Common Sense First Steps

Approximately 40% of the world’s population use combustible materials for cooking. The smoke from burning the materials moves into living spaces at 20 times the levels recommended for safe living. It’s estimated that 4,000,000 people die each year from the smoke inhalation. The deaths are primarily focused on women and children.

Obviously this is a serious worldwide problem. How do we approach a situation like this? One answer might be better medical care. But this is expensive and doesn’t prevent the medical condition from arising. Also adequate medical care doesn’t exist in the parts of the world where open burning is still needed. Another solution might be electric or gas stoves. But again, this is impractical because there are no electric or gas supplies in these areas.

The answer is one that seems simple, but it’s also remarkably effective. A small stove, about one foot in diameter and about two feet high has been developed as an alternative to open burning. The stove reduces the fuel needed by 50% and cuts the smoke by 70%. The stoves cost from $20 to $50. That may sound like a lot, but people in the areas involved spend 15%-20% of their income on fuel needed to cook. Generally the stove pays for itself in 3-5 months. NGO’s often provide the money to buy the stoves.

These cooking stoves may not get much attention, but the lessons learned from the development of the stoves are valuable for many lingering problems. We are often told to look at the systemic causes of problems for solutions. Obviously the systemic problem driving the use of open burning is a lack of economic development in certain regions of the world. How many people do you think would die before economic development would resolve this problem?

Idealists focus on the big picture and tend to chastise those who look for simpler but more practical solutions. Financing the development of a stove doesn’t attract much money, but foundations and governmental programs can get behind impressive sounding programs which might deal with systemic issues but are impractical and unlikely to ever succeed.

Practical solutions often involve a series of steps to be resolved. The first step might deal with an immediate problem (deaths from smoke). Those first steps may not deal with the long term issue, but they do provide some tangible relief. In the case of the stove, prevention of 4,000,000 deaths per year is still an incredible accomplishment. Over time the longer term issues can become more manageable.

Just imagine how many of our current societal problems might have short term viable remedies that are being overlooked? Just imagine if we asked those with practical minds what they would do? Might they have ideas being overlooked by policy wonks? Just imagine how we might shift government support from looking for long term solutions to support to devising and implementing practical solutions?

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“Common sense is not so common.” – Voltaire

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