Throwing Cold Water on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

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I’m trying to not be cynical about the ALS dump ice water on your head thing going on lately, but I’m failing.

I think perhaps I’m failing because having diabetes at times makes me more suspicious about how people help other people. It makes me question whether the help people are offering is indicative of self-sacrifice and borne of a genuine desire to improve the lives of people less fortunate, or whether it’s really self serving and self indulgent.

“What the difference? As long as it raises money and awareness, it’s positive,” some might say.

And I say that that is a really cynical view of things.

To throw a dollar at a problem thinking that, because of that dollar you’ve done your part and can go on your way guilt-free, doesn’t really help solve the problem. More typically, it makes the people contributing those dollars feel better about themselves. Then, in the long run, the continued, invested, long-term support that is required over decades to successfully fund research into combating a deadly medical condition is weakened and the disease continues to harm or kill people.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge takes this already existing conundrum of generating support and attention and amps it up to a place never seen before.

The ALS Ice Bucket challenge works like this: a person is challenged by another person to either donate to ALS or pour a bucket of ice water over their head. And, while that sounds downright silly, between July 29 and August 26 the Challenge raised $88.5 million.

According to the ALS Association, as many as 30,000 people in the United States have ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Meanwhile, 29.1 million people in the U.S. have diabetes and in 2012 approximately $35 million was raised for research.

But, while that is clearly out of whack, it’s not the numbers and the dollars that have me cynical. It’s the rationale behind the fundraising.

The Ice Bucket Challenge has become a cash cow phenomenon because of social media. It became popular because people want other people to see them pouring ice water on themselves, preferably on youtube. It became popular because of the inherent narcissism of people who want to be seen by other people as acting charitable. Where were those people before? More crucially, once those people have had their fill of being charitable and feeling self important about their contribution to helping their fellow man, where will they be afterward?

In other words: Are the people who are pouring ice water over their heads to raise money for ALS a cadre of generous people who can be counted on to contribute and work to help alleviate the suffering of people in the future? Can they be counted to help people suffering from other diseases?

My guess is they won’t do anything to help anyone if they’re not being noticed and lauded and rewarded with a sense of increased smugness for their public efforts in undertaking a stunt to help find a cure for …. whatever.

“But,” some might say, “it raises awareness of the disease.”

Sure. But, as my friend Doug Stanhope, says, that’s no real help either.

“Raising awareness is me standing next to a drainage ditch where a guy just hit a goat with his moped on the highway,” Stanhope says in a bit from his latest comedy special. “And now they’re in the ditch, laying in the muck with compound fractures. And the dude’s got a bone sticking through his leg and the fucking goat has a bone sticking through his fur. They’re both laying there, in agony, and I’m raising awareness by standing above them shouting down an empty highway, ‘Look! Look! Ewwww! Look!’ And they’re going, ‘No, help!’ No, no, no. “Look!’ It’s way easier to just go, ‘Look!’

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Comments (7)

  1. Rico at

    The most ironic part of this whole thing is that, in a time of worldwide drought, over 6 MILLION gallons of clean drinkable water (estimate based on an average of 5 gallons per participant) has been dumped out onto the ground by people who failed to grasp the original intention of the “challenge”, which was to either donate money for ALS research OR ELSE suffer the indignity of an icy cold shower.
    The reality is that a few opportunistic celebs got the whole concept “bass-ackwards” early on in an obviously self-serving attempt to portray themselves to the public as “philanthropists” via television and YouTube.
    It didn’t take very long for the “monkey see – monkey do” effect to turn this regrettable waste of a finite and precious life-giving resource into the social media trend of the year, ostensibly for a good cause, but in a most unfortunate manner.
    Donating cash to fund ALS research? – GOOD. 
    Wasting clean water? – BAD. 
    Bragging about your donation? – totally inappropriate & unnecessary.
    Get it?

  2. Ronin at

    Where did the 6 million gallons number come from?  No where in this article was there a number of folks who have dumped instead of donating.

  3. Lisa at

    Grow up. If you want people to contribute to any cause you have to get their attention, give them a feeling of involvement and ask them to contribute. It really doesn’t matter what source you use to accomplish those three tasks. ALS is a good cause. Juvenile Diabetes is a good cause. Breast cancer is a good cause. The list of good causes is endless. It just hangs on what are you willing to do to get people involved in your cause. Stop hating. If you want your piece of the pie, figure out how to make other people feel involved. It’s that simple.

