A Storm in a Bucket: Lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge Controversy

August 22, 2014

CREDIT: University of Central Arksansas (CC)

As I write this essay, another bucket of ice water is falling over somebody's head.

The Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC) aims to raise awareness of a progressive neurodegenerative disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The challenge asks people to be doused with ice water, film it, and pass the challenge to others. Formally, the nominee is requested to either take the challenge ormake a donation to an ALS charity. But this requirement has been relaxed, as some do both, while others take the challenge and forget what it was for in the first place.

Still, the IBC has proved to be one of the most successful campaigns in recent years. As of August 21, it has raised $41.8 million for the ALS Association; other organizations have also benefited. The phenomenon is likely to continue for another few days, or even weeks. It was only yesterday that Victoria Beckham joined the ranks of IBC celebrities, including Bill Gates, Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, and George W. Bush.

Slacktivism?
The IBC has attracted the predictable charge of "slacktivism": a casual form of activism neither sincerely endorsed nor likely to make a long-term impact. A Vice article best captures the critics' sentiment: the challenge is "basically narcissism masked as altruism. By the time the summer heat cools off and ice water no longer feels refreshing, people will have completely forgotten about ALS. It's trendy to pretend that we care, but eventually, those trends fade away."

I doubt such an outright dismissal will impress the do-gooders. First, it's easy to turn the tables on the critics. They say the IBC is not truly altruistic, but the point of saying that is surely to claim that they are the genuine altruists. How narcissistic is that? Second, it's a bit cheap to beat the slacktivism drums on seeing a new online phenomenon. Again, the critics must concede mea culpa: disseminating the #noicebucketchallenge hashtag is no less slacktivist than joining the chorus of #icebucketchallenge.

Third, few believe that purity of heart is all that matters. The do-gooders might be narcissists in disguise; all the same, they have raised over $40 million with the IBC. The critics must listen to what the ALS Association said: "Never before have we been in a better position to fuel our fight against this disease." As for the long-term impact, we will have to wait and see. May the angry critics trace the impact after the summer heat, and may their heads cool off.

Waste of Water

A more serious concern is with the cost-inefficacy of the IBC. According to one estimate, five million gallons of water have been doused by August 18 in the United States alone. The amount, according to Steve Fleischli of the Natural Resources Defense Council, approximates "the annual use of about 150 people, or enough water for one person to use for 150 years." The environmental concern is acutely felt in drought-stricken areas such as California. The #droughtshaming hashtag has been mobilized to discourage the IBC. The ALS Association does encourage the challenge and yet asks, "Please be thoughtful about water usage!" Needless to say, the amount of doused water is swelling into torrents as I write this piece.

Friends of the IBC may show more numbers to rebut the criticism. Five million gallons of water, one author says, is "a tiny amount compared to the 320 gallons [...] used by an American household per day." In fact, it is "literally close to nothing" in comparison to the "37,612,160,000 gallons used in one day" nationwide.

Still, it seems dishonest to deny that the IBC has wasted a considerable amount of water. In fact, some in favor of the spirit of the challenge have come up with ideas to minimize the cost. One suggestion, emerging from California, is to replace the ice with sand. Another is to incorporate an addendum to the challenge: recycle water, or conserve an equal amount of water. I see no reason why the do-gooders should stop there. Why not a virtual IBC? Pretend a bucket of ice water is dumped over you, and react accordingly. That'd be more difficult, arguably more fun (more hilarious failures), and definitely more eco-friendly.

I am yet to see any such variant taking off to catch people's imagination. But it should, I think, if the spirit of the IBC is a good one. The mortal enemy of fun-based activism is boredom. Critics are right about this: ALS will be largely forgotten when the current craze evaporates. And there is a limit to the fun we can have by watching people dousing themselves with water, one after another. The challenge must mutate into different forms if it is to survive. Our attention span is severely limited in the age of digital media.

Out of the Bucket
It is here that we must pause and ask ourselves: Why must a campaign entertain when its aim is something else—to cure a disease, to reduce poverty, and so on? Critics indeed argue that the fun part is redundant, that it adds absolutely nothing. Some go so far as to say that the fun part is positively harmful, as it distracts our attention from what really matters: suffering.

There is much to be said for this no-nonsense view, but the empirical evidence seems to weigh heavily against it. The IBC is but the latest illustration of who we are and what we do. We often do not do what we think we ought to do. And we often do something simply because we are "hooked" on it, so long as we see no reason why we should not do it. That's why fun-based activism such as the IBC has been so successful. It does not persuade you; it mobilizes you.

At the beginning of the Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau says he takes "men as they are and laws as they could be" in his inquiry into a just social order. His basic approach remains sound, even when considering today's technologically enhanced global civil society. Whether one likes it or not, we will continue to act when we are "hooked," and will not act when we are not, at least in the foreseeable future. To accuse such behavior of being irrational is certainly legitimate. But to dismiss fun-based activism for that reason would be a rationalist folly. Joseph Butler's celebrated dictum suggests itself: "Things and actions are what they are, and the consequences of them will be what they will be: why then should we desire to be deceived?" The IBC skeptics will fare better if they consider how best to channel our passions into a worthy cause, instead of imagining men and women as they could be.