Changing What's on Our Plate

Changing What's on Our Plate
What’s on everyone’s plate around the world? | Digital art: José Oliveira | Photo Credit: Jörg Schubert

Whenever I think about the expression "to have too much on your plate," meaning to struggle with one's responsibilities, I always think about the world's problems and what I should do to make a difference. But I also think about it literally.

What's on everyone's plate?

Do you ever wonder what’s on everyone’s plate around the world? It can range from the most extravagant serving (say a 2 million dollar meal), to no plate at all, and an empty stomach. If there was a way you could decrease the number of people who die from the excesses on their plate, or use all that is wasted, in order to save all of those who don’t have enough, wouldn’t you do it? Well, did you know that most of the world's population lives in countries where the excesses on their plates kill more people than the lack of food? Were you aware that about one third of all food goes to waste, and that this could feed more than double the number of undernourished people in the world?

Usually we can only control what's on our own plate, so let’s start there and ask: Don't we have more than enough? Is it all necessary? And can we individually make things a little more even?

On a global scale, Jeffrey Sachs, an influential economist, has calculated what it would take for everyone to rise above extreme poverty so that they could have enough on their plate.

Philosopher and bioethicist Peter Singer, who has been thinking about these matters since the early 70’s, took Sachs' numbers and suggested a new standard for effective giving: donating according to your capacity, while also considering the effectiveness of the charities to which you give so that your money does the most good possible. This standard can help us think about how much we can afford to take off our plate to help those in extreme need.

Poverty seems less insurmountable if you imagine that if everyone took just ice cream off their plate, that alone would save enough money to pay for education, sanitation, and healthcare for all, twice! This idea is even more compelling when you consider that sugar kills more than gunpowder!

What can we leave off our “plate”?

You might be wondering, well it’s one thing to give up a little ice cream, but another thing to sacrifice an expensive trip that you've been dreaming of and saving for, or a special gift that your loved one will never forget. And of course not everyone has the same amount on their plate to begin with, nor the same responsibilities ― maybe you're filling other plates besides yours.  

But I'm guessing there are things you buy that you could easily go without, especially if you knew that the money you would have spent could help someone in a very meaningful way.

So let’s try an example:

What could an art teacher from Portugal do to even things up? Yes, I’m talking about myself. Surely I could do my part, even though a teacher's yearly salary here in Portugal is about one third the average US household income: €15,000 vs. €50,000 (roughly the same in dollars). And I can help because even though this income may seem modest to some, I’m still in the richest 5% of the world's population. So according to Peter Singer’s standard, I would only have to give 1% of my income to contribute my fair share to causes that are effectively addressing global poverty and hunger. How hard could that be? What would I have to take off my plate?

Here’s a couple of things that I gave up some years ago. These were really hard to take off my plate at the time:

What? How much consumed? How much saved? Vs. TLYCS Pledge
Tobacco During the week, I smoked less than a pack of cigarettes a day, but on weekend nights I would smoke up to 4 packs. So I’m counting 1 pack per day. €4.50 x 365 = €1,642.50

Beer I didn't drink during the week, but on weekends I was a heavy drinker. So I’m counting one beer per meal: 14 beers per week. €14 x 52 = €728
Coffee I’m just counting that extra coffee that used to keep me up at night. So it’s one cup of coffee per day. €0.70x 365 =€255.50

I had never done the math until now, and it just feels absurd that I used to spend so much money on things that were so bad for me. It also feels that way because I could have used it instead to do so much good for others.

Does it do the most good?

You might think donating is always a good thing, but surely it’s hard to justify people contributing to a campaign that raised over US$55,000 because they just wanted someone to make a potato salad, or over US$100,000 for someone to dig a hole, particularly if you consider that donating the same amount of money to the Against Malaria Foundation could have protected up to 60,000 people from a deadly disease and saved up to 33 lives.