  4. Rico at

    @Ronin – To put the waste this campaign has caused into simple terms, let’s just assume everyone is using a five gallon bucket.
    Now multiply that number by the more than 1.2 million videos shared on Facebook since June 1.
    Based on that assumption (5 x 1,200,000), over 6 million gallons of water have been poured out in the name of Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
    The average American household uses 320 gallons per day, which means that based on this estimation, nearly 19,000 homes’ daily water usage has been wasted.
    And that’s not even taking into account that videos posted online often depict multiple people, sometimes even entire sororities or fraternities, taking part in the ice bucket challenge, often using more than one bucket per video. 
    Raising money for disease research is a noble goal, and in a world where this sort of research is sadly under-funded, it’s an integral part of the process. People should be altruistic but not at the cost of contributing to the arrogant waste of a vital and diminishing natural resource.
    The fact that the ALS Association has reported a near $12 million dollar boost in donations is great, but whatever happened to being silently generous and putting the focus on the charity instead of the donor?
    Let’s continue to give to medical research but stop taking so thoughtlessly from nature. As much as human existence will depend on the improvement of modern medicine, it will also rely on our efforts to be rational about our natural resource consumption.


  5. Rico at

    @Lisa –
    “Grow up”? REALLY?
    Perhaps you, like so many others, are ignorant of the reality (keyword) concerning this much-lauded effort to raise FUNDS (not “awareness”, which actually does nothing to solve the problem) for research to find a cure for a terrible disease.
    The parameters of the challenge are thus: If elected to participate by one of your peers, you must EITHER pour a bucket of ice water over your head, OR make a donation to the ALS Association. You have 24 hours to do so. Video of the ritual is then published on social media as documentation for any and all to see.
    The challenge’s primary call-to-action is NOT to donate to charity. Instead, just dump icy water over your head. And then, IF you feel so inclined, sure, why not, go ahead and donate.
    Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that, for most of the people posting ice-bucket videos of themselves on various social media sites, the charity part remains a postscript. Remember, the way the original challenge is set up, suffering the indignity of the ice-drenching is the ALTERNATIVE to contributing actual money.
    Eventually SOME of the people issuing these public challenges tweaked the rules by asking people to contribute $10 even if they do soak themselves. However, does the foolishly wasteful act of dumping water on your head actually help ALS research?In this time of worldwide drought (look it up), I would argue NO.
    Could this all simply be grandiose acts of “slacktivism” – posting a video or tweeting a hashtag and feeling that’s enough, meanwhile getting credit for this “altruistic act” via likes, shares, retweets?
    The reality is, a lot of these participants are probably spending way more money on bagged ice than on ALS research. I suggest the #NoIceBucketChallenge, in which people generously donate to the ALS organization without the ego-boosting, self-serving faux “philanthropy” of “sharing the news” on social media.
    Lisa, perhaps you should also look up the definition of “hate” while you’re at it. Precise language really IS important when one is discussing matters of life and death.

  6. Holly Jones at

    While I do understand the gist of the points you made they make you sound more jealous than insightful.  So every dollar you have ever given was only to causes that you are wholly invested in and then give hours of your time to? I’ll bet not.  I give to the children doing car washes for their church camp but will never go to their church, I give to the Boys Club in my area but I have only girls.  I give to March of Dimes because I have a younger brother and a cousin both born under 1.5 pounds but that is all I ever do for MoD.  I gave to ALS and don’t know much about that disease and I bought boots for JDRF before my daughter even had the disease.  You don’t have to be fully invested in a charity to give the dang money.  I certainly hope that only people willing to donate money, time AND effort aren’t the only people who give to JDRF now.  The scientists who are working so hard to find a cure don’t give a damn that the dollar only came from someone who is truly invested in the disease and its research. Neither do I.  If we got money only from those people there would be very little money.  The people doing these challenges aren’t all just putting on the facade of looking charitable. Some of them just think it is fun – just like the guy who started it.  So please don’t be such a kill joy.  So what if they had fun doing it and may never donate to ALS again? So what if I selfishly wish ALL of that money had gone to diabetes research?  I am excited for ALS researchers! I hope they take this windfall and do great things with it.  The diabetes community certainly isn’t going to get the next round of “spontaneous giving” by appearing like jealous crybabies now.  Please allow ALS their moment in the sun and do not make our cause look like the ones who “throw water” on other’s success.

  7. frank at

    It’s closer to 21 millions gallons. This is the official figure from the Dept of Water Conservation. Enough water to raise the level of Lake Erie by one foot! All gone, dumped on the floor/ground.

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