The sun

I looked in to the sun today

And my eyes they did not hurt

Our sky, our great big southern sky

Was sheathed in smoke and dirt

 

I looked into the trees today

And I saw no vivid green

Across the water, deep and blue

There was no vibrant sheen

 

They told us this would happen

And we all went blithely on

Now the apocalypse draws nearer

Will we see what we have done?

Why I’m giving 10% of my income away

This week I took the Giving What We Can pledge, signing myself up to give away 10% of my income, now and in the future. It wasn’t a flippant decision, and I though I’d share some of my reasoning for anyone interested, or for anyone considering doing the same. So here it is, in what might be this blog’s first listicle.

I’m rich

Just about everyone subscribes to the notion that rich people should be generous and compassionate and pay at least some attention to the plight of people less rich. Most people also define rich in a selective, relative way that puts it just beyond their grasp. In my circle of friends – comfortably middle class in an Australian kind of way – I’ve heard people refer to a million dollars as “not exactly a life changing amount of money”. Bollocks.

Depending on the calculator I choose my post-tax income puts me in either in the top 1% or top 2% of global income earners. My personal wealth – ignoring my family and friends and their money and property and all the social capital that comes with it – puts me in the top 15%. Sure I’m not the 1% (yet) but I’m far from poor. And that’s after a year overseas and 15 months out of work.

Shave 10% of my income and nothing changes. I’m still in the top 1% or 2%, depending on the calculator I choose. If I start to feel the pinch I could always drink a bit less beer.

I want my money to count

I’m not one to make apologies for the development sector or the aid world. I’ve seen a lot of bad charity work, met a lot of mediocre expats collecting donor-funded USD salaries in impoverished places, and spent a lot of time questioning why we get international aid so wrong. Rich countries are inherently self-serving and aid via our governments is minimal and usually designed to further our own interests. Our aid ‘partners’, with few exceptions, are unreliable, ineffective or corrupt.

But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a point to it, or that it can’t be done better. By taking the pledge I’m not committing just to giving, but to giving as effectively as I can, to the organisations that I believe will make the most difference. The effective altruism community is pretty nerdy, meaning there is an ever-increasing evidence base for what works and what doesn’t. I’ve long been a fan of giving money directly to people who need it with as little overhead as possible, and I’m not surprised to see that approach find favour along with things like mosquito nets and deworming tablets. The work of the various effective altruism organisations will guide, but not dictate, where I chose to direct my money.

We can be heroes

Bill and Melinda Gates, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloomberg et al are regularly feted as the world’s “greatest philanthropists”. Nothing wrong with that, but is the greatness of one’s philanthropy really measured by how much personal wealth they managed to accrue first?

Maybe a better measure is how much you’re willing to live on, or how much you have left once you’ve given what you’re prepared to give.

Giving away 10% of your income is hardly making a sacrifice on the same level as, say, nuns who take a vow of poverty, but maybe there’s some room for some middling heroes in the panthoen?

What about climate change?

The pledge requires that you give as effectively as you can to the organisations that you think will make the most difference. If you think that’s something to do with climate change then the pledge gives you full permission – in fact, it requires you – to put your money where your mouth is and support the most effective climate initiatives you can find.

There won’t be a better time

Unless you’ve defined and committed to a concrete plan, the idea that you’ll give away a meaningful chunk of your income at a more suitable point in the future is nothing more than a cop-out. I should know, because this has been my attitude for the past few years. I avoided taking the pledge earlier because of two assumptions that turned out to be lies: that I’d get close enough with ad hoc donations to worthwhile causes, and that as I earned more I’d naturally give more. Neither are true unless you commit to making them true.

Think about it. What would make the future more suitable than the present? Which percentile of global wealth/income would you have to be in before you considered yourself rich enough? How much evidence would you have to see before you considered a cause worthwhile? What would you need to know about the world and your place in it that you don’t know now? And do you really think you’ll be in a better position once you have a mortgage / kids / a retirement to think about?

And if and when you got to that hypothetical day, how many years of philanthropic practice would you have missed out on?

Will you join me?

It’s one thing to do something like this yourself, but it’s even better to do it with others. If the pledge sounds like a big step (and it is) Giving What We Can also let’s you make and track a custom commitment through its Try Giving page. I’d be delighted if you’d try giving with me.

A quick peek into the bro code

Last weekend I did something I don’t usually do and had my hair cut by a professional. The hair cut was perfectly fine and by Monday I was sufficiently employable.

Less fine was the ‘locker room banter’ that came with it, unadvertised and free of charge. Louis CK is a really funny bloke hard done by. The guy who was with Trump in the ‘pussy grabbing’ video did nothing wrong. Trump himself probably did nothing wrong – lots of women love a good pussy grab. Consent is the stupidest idea anyone has ever come up with and would never, ever, work. All a woman has to do is to shout and a man’s life is ruined. And so on.

