As many of us likely saw this past month, tech companies led a remarkable fundraising effort to aid natural disaster victims of hurricanes Harvey and Irma. As a native Floridian, I applauded these efforts and continue to wish the swiftest of recoveries to those affected. As a pragmatist, however, I find the latest tech philanthropy-push disquieting.
“Help support the effort to rebuild,” Google writes on its giving page, where visitors have the option to support the Catholic Relief Services, UNICEF and the American Red Cross. All these charities provide valuable aid and shelter to people impacted by hurricanes, and there is no doubt that Google is helping save lives with its campaign. But beneath this benign call to action lies the misleading message that “rebuilding” is a good idea.
Hurricane events like Harvey and Irma used to arrive once every few decades, but alas, climate change is real, and as storms of the century become storms of the decade, we must ask the important question of how to respond to these catastrophes. In many cases, more valuable than rebuilding would be to gradually relocate, quickly reduce carbon or invest in making our cities more resilient. And so it becomes evident in Google’s efforts that it cares more about delivering messages of optimism and empowerment than it cares about putting its dollars to best use.
This matters because by omitting any attribution for these disasters, Google disservices public awareness surrounding the tangible effects of climate change, much like EPA secretary Scott Pruitt, who decried any causal inference as “insensitive.” The irony is such: Whereas Mr. Pruitt represents an administration committed to distorting facts, Google sells a technology charged with their safekeeping, and so we must hold them to a higher standard.
Rather than displaying the standalone image of a flattened Caribbean village with undeterminable causality on its giving page, Google must show the very same image with two hurricanes next to it, and better yet, a Keeling curve to go on top. Don’t just offer band-aid fixes with donations to the Red Cross; direct a portion of those contributions to the Environmental Defense Fund. Remind people that we share responsibility in these disasters, and more importantly, that we have the capacity to make things better. Getting this right is critical — otherwise, our donations will fail to keep up, and these calls to action will grow cynical. Take last week for example: Maria wiped out the electrical grid of Puerto Rico and Google’s homepage never asked for your help.
— Noam Rosenthal ’16 M.S. ’17
Contact Noam Rosenthal at nrose ‘at’ stanford.edu.