Friday, February 12, 2010

The Biggest Problem the World Faces... the title of a typical, boring application essay, the kind teenagers have to respond to for academic summer programs.

It's a Catch-22: how does one respond to a boring prompt without being, well, boring?

I had a student call me last night, asking for help on an essay entitled, "The Biggest Problem the World Faces is..."

Her idea, which she ran by me, was to say that Hatred is the biggest problem in the world.

Okay, I said (but I am sure she could hear the lack of enthusiasm in my voice), if you want to write about Hatred, we can certainly think of some examples of that.

What I was thinking was: "Hatred is far too abstract of an answer. 'Hatred' sounds akin to a Miss America stock interview response--one so broad as to be utterly inoffensive, and so vague as to be virtually useless."

It is an ambitious answer, though, and certainly not entirely incorrect--and yet, it is not one that I think can be written well. Maybe Elie Wiesel could write this one well.

My mind going a million miles a minute as always, I told this student about an article I just read in The New Yorker, one that dealt with two men (Dale Andreatta and Peter Scott) whose mission it is to solve the world's biggest problem. ("Hearth Surgery" by Burkhard Bilger, in the December 21 & 29, 2009 edition of The New Yorker.)

What is the world's biggest problem? Apparently, it is lack of affordable, clean-burning stoves.

Yes, stoves.

That sort of blew my mind. But I read on. And then I could see it: the bulk of the world (billions of people) is made up of families in very poor nations who cook with terrible little wood-burning stoves.

Smoky, air-polluting fires for cooking and heating--especially in cramped, mud huts or other tiny structures built without adequate ventilation systems--cause myriad health problems: pneumonia, cancers, deaths in infancy. More than a million and a half people die each year because of their cooking method.

Trees are torn down at alarming rates to help fuel these inefficient cooktops. Lack of trees leads to dust-bowl conditions, leads to starving animals, leads to massive pollution, leads to global warming.

Untold suffering is caused by cooking flatbreads and pots of beans (and I like both of these foods, so this is no ethnic jab or food snobbery).

Health problems (health care) always end up having economic repercussions.

Economics and politics are inextricably intertwined, with economic disparities being one of the causes of terrorism.

And that's why bad stoves may be the world's biggest problem.

Do something like that, I told my student. Surprise your reader. Do you see how easy it is to come up with your points, your body paragraphs, when your answer is something concrete, such as stoves?

If you want to get more abstract (and I could tell that's where her heart was), why not try a subject such as money? Materialism? The Biggest Problem the World Faces Today could very well be our laser-focus on money. Everything comes down to cost.

The stove problem I mentioned before comes down to cost. Even if a well-designed stove costs $8 (hard to fathom for Americans, for sure), who in these poor countries can even afford that?

But how can governments or richer nations afford NOT to help other people? An ounce of prevention (preventing so many diseases, preventing lack of equity when it comes to health care and education) is worth, in the end, a pound of cure (as Mr. Franklin said).

It has been said that much political unrest is caused by the growing chasm between rich and poor.

If the rich help the poor a little bit more--even if it is just in the supplying of stoves--then maybe this will go a long way towards solving the biggest problems in the world.

And that's how, I think, you answer that question.

My main suggestions for writing better essays:

1) Reading.
2) Talking it through.
3) Making connections--what I call "brainstorming in action."
4) Looking for, and using, the unexpected answer.


  1. Elizabeth, I see you are sharing your good work. Kudos and continued best wishes. It's good to read this; I can see how much you care about your students and the world. We need more people like you!

  2. I appreciate that. Thank you, Joy.

    I do care about people--especially poor people--and about the environment.

    All I can do is hope that more people will start to act on their caring, too.