I disagreed on each of these points, and they kept coming. Eventually the barber stopped arguing and went fishing for reasons to dismiss my objections. Maybe I was gay and didn’t understand the innate, unspoken workings of heterosexuality. Maybe having a long term partner meant I’d forgotten what life was like out in the real world. Maybe as someone who doesn’t love dancing I just wouldn’t ever get the feeling of bodies moving in motion, no words required, your very presence telling the entitled male stranger who may also be your boss that maybe he should get his pants off and have a wank in front of you, or something.

Huh?

Beyond my gender, my unkempt hair and my daggy clothes this guy knew nothing about me. Not even my name. Apparently just being a man was enough to suggest I’d be a happy recipient of his afternoon’s rant, a willing conspirator in his misogynistic venting.

I wish it were the first time.

A few years ago we went to a party with some old friends who we hadn’t seen in a few years. A few guys stood in the corner of one room, keeping an eye on the women passing in and out through the doorway. Each one was looked up and down, judged, reduced. “Would.” “Would.” “Wouldn’t.” “Would.” I’d been away for a couple of years, and apparently missed the moment in our development where this became not just accepted by expected. Another quote has stuck in the mind from the same night: a group of women being referred to as “bangables.”

Around the same time I started a new job, a junior role in IT. It’s a famously male-dominated industry, but our team was three women and two men. One day I stepped out to grab lunch with the other guy on the team, and we had barely left the office when he started commenting on the women walking by. I can clearly remember his dismissive reply to my objections: “You can look but you can’t touch, right bro?”, like he was casually reminding me of a bro code funda that had somehow slipped my mind. I asked him to keep me out of his looking-but-not-touching. I worked there for another few months, but I’m not sure we shared another lunch.

My next job was as a management grad in the health system. One of my first assignments involved spending a day in an emergency ambulance, just to see what it was like (I had several of these opportunities, and am still grateful for each of them). I went out for an evening shift with two highly experienced and well regarded paramedics who were clearly very good at their jobs. They didn’t have to save anyone’s life that night, but they were the kind of people I would have wanted trying to save mine. In between jobs they drove the ambulance up to Kings Cross, parked in the emergency vehicle parking and compared none-too-savoury notes on the women walking – and often stumbling – by. In a public vehicle, on public money, in a fucking ambulance for god’s sake. Again my objections were laughed off, and I remember getting home and looking up whether ambulances have recording equipment (they don’t), because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be believed.

I’m lucky enough to be able to choose my friends, to have strong relationships with women, and as a result to avoid getting caught up in too many of these bro-code moments, which I find both confronting and depressing. But I’ve seen just enough to know that when people talk about ‘locker room banter’ they’re trivialising something much larger: it happens on the street, at work, with strangers and with friends, and it seems the only criteria you have to meet to be included is to be a man.

* I have decided not to name and shame the barber because I am sure this experience could have happened in many different barber shops, and many other establishments, in many places and at many different times. I have no doubt there are many barbers, and many customers, who might see a bit of themselves in this story, and I’d rather focus on the big picture than the witch hunt. Also, and despite the barber’s protestations to the contrary, defamation law is strong and the truth is not necessarily a defence. 

Walking with the Man Bush

We take off for Malekula in a plane that feels more like a car. It’s a Harbin from the 1980s, one of three Harbins and seven planes in Air Vanuatu’s eclectic fleet and, we figure, if it’s been flying this long it must have something going for it. The cockpit is open, so we can see every move the pilots make, hear every word they say, feel their mood. We get to cruising altitude and level off with a few measured inputs. The senior pilot opens his broadsheet, completely obscuring the view. Forty minutes later the co-pilot gives a sign, the pilot folds his newspaper, and with a sweeping turn over an old palm plantation they land the plane on a bumpy old runway as wide as a two lane road, in a field of overgrown grass.

The airport has no roof. A few people mill about, ready to board the plane we have just vacated, as casually as boarding a bus. We walk in to town. We ask around for Robert. Someone shows us where we can stay. They offer to call Robert. This is package tourism, Malekula style.


It’s 2011. We’ve come to do the Man Bush walk, a four to five day hike across the island of Malekula, Vanuatu’s second largest island. Named after the people of Malekula’s rugged interior, the Man Bush walk is one of the country’s newest tourist attractions, and has been steadily gaining popularity among those in the know – expats in Port Vila, Peace Corps volunteers on the outer islands, and their friends. My parents have been living in Vanuatu for a couple of years, and this is something they want to do before they leave. So here we are.

In time, on island time, Robert arrives. He has borrowed a truck to take us to the village from which the walk will start, and hour’s drive down a muddy track. It’s the last road we’ll see for days – the tiny Man Bush villages in Malekula’s interior have no vehicular access, and are each about a day’s walk apart. Despite several emails back and forth, our arrival seems to have taken Robert by surprise. He doesn’t have his usual helpers, so he sends a boy to walk to the next village, find a couple of willing hands, and walk back.

I get the front seat, alongside Robert. He has a big penis, he tells me, the edge taken off slightly by his pronunciation – penis rhymes with menace. Still, he says, it could be bigger. He asks if it’s true what they say about black people. He’s seen videos. He asks if it’s true what they say about the drugs. Can we send him some? Not that it’s small, but you know, but it could always be bigger.


