While Ferguson, Missouri exploded this weekend, riveting international eyes to a country where police teargas nine month old babies, threaten to shoot journalists on live TV, kettle protesters (making it impossible for them to go home and obey dispersement orders), and generally brutalize civilians, something else totally bizarre was going on. People were dumping buckets of ice water on their heads.
I first saw the meme circulating on Facebook, dismissed it as another ridiculous social media stunt, and tried to ignore it. But it kept building. Bits and pieces of information about it trickled (so to speak) through despite my best efforts -- it was for ALS awareness, apparently. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease (after a famous patient) is a degenerative nerve disease that affects an estimated 30,000 people in the United States.
Given that it's a pretty rare disease, not many people are aware of it, and those who are may be unfamiliar with the specifics and details unless it personally affects them or their families -- how it works, what kinds of treatments are available, and how patients live with ALS are all vague details for many Americans. As a general rule I dislike the fruitlessness of "awareness" campaigns when they're not paired with active education, which made my hackles rise in this instance.
But my response was more complicated when I found out that the "Ice Bucket Challenge" actually involved being asked to dump a bucket of ice water on your head, or pay up with a donation to the ALS Association, which has collected nearly $15 million as a result of the meme. Huge numbers of celebrities have become involved: Including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Lena Dunham, Justin Timberlake, and many, many more. Even Europeans are getting in on it. Millions of people have apparently dumped buckets of ice water over their heads in the name of ALS awareness and fundraising.
Even though I am a die-hard crotchety curmudgeon, surely even I can't hate this. Funds raised for a degenerative illness that affects tens of thousands of people? What's not to like?
Well, a lot, actually. While I wholeheartedly support fundraising attempts for organizations working on both research and direct service for patients with conditions like ALS, this method mostly reminds me of an equally overlooked but very serious global, and local, issue: Water.
Here in California, we're facing extreme drought conditions, with some research suggesting the state may be enduring the worst drought in 500 years. And California is not alone. Across the Western states, water shortages are causing severe problems -- including mass livestock deaths (and slaughters to humanely kill off stock before they die on the range). Many cities have instituted hose bans, landscaping bans, carwashing bans, and other restrictions on water use (the big culprit is agriculture, which has yet to be reined in, although the Western states should seriously be talking about the potential of dry farming).
For us, lack of water is a daily and everpresent issue -- everything around us is brown and dying, many have cut back on gardens or aren't gardening at all, and we're trying to scrimp and save water as much as possible. Not simply because we want to do our part, but because there's an important symbolism in not wasting water -- and because, for those of us on wells, there's a real risk of running out. One of the houses on my road, in fact, has already run dry.
I've cut showering to once every other day, using a shower with a toggle to cut down water use even more, planning my schedule carefully around when I can shower, and I shower with a bucket to catch greywater so I can keep at least some of my landscaping and vegetables alive. I carefully mete out the water meagerly collected during my showers onto my two young apple trees, my artichoke, and my chard. While I'm out in the yard in the evening (the best time to water, to minimize evaporation) painstakingly pouring my pathetic greywater onto my plants, celebrities are pouring entire buckets of water onto their heads for a consciousness-raising stunt.
I don't find it very funny.
The issue isn't just about the drought. It's about the vicious political battles being fought out over water rights in the West, and in places like Australia, where the issue is growing more and more contentious. Farmers vie with cities for water (including wasteful desert cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles, filled with fountains and landscaping, which only survive because of the water they siphon off the Rio Grande), while environmentalists try to protect natural resources for the benefit of plant and animal species.
Water is becoming a subject not just of political skirmishes, but outright war. Water scarcity is a growing global issue, with millions worldwide lacking access to potable water. Every 21 seconds, a child dies of a water-related illness, usually the result of contaminated water supplies. Women are often tasked with the bulk of the responsibility for finding and collecting water, spending 200 million hours daily collecting water.
Awareness about water issues is extremely low in much of the United States, which is maybe why people think this meme is funny and lighthearted, or that the symbolism of wasting a bucket of water isn't a big deal. But it is actually a big deal -- and there are far better challenges for ALS awareness that don't mock people struggling with a real-world issue. Like taking cold plunges into the ocean, for example, or, as I suggested on Twitter last night, the empty bucket challenge:
How about the empty bucket challenge: Put a bucket over your head, go to the corner, and think quietly about what you have done.— s.e. smith (@sesmithwrites) August 18, 2014
That's great that so many people care about ALS. Really, it is -- although I suspect it's less about getting attention for a rare disease than it is about jumping on a meme bandwagon for the PR. But there's got to be a more conscientious way to raise funds and awareness. You don't need to turn down a challenge to dump a bucket of water on your head to donate to the ALS Association or other groups researching rare diseases.