What would the Martians think?

Last weekend I saw The Martian in the cinema with my family.   It was a really enjoyable film.  At times entertaining, gripping and emotional.   Much more interesting than what I had feared might be a rather slow and self pitying one man show.  Matt Damon made a very compelling botanist and started to erase the image of him in my mind from Team America.

But I should make clear now; this is not a film review.  These are just the thoughts running through my head whilst watching the film about what our films, our stories and our heroes say about our ethics…

When scientists leave their mission on Mars during a devastating storm they leave behind their botanist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who is struck by falling debris, lost and assumed dead.

Little did they realise however that he has survived.  With meagre supplies he has to “science the sh*t out of” the various problems – like having no water, or food, or anything to grow food with – to survive, alone on a desolate planet.

Along with many friends, someone in the Effective Altruism movement recommended the film to me and said a lot of Effective Altruists probably liked it because of that very phrase.science

Effective Altruists like to science the sh*t out of all the world’s problems, using rationality to find the most effective ways to help as many people as possible.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking throughout the film that this was not that kind of effective.

Just barely spoiler alert – you can kind of see where the film is going – NASA realise that Mark Watney is still alive and launch a risky rescue attempt. This involves expensive equipment from various nations and brings the world together in praying for his safe return.

We, the audience, root for him too. How can something so callous as expense be a factor when one of our own has risked his life in space exploration? And yet with the GiveWell estimate of it being around $3,400 to save the life by investing in health in the developing world, how many lives could have been saved if funds were redirected to poverty relief?

I know it’s not a simple case of were the money not spent on one it would go on the other but it’s an interesting insight into how our minds work.

An individual hardship is an inspiring story. Millions of people are a statistic.

I often read criticisms of Effective Altruism that talk about the unfeeling number crunching of it all. Uncaring people who would leave Mark Watney stranded on Mars to die.

I don’t see it that way at all.

Watching something like The Martian or like so many films of heroes and adversity I feel their triumphs and their pains. Even more so with real news stories of children with rare, expensive diseases or harrowing rescue attempts. But I also feel the pain of the people who’s story is not being told. Of the millions of individuals whose suffering has become so routine it doesn’t make the headlines or a compelling film.

People like Rael Chebundet,  a small three year old suffering for want of a $3 bed net.

At the beginning of the film Commander Melissa Lewis is forced to decide to leave Mark behind, weighing the likelihood that he has survived against the risk of losing more of her team.  No one questions that decision.

When we choose to save the one in the spotlight – the one man left on Mars – and in doing so leave behind hundreds of others are we making the right decision?

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