There are those who want to improve the world around us and who do so in intelligent, well-thought-out ways. Then there are those of us whose desire to help the environment is mostly based on being bored or shallow or wanting to fit in after we get lost in Whole Foods. Unfortunately, most of humanity is made up of the latter type. Also unfortunately, a lot of the half-assed stuff we do not only doesn't help but actually ends up making things worse for everyone.
6Rescuing Oil-Covered Birds
Imagine an oil spill, and chances are the first thing you'll think of is an oil-covered bird helplessly flapping its wings. Birds rely on clean feathers to keep warm and stay afloat, and slicked birds often starve to death while grooming themselves. Understandably, after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill, volunteer information focused heavily on pictures of dirty pelicans and information about helping these birds, because it's a much more effective ad than showing people wiping down rocks.
"Hold on, rocks. We'll get through this together."
How We Half-Ass It
Although it seems like something that can be done with a net, a bottle of shampoo and some dead fish, bird capture is really a job that should be reserved for the experts. But during the Gulf spill, that didn't prevent inexperienced cleanup crews from trying to chase down oiled birds, which succeeded only in terrifying them even more and in most cases driving them further away from relatively safe territory into the oily waters and away from the experienced cleaners who could have brought them in safely. Still other workers did worse, disturbing nests of endangered birds and even trampling their eggs and chicks.
"The Monday Margarita Breakfast is great for morale but hard on the wildlife."
And the survivors aren't much luckier: If they make it through the grueling cleaning process, they're often released into the wrong habitat, and depending on species and location, up to 99 percent of them then die quickly of starvation or poisoning from ingested oil. In other words, scrubbing oil off a helpless bird makes for a great photo op. But if you want to help, your time, energy and expense would be better spent doing virtually anything.
So, lately your yearly vacations to the International Cheese Rolling Festival have left you feeling unfulfilled. Don't despair: There's always voluntourism, a growing movement that allows you to travel the world while helping the needy. A recent survey found that two-thirds of American high school students have considered this type of volunteer vacation.
This isn't a new trend among rich white people, either.
Traditional organizations mostly look for volunteers with relevant skills: doctors, nurses, dentists, qualified teachers and people fluent in foreign languages. Still, they also welcome unskilled travelers who can do stuff like clerical work and cleaning while the professionals offer the help that's desperately needed.
How We Half-Ass It
Acquiring a professional skill can take years of effort, and typing up vaccination reports doesn't exactly make for great travel photos to send back home. So instead, the boom in voluntourism is focused on prepackaged tours offering unskilled volunteers a wide range of exciting activities: weeklong stays looking after children in AIDS orphanages, short trips to Africa to build houses and stints teaching English in isolated parts of South America.
"These people need my liberal arts degree and ability to swing a hammer haphazardly."
So what? It's better than your standard vacation, where the only person you "help" is your own fat ass up onto a waterslide, right? Wrong: In most cases, this practice actually hurts the people it's trying to help.
Let's say you work in construction. One day, your neighborhood suddenly floods with energetic, iPod-toting young people who joyfully start doing the same job you're doing, but for free. Imagine the American immigration debate, only the immigrants have no skills, and they aren't just working for less money, but for free -- their only compensation being a series of photos about how caring they are posted to their Facebook pages when they get back home.
So the result is wonkily made houses sprouting up everywhere, built by people who don't know drywall from the holes they're putting in those walls, pushing local workers out of much-needed jobs and screwing up economies that are already screwed up enough to warrant charity work.
"Ooh! Rita! Get a picture of me pouring my CamelBak into this little girl's water jug."
Long-term effects aren't much better if you're into helping children, either. Voluntourists jump at the chance to make a lasting difference in the lives of cute underprivileged youths. But the thing is, they really want pictures of those malnourished children swarming about their knees in gratitude -- that's the picture that gets you laid back home at the pub. But the most lasting good is done to the community by training other local teachers to teach English, and nobody wants to sleep with the guy who brings home pictures of himself surrounded by competent adults looking at books together. So local teachers go untrained, and confused students end up getting a new and completely inexperienced English teacher every month or so.
"Hey I think our teacher might be a dumbass."
Foreigners who volunteer for short periods in orphanages can do even more harm. The steady flow of Western media attention on AIDS orphanages means they get tons of funding that could otherwise have been devoted to keeping those children with their surviving extended family instead. One study of Cambodian orphanages revealed that only 25 percent of "orphans" there had actually lost both parents. In the worst cases, this leads to children being placed in orphanages by both of their alive but desperately poor parents, because they can only get someone to help their kids if they completely abandon them to rich people who take pictures alongside them, like a substantially more tragic version of that guy in the Donald Duck costume at Disneyland.
On the plus side, you and your girlfriend get to spend a fun week playing with cute kids and taking blurry cellphone pictures of temples. Surely that's worth some premature orphan-ing.