urge to help one identifiable human being. Sponsors want a picture of their child, and some personal details; they aren’t asking hard questions about the broad impact of their monthly donation.

* You can show off your karma, just like it was a diamond. (We’ve all seen examples.)

* Karma can be added to a product to increase sales and profits. Buy shoes, snack bars, or soap for yourself, the company will donate to somebody in need. Buy a locket from Louis Vuitton and the company will donate to UNICEF – which in turn promotes Louis Vuitton on its website.(2)

* Karma fuels the machine that creates and sells more of it. Save the Children has for decades claimed to be improving education in developing countries. In other stories, I’ve presented strong evidence that they’ve made it worse. Now Save the Children uses today’s even worse state of education to raise funds so it can expand the education programs that contributed to the problem in the first place.

* Karma can buy absolution. When Uber came under fire for raising fares during emergencies, it announced plans to donate 20% of the elevated fares to the American Red Cross.(3)

Let’s look more carefully at the ingredients of the Good Karma package.

* The strongest karma comes from helping just a single person. Yet what’s good for the individual may be bad for the larger society. A great many schools and colleges in developing countries teach nothing of value to their students. If you give a scholarship to a poor youth to attend such a school, and he gets a job not because he learned anything but because he now has a certificate and someone else does not, then you’ve helped him, but hurt someone who didn’t get that job, and the school doesn’t feel any pressure to get better, because it’s easier to just collect money from foreign donors who are buying karma.

* It distracts from hard questions. Brazilian Archbishop Dom Hélder Câmara once remarked: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist.” Karma thrives on charity, not on development.

* Good karma derives from giving something to someone portrayed as helpless, who will now be treated as helpless. The desire for karma makes it harder to see what such individuals might do on their own. Aid projects, obligated to send good karma back to the donors, make it harder for local people to do anything on their own, because that would decrease the supply of karma.

Each year, new INGOs are formed by idealistic founders who can see that selling karma to donors isn’t the right approach, and resolve not to be different. Some succeed for a short while. But the larger an organization grows, the harder it becomes to continue going against the current. Most of the money goes to those who remain donor-focused. There’s no way to change this dynamic without changing human nature. As long as we have an aid industry, we’ll have karma colonialism.

Notes and Sources

Top photo by Aashutosh Sharma, Pexels.

1. This study is reported in PLOS-ONE. A great deal of research has been done around what makes donors give more – after all, there’s a lot of money at stake. Studies consistently find that the bigger the group of people who need help, the smaller the donations get. Ken Stern gives a good overview in his book With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give.

2. The Louis Vuitton offer appears on UNICEF’s “Partner Offers” page. At this writing, it shows an expiration date of 31 Dec. 2020, but that may get extended; I first saw it there in 2018. Or, if you purchase the right high-end beauty product from Cle de Peau, they’ll donate to UNICEF’s girls-education program.

3. “Uber Reaches Deal With New York on Surge Pricing in Emergencies,” by Mike Isaac, The New York Times, July 8, 2014.

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