Each day we walk 20km, give or take. Robert and his helpers keep us on the path, and carve a new one with their machetes when they lose it.

We snack along the way – by custom, travellers can eat food they pass, but can’t take it with them. We cut down hands of ripe bananas, eat what we can, leave the rest by the side of the path for the next travellers. Robert’s helpers carve cups from bamboo, and we drink from fresh streams.

Twice a day we eat boiled plantain, which competes with boiled taro – the other staple – for the world’s most tasteless food. While are constantly grateful for our small jar of Vegemite, there are occasional culinary surprises. Some days Robert sends his helpers ahead to catch a few prawns or fish, and one day to dig an oven for lap lap. By the time we reach the other side of the island we are grateful for white rice, spinach and spam – a local delicacy we only now begin to understand.


Robert and his helpers, like most men here, wear Western clothes. One day the helpers vanish from view for a couple of hours, which is not unusual. When we reach a large waterfall we see them, clad in the traditional nambas, posing like warriors, half way up the fall. It’s a majestic sight, if slightly cliched. The two major groups on Malekula, Robert explains, are distinguished by the size of their nambas. He assures us that the size of a man’s nambas – and these ones are small – has nothing to do with what’s under it.


Music greets us in each village. Teenage boys on improvised instruments, playing the catchy string band music that feels so very Vanuatuan. Western songs from the Beatles to Bob Dylan to Brittney Spears are jammed into the familiar rhythm and chord progressions of island music, and interspersed with local ballads and religious hymns.

Storytelling is at the heart of this culture, like so many others. We understand some stories, and others go over our heads. Some we hope we misunderstood, like the one about the men throwing their scraps over the wall to their wives, who in turn throw theirs to the pigs.

In one village we are taken into a large house – a meeting place – after dinner. The whole village seems to be there, and after a formal welcomed we are introduced to the old man of the village, who has a story for us.

The audience has heard this story before. They play off each other, back and forth, kids probing and prodding the old man to fill in gaps, add details that they already know, details he has now forgotten. Anticipation builds each the story nears an exciting point, laughter comes before each punchline.

The story is an amazing one, which I would retell if only I could do so faithfully. The vague outline, as it stuck in my mind, was this: as a young man, the storyteller and his friend heard a huge blast and, following the sound, came across the fresh wreckage of an American military plane. The pieces of the plane were still burning hot, and as they were investigating the wreckage some sort of secondary explosion – “a huge wind” – knocked them off their feet. The friend was killed. The storyteller spent weeks in the bush, fearful to return and be blamed for his friend’s untimely death.

In time the storyteller came back, was welcomed, became part of village life again, became revered. But what a story.


Each village has a graveyard, small like the villages themselves. Like all graveyards, they provide only the barest bones of stories, a tentative invitation for the imagination to take over. Like all graveyards, people who lived long ago died young, with a few notable exceptions. In one village the grave of an elderly woman, buried less than a century ago, bears the inscription “born in the cannibal times”. Whatever we think of the missionaries that wrote and translated signs like these, it’s clear that before and after Christ have a different meaning here.


We reach the last village – the land of spam and catamaran – as the mosquitoes begin to bite. There’s enough light for one last story: that of ten stick island. During the war, the allied soldiers stationed here were so bored they asked the locals if they could train their guns on this small and idyllic reef, just for something to do. The locals agreed, in exchange for ten sticks of tobacco.

We have no idea whether it’s true, but so what? If stories are what keep the Man Bush going, this one is as good as any other.

Some quick thoughts

The hard right – Trump’s, Murdoch’s and Dutton’s – don’t care much for the kind of power that’s moderated by institutions and parliament and good old fashioned democracy. These radical “conservatives” don’t care much for democracy at all. Longstanding democratic institutions, in their view, might occasionally be co-opted, but can never be trusted. That the population might want its government to function in its collective interest, not just for the loudest and richest, is an inherent risk of the people’s rule.

Was anyone really surprised when parliament was shut down “on the request of Mr Dutton,” or were we all just pretending?

We know well what Dutton thinks of human rights, of international law, of senate committees, of well-intentioned bureaucrats, of elected Prime Ministers, of common standards of decency, of convention. No different to what Trump thinks of judges, juries, senators, law. Speed bumps on the road to authoritarian rule.

Dutton can still lose out of this, but Murdoch and the hard right ideologues have already won. If their man gets in, good. If they lose but in doing so heap scorn on the idea of government, trash the institution of parliament, ruin what credibility the Liberal Party has left, all the better. It’s a longer game.

A choice between an asbestos warrior and two competing bigots is no choice at all, but things could be worse. The current parliament was already unmanageable for Turnbull – it’s going to be a nightmare for whoever comes next. There’s no chance of anything really serious going wrong, because (1) the government has no policies, (2) it has no chance of getting anything contentious through parliament and (3) its time is almost up.

It’s the next parliament that matters, and the one after that. No victories are certain in this game. How many times have we thought we’d seen the back of Abbott?

By rights, the hard right, which has never had even a quarter of the vote, should lose, and even more so after this week’s events. We should be careful not to let them take democracy, and our collective faith in it, down with them.