Of course, choosing where to direct your donations isn’t always that easy and it might be very hard not to just follow your heart, above all when you feel strongly about “charity beginning at home” and you struggle with the notion of making sacrifices for people living in places you can't even pronounce. But if you are presented with compelling evidence of humanitarian interventions that work, and of the organizations that do the best job with your donation, then it’s easier for your heart to follow your head ― even if initially your heart pulled the other way. Or if there is a cause very dear to your heart, wouldn't you try to find the most cost-effective way to go about it? After all, if you were investing your hard-earned money in some other way, wouldn't you do the same?

A couple of years ago I was assigned to a school where I worked with blind children, so I’m especially moved when Toby Ord talks about the donations needed to pay for the training of a guide dog to help a blind person and then compares it to the same amount that could be used instead to restore sight to over 900 people with reversible blindness (pg.4). I bet your heart would know what the right thing to do is. So why should your heart stop at the border of your community (or state or country) rather than extend to places like Ethiopia, Nepal or Vietnam, where your money can be so effective in helping so many people?

What did I leave off my plate?

So how could you balance the amount of good you want to accomplish and your tight budget? As an example, here is how I balanced my €16,534 income. (I’m using my 2015 budget because I was unemployed for most of 2016. However that year, even on a reduced salary combined with unemployment benefits, I actually gave more than usual, managing to donate at the same rate as a millionaire, based on Peter Singer’s standard: over 20% of my income).


I hope this inspires you to think “Maybe there’s something I could leave off my plate to help those less fortunate than me.” If you do the math you may see, like I did, that it’s not that hard and might even be good for you as well as for the people you’re helping.

Here’s a calculator that shows what you can save — and donate — by leaving something off your “plate”.

Calculator: Luxuries vs. TLYCS Pledge

Enter your income
Select your country
What would you leave off your plate?
Consumed how often?
If donations to foreign aid organizations are tax deductible in your country, enter your gross income.
If they are not, enter your income after tax.

The Life You Can Save does not record, collect or share your personal income data.

Well, how easy was it to meet the giving standard?  To learn more about the pledge and to see the amount recommended for your income level, go here.

Would you have to do this alone?

I started by asking if you ever wonder what’s on everyone’s plate around the world. Now I’ll ask if you have any idea how many people around the world are already leaving things off their plate in order to effectively reduce the world’s suffering? This video will give you an idea:

Number of Effective Altruists per million people
Data processing: Daniel de Bortoli | Data Source: Giving What We Can

The video makes it clear there’s a growing movement of people striving to make the world a better place using reason and evidence; it’s called effective altruism.

Since I took The Life You Can Save pledge in 2011, I started to have a greater appreciation for what's on my plate, because I know that what’s missing makes a real difference for those in need ―  and believe me, there’s no satisfaction like that. And that's what effective altruism is all about: finding how we can accomplish the most good with our scarce resources. How else could an art teacher from Portugal protect 954 people from a deadly disease in just one year?

If you think there’s something you can leave off your plate too, so that you can help others, you can calculate your impact here. Then just follow your heart. You’ll know it’s the right thing to do, because now it’s just easier to give better.

And soon you’ll find that being a part of a growing community of people trying to do the most good by using both their head and their heart can surely be a life-changing experience, not only for you, but also for the lives you can save.

I would like to thank Amy Schwimmer for helping me to express my thoughts more clearly in a language that is not my own. I also would like to thank Llamil Silman for the programing that made the "Calculator: Luxuries vs. TLYCS Pledge” possible and Daniel de Bortoli for processing the data for the video "Growth of the Effective Altruism Movement (2009-2017)". Finally I would like to thank Giving What We Can for providing the data of the people that pledged 10% of their income (members' country and date of membership) used in the video.

José Oliveira
José Oliveira
José Oliveira is an art teacher from Portugal and a volunteer for The Life You Can Save. As an effective altruist he pledged to give 10 percent of his income to the The Life You Can Save's top charities.
The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.


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