The Life You Can Save: Acting Now To End World Poverty – A Book Review (of Sorts)

Here is a link to Peter Singer’s TED talk about effective altruism, which makes a lot of the same points as the book “The Life You Can Save: Acting now to End World Poverty”.

The target we should be setting for ourselves is not halving the proportion of people living in extreme poverty, and without enough to eat, but ensuring that no one needs to live permanently in such degrading conditions.

That goal is possible. Here’s a seven point plan that will make you part of the solution to world poverty.

1.Visit and pledge to meet the standard.

(read 2 and 3 in the book yourself)

4. Tell others what you have done. Spread the word in any way you can: talk, text, email, blog, use whatever online connections you have. Try to avoid being self-righteous or preachy, because you’re probably no saint, either, but let people know that they, too, can be part of the solution.

 Peter Singer (page 168 The Life You Can Save)

In writing this post I am trying to do exactly what Peter Singer asks above. The basic premise of the book, if you can’t tell from above, is that “wealthy people” (nearly anyone reading this qualifies as wealthy) only need to give a small percentage of each of their individual incomes to help eliminate world poverty and save the lives of “the extreme poor”. These are people who are dying from diseases that have long been defeated in the “1st world” countries.

Throughout the books he shares examples of how in certain situations if there is a person in trouble right in front of us we are willing to go to extreme lengths to help that person. He then shares how with the prevalence of the internet and the plethora of NGO’s and charities operating in the world we are only a click away from helping thousands of people, even if we don’t make 6 figures a year.

In the chapter “How Much Does It Cost to Save a Life?” he tries to address the often heard excuse that “I don’t know if that charity is actually doing any good or not with my money so I won’t give any.” He discusses both Charity Navigator and also GiveWell. Both groups that try to help individuals understand the effectivity and transparency of various charities in the world. He also shares some calculated numbers of how much it costs to help people through various situations.

“Interplast corrects deformities like cleft palate, and helps burn victims so that they can walk or use their hands again.” “GiveWell calculates that Interplast spends about $500 to $1500 per corrective surgery” (p89)

“We can reasonably believe that the cost of saving a live through one of these charities is somewhere between $200 and $2,000.” (p103)

I believe, as Peter Singer states that “as people become more confident of the cost-effectiveness of charities, they will become more willing to give.” (p93)

After sharing how easy it is to give and how effective charities are these days, Singer discusses how much he thinks each person should give. He shares the story of Zell Kravinsky. Here is a link to an article about the man. He is truly amazing. He has anonymously donated a kidney to a stranger. Some of his charity has caused some internal conflict with his family. His efforts to help others are truly heroic.   The whole point of this book though, is that if we all pulled our own weight in helping others, Zell’s heroic efforts wouldn’t be necessary.

Which is the point of the next chapter, “Asking Too Much?” I can’t say it any better than Singer, “focus instead on the fact that if everyone were doing their fair share, the total amount each of us would need to give in order to wipe out, or at least drastically reduce, large-scale extreme poverty would be in the hundreds, rather than thousands, of dollars per year.” (p144)

In the final chapter Singer finally shares a real number, he proposed 5% of income per person who is “financially comfortable” should be given to charitable causes. He even shares some data about the reverse bell curve of actual giving in the USA currently. You can find that curve here. At least as measured in dollars, the less money you make the more likely you are to give a higher percentage, at least until people are making many hundreds of thousands or millions in income.  

The above statement should drive you to ask “How can I become financially comfortable?”  This should be the first step in helping others. Much like the mantra on a plane “put on your own mask before helping others” if you aren’t stable yourself, or at least feel stable, you shouldn’t be to worried about others. If you eventually figure out the few tricks

  1. The is no true security.
  2. The market always goes up.

You will be feeling quite secure in your future once you have built some assets and understand what they actually are. You can learn more about investing and saving and creating your own security here. You can learn a bit more about investing from a few videos I have created here and here.

You can also learn about security from “The Crazy Man in The Pink Wig” a personal mentor of mine. (I will buy you his book on investing if you won’t buy it yourself, just email me

Finally, you can learn from Mr. Money Mustache’s posts, here or here, or just about any post of his.

Once you are stable yourself you can then start focusing on others. You will be in good company as these guys Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway), Bill Gates (Windows), Pierre and Pam Omidyar (Ebay) and Manoj Bhargava (5 Hour Energy) are already leading the charge to change the world for the better.

If you need a few suggestions on charities you can check my page of preferred charities or this post for more information about my 2nd favorite book “The Last Hunger Season” about what I think is a particularly effective charity.

Once you are in a comfortable place yourself, I would encourage you to at least “do your part” by checking in at Singer’s site, and “becoming a member”. To do that you will just have to tell the site your income and it will recommend how much you should give to charity to “do your part”. I believe that if we do this we will see the end of poverty in our life times. I have calculated the year 02041 as when we will have no more hungry people but I believe it will be much sooner than that based on an exponential rate of reduction of poverty.