The End that Hasn’t Happened


As everybody now knows, Harold Camping was wrong. Big surprise. For the record, I can also pull arbitrary dates out of my ass and assign cosmological significance to them, and I don’t need a civil engineering degree or almost two decades of consideration to do so. Early reports do show Camping himself to be missing, but after his radio station allegedly spent over $100 million on an advertising campaign for what is effectively vaporware, I’m not surprised – either he’s hiding in the mountains with a fat wad of purloined money, or he’s worrying that the tripple mortgage will foreclose. Either way, I don’t think even the most deranged person would dare to show his face in public for a while, although I may be wrong on that count.

The thing that hasn’t been reported on as much as the end that didn’t happen is the end that did happen, and the end that hasn’t happened yet. Varying figures estimate deaths related to hunger to be between one per second and one per three seconds, yielding between 28000-85000 deaths on rapture day alone due to insufficient access to food. A report from UNICEF Canada estimated that around 30000 children die each day from preventable diseases, which is to say diseases such as pneumonia, diarrheal diseases, malaria and measles, for which there exist effective vaccines or other medicines. For all of these people, the End of the World is happening right now, or it has already happened, or it will happen in the near future. In the time it has taken you to read this far into this article, we can estimate about one hundred deaths from these two things alone, let alone all of the other stuff that’s going on in the world.

Now, let’s ignore the hundreds of idiots who spent their life savings on buying advertisements for the End of the World. Let’s pretend that that money couldn’t have been put to better use. Let’s just focus on Harold Camping and his  $100 million dollars of advertising money. What could that money alone have accomplished?

Based on WHO’s 2015 price projections on vaccine costs, a full set of vaccines, which is way more than most people would ever need, will be $76.61, so that would be enough to inoculate over 1.3 million people, probably closer to 2.5 million in reality since not all vaccines are needed everywhere. Room to Read claims that “$2,500 funds 10 years of education for girls that otherwise would not have the opportunity to attend school.” That means those $100 million could fund 40000 girls to achieve an elementary school education, which would go a long way towards raising quality of life, preventing disease, and making societies sustainable.

The irrigation costs for farmland have dropped to roughly $200 per hectare with drip irrigation, which is efficient in its use of water. That means about 500000 hectares could be irrigated for that money – just slightly less than the surface area of Rhode Island, for context. At a rough and probably understated back-of-an-envelope estimate of 3000 kg cereal yield per hectare per year, that’s 15000 tons of food, which is enough to feed about 20000 people per year – assuming an average American’s diet!

Whenever I see this kind of insanity I always have an urge to run the figures. All of the above are estimates should be taken with a grain of salt, specially since many if not most aid organizations have an amazing knack for having baseline operations costs running as high as 80 cents on the dollar, so most of the money donated to charity never actually gets spent on anything charitable. Often this is due to mismanagement, absurdly high fundraising costs, lack of interest in actually achieving its goal, or simply because the charity is set up as a way to launder money – this is not as rare as it sounds. [On a freakish side note, Family Radio’s assets are valued at $83 million and it operated at a $33 million deficit last year… but it’s still a four star charity. Blow the trumpet, warn the people, indeed!]

Despite all of this, it really is possible to do good. I’m very skeptical about dumping money or goods into developing economies, as it will often destroy internal markets, but exporting knowledge and things that aren’t emerging in the local market anyway or funding critical infrastructure is a very good idea. For a few years I’ve wanted to set up a project where engineering undergrads are funded to spend their summers building infrastructure and educating locals.

But seriously. If even half of the money spent on nonsense things like political campaigns or religion was spent on fixing the world’s problems, we’d be seeing a very different world very very quickly.