This is Tencia. I received an email about her today. Being in an email is probably the best thing that has ever happened to her.
Here’s a picture of what her day looks like.
That’s right, she would spend half her day collecting enough dirty water just for her sons to have something to drink.
If you want to know the value of knowing history, it’s knowing that this – taking half of a day fetching dirty water – was pretty much how half of the human race spent its time for tens of thousands of years.
The other half hunted or ran away from wild animals, which sounds slightly more fun but probably had its own challenges.
It’s been hard for human beings. It still is hard for most human beings. That someone in our day and age should spend half their day just struggling for a basic essential of life is hard to wrap your head around.
If you’re shocked by Tencia’s problems, you are an extraordinary phenomenon in human history. You do not worry where your next meal is coming from. You actually get to create things – and keep them. You don’t have to worry about tyrants or wild animals or really terrible plagues. And you’re secure enough that you can take all of these circumstances for granted.
I’m pretty confident that Tencia feels happier about her life and her water than most of us do about our self-driving chauffeur machines. I doubt she complains as much as you complain about having an essay to write or extra work at the office. This is not because she’s more noble than you, necessarily. It’s because she sees – and understands – the nature of wealth better than you do.
The reality is that your life and standard of living are sustained by a fragile system supported by property rights, civil liberty, the accumulation of capital and labor-saving technology, and the division of labor – all things which ironically have vocal enemies in our world. One war, one authoritarian regime (led by those same people who hate technology or wealth or people who can’t be controlled easily), or one disaster could bring your world as you know it to an end. You would very quickly find yourself in Tencia’s situation if your social networks and markets and supply chains were disrupted even for a week or two.
Tremble, and be grateful, and fight for the continued existence of the things that make it possible to have a life beyond subsistence. Fight to bring those good things to people like Tencia. You can support a charity like Charity: Water, which told Tencia’s story to me today.
Tencia’s story has a happy ending (or is getting closer to a happy ending). The miracle of capital happened. Technology – water infrastructure – has replaced human labor for her community:
Tencia now can have a life. She can more than enough water for herself, her husband, and her sons. She can use her additional water to create more wealth, which means more access to technology, which means more access to water, wealth, and technology. If some government douchebag doesn’t mess with her or her family, the only upward limit on her ability to improve her life is time.
Are you feeling grateful yet? You not only have all the wealth Tencia is only just tasting in the form of basic access to clean water, but for the most part, you are able to keep improving your life in a society of people who will reward you for working hard and for trading with them.
A long time ago, some guy or group of guys came together and figured out how to pump water out of wells. They solved their problem, and we’re all better off for it. We may never know their names, but we rely on the product of their lives nonetheless.
You can be that guy or girl. Fix the problem. Bring your solution to the world. But whatever you do, don’t complain. Complaining is complacency in the face of the world’s most extraordinary, most fragile state of human flourishing – the society you live in.