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Giving The Gift Of Sight
My conversation with Larry Brilliant about smallpox eradication—and an end-of-year special offer for Adjacent Possible subscribers.
[You’re reading a post from my Adjacent Possible newsletter. If you subscribe to the paid edition between now and January 1, 20% of your subscription fee will go to support the SEVA Foundation.]
I noticed the other day that fellow Substacker Matt Yglesias is doing a year-end initiative where he’s contributing a portion of new subscription revenue to charitable causes. And so, inspired by Matt’s example, I thought it would be appropriate to pay tribute to one my heroes, Larry Brilliant, and the work he’s done with the SEVA Foundation over the last few decades.
One of the most moving experiences for me in filming the Extra Life series was the conversation I had with Larry, revisiting his role in the smallpox eradication campaign of the 1960s and 1970s. Now, if you’ve been following some of my writing over the past year, you’re probably familiar with my feelings about the smallpox program. It belongs, I think, in the pantheon of our greatest achievements as a species, a testament to what we can do when we combine scientific ingenuity with global collaboration. If our popular culture celebrated the work of the smallpox eradicators with the same intensity that it celebrates astronauts, we would have a lot less vaccine hesitancy right now. (Which would be a great thing, given the Omicron situation we are currently facing.)
We shot the conversation with Larry about a year ago — this was pre-vaccines, so it wasn’t safe to do it in person. I was in Seattle; Larry was at his home near San Francisco. The interview is the closing sequence of our “Vaccines” episode, and the whole thing goes on for about ten minutes—interspersed with some old footage Larry had uncovered from his travels during that period—but this clip gives some sense of the conversation:
I wanted to share the clip because it’s a powerful reminder of what an extraordinary gift to humanity vaccines have been. 300 million deaths in a century, reduced to zero, thanks to one medical intervention.
Larry has gone on to do a number of remarkable things in career, but maybe the most impressive and life-changing has been co-creating the SEVA Foundation in 1978. Nicholas Kristof just named the organization as the grand prize winner in his annual Holiday Impact Awards. Here’s what he wrote:
My 2021 grand prize winner is a nonprofit called Seva Foundation that restores sight around the world — a dazzling present. And I think you’ll agree that all the following suggestions are far more meaningful than any box of chocolates.
I chose Seva Foundation because I’ve seen so much anguish caused by blindness, ever since as a law student I met a blind man in Fez, Morocco, who was led around by his granddaughter to beg. Some 43 million people worldwide are blind, and hundreds of millions more have moderate to severe visual impairment that can be inexpensively prevented or fixed.
When people go blind in a poor country, they can no longer perform chores, care for children or earn an income. They often must pull a young child or grandchild out of school to escort them. So sight-restoring surgery gives two people their lives back.
So here’s the deal: between now and January 1, I’m going to contribute 20% of new subscription revenue to the SEVA Foundation. All of which means if you were on the fence about signing up for the paid subscription to Adjacent Possible, this would be a great time to jump over the fence! You’ll have full access to some of the great projects I’ve got in the works for Adjacent Possible in 2022—and you’ll be giving the gift of sight…