A Different Take on the Starfish Story

I’m sure that many of you are familiar with the story of the child on the beach with the starfish, but I don’t want to assume anything, so please bear with me as I tell it again.  It goes something like this:

A man (it’s always a man, isn’t it) is walking along a beach one morning after a storm and sees the entire shore covered in starfish that had been washed up by the tempest.  As the man continues walking he comes upon a young child who is picking up starfish one by one and throwing them back into the water.  As this jerk of a man considers the situation, he decides to crush the young child’s hopes and dreams and says “Why are you doing that?  There are hundreds of thousands of starfish washed up on this beach, and the next beach over, and all the way up the coast.  They are all going to die.  Mwah ha ha ha.  What difference can you possibly make?”

At this the child picked up another starfish, tossed it back into the water, looked up at the man with a piercing gaze, and said “Made a difference to that one.”

Oh snap.  The moral of this story, as you probably know, is that even though the problems of the world are far too great for one person to solve, we can all make small differences in the lives and worlds of those around us, and that it is a worthwhile endeavor.  But I have been think about limited personal resources and how best to spend them, so I have an added layer for you to consider.

What if the child discovered that, by moving far more quickly and using sharper throws, twice as many starfish could be saved.  The only problem being that such a strong flinging motion would tear one of the five arms off.  Maybe a few of them would grow the arm back, but for the majority of them their lives would be far more difficult.  Their swimming would be weaker, finding food would be harder, and predators would always be right on their spiny heels.  What choice do you make?  Is it better to save one hundred starfish completely?  Or to save two hundred damaged starfish?

Now these damaged starfish, they were going to die anyway, right?  So even though they are not at 100%, and never will be again, you have markedly improved their situation.  Saving two hundred lives is better than saving one hundred, isn’t it?  But what if all of these damaged starfish have to adapt to survive this new four-legged existence?  What if they, by necessity, become more aggressive?  What if they remember the flinging unkindly and decide to protect themselves from you?  What if you have just created an entire species of hurt and pissed-off starfish with a grudge against the human race?  And what if they make their way into some toxic waste that had been illegally dumped into the ocean?  And what if Hollywood called me right now for the rights to “Attack of the Killer Mutant Ninja Starfish?”  Cause I would totally sell that to you.  I’m just saying.

But you see my point.  Which do you choose?  And, to take it even further, what if you created a machine that would allow you to toss back one thousand starfish?  An automatic flinger that worked fairly well, completely saving 350 intact starfish, ripping an arm off of 350 starfish due to internal mechanical inconsistencies. and straight up killing 300 starfish thanks to operator error and overzealous mechanical systems.  You are now saving way more starfish than the original by-hand method, and many of them will be just fine.  And yes, 300 of them will die in the flinging, but they were going to die anyway.  At least that’s what you tell PETA when they show up on your beach with a camera crew and a restraining order.  “I just wanted to help them!” you scream, as you chain yourself to your flinging machine to protect it from the misguided hippie nutjobs, who are advancing on you with wrenches, hammers, and vegan kale chips.

So to boil it all down for you, we all can make small differences in the world, to the people around us and to our communities.  But is it better to help a few to become more fully healed, or is it better to help more, but to help them less?  And is there even an answer?  And yes, I am willing to sell that second movie about the person strapped to the flinging machine as well.  Your move, Hollywood.

Posted in Beach, Ethics, Starfish.

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