Vibrant, effective responses to disaster?

As powerful economic, ecological, and social imbalances work themselves out in and around our lives, we face some pretty hard times – some of us already, some of us more than others, most of us increasingly. Each of us hopes we can ameliorate the impacts on ourselves, our communities and the people and things we care about. In addition, some of us seek to creatively channel the energies of crisis and catastrophe in ways that over time will make the world a better place. But in any case, chances are high that hard times will be more frequent for most of us in the coming decades.

Recently I’ve run across the work of two women – Rebecca Solnit and Roz Diane Lasker – whose perspectives on crisis and catastrophe offer insights and tools for hope.

Activist writer and journalist Solnit’s book A PARADISE BUILT IN HELL: THE EXTRAORDINARY COMMUNITIES THAT ARISE IN DISASTER – a book I cannot recommend highly enough – tells vivid stories from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, the September 11th attacks, and Hurricane Katrina’s battering of New Orleans, among other disasters. She describes how grassroots acts of effective engagement, heroism and sacrifice, and emergent communities of mutual aid are by far the most prevalent responses to localized collective tragedy. Despite news reports to the contrary, these positive grassroots responses are far more prevalent than mass panic and crime and often far more effective than official intervention – an assertion backed by fascinating sociological research. She shows how official relief and government engagement can help a community’s self-organized response but, alas, all too often undermine it. Occasionally official reactions result in even more extensive suffering and destruction than the original calamity, which itself may have been caused in part by the misguided or self-interested activities of governments or corporations. (The actual exploitation or engineering of disaster for profit and power is explored in another book, Naomi Klein’s THE SHOCK DOCTRINE: THE RISE OF DISASTER CAPITALISM.)

Lasker, on the other hand, is a medical professional majorly involved in disaster planning. She is the founding director of the Center for the Advancement of Collaborative Strategies in Health at The New York Academy of Medicine. The contribution she makes to creative engagement with crises is almost pure collective intelligence. She notes that the experts involved in planning for or addressing a crisis – such as government agencies, aid organizations, and emergency response professionals – usually think in purely logistical, materialistic, and quantitative ways that tend to overlook much of the human reality on the ground. She illustrates her point with a viral video of a gorilla figure walking through a group of people tossing a ball back and forth. Viewers who are instructed to count the number of ball passes (who are analogous to the disaster experts) almost always fail to notice the gorilla figure that is so obvious to anyone else (i.e., those directly impacted by the crisis). She uses this to call out the “blind spot” of disaster professionals: their frequent and often habitual or even institutionalized failure – in both planning and response – to seriously consider the information and voices of marginalized people most impacted by the crisis. This is not to say that disaster professionalism is intrinsically problematic; rather that if such professionals did work in full and respectful collaboration with the (especially disadvantaged) public before, during and after a crisis, the results would be quite powerful indeed. You can hear her talk about all this on a compelling video, which includes a clip of the gorilla experiment:

Part of my interest in this comes from the likelihood of more extreme weather events and other such local catastrophes upon which Solnit and Lasker focus. However, I believe that we are in the midst of a more complex and generalized mega-crisis which is unfolding in an uneven and often dangerous trajectory over decades – some say centuries or millennia. To respond adequately to the next waves of this crisis will require greater community resilience and a wiser democracy. These two collective capacities – community resilience and wise democracy – are both enabled by emerging resources that promise to transform politics, economics and governance. These include powerful conversational methods; new ways to record, share, access and understand vital information; and systems that enhance co-creativity, collaboration and mutual support. These new social technologies and systems are backed by growing understanding of self-organization, interconnectedness, networks, evolution, consciousness, ecology, history, money, and more. All this heralds an emerging vision of a do-it-ourselves new world, which shows up in everything from networked local community resilience initiatives like Transition Towns to peer-to-peer open source software and hardware efforts to community gardens and farmers markets, citizen deliberative councils, barter, sharing, and gifting networks, and the ongoing activist conversations and innovations of the Occupy movement – to name a few signs.

Solnit and Lasker tell us that we already possess the collective power of self-organization AND that we can arrange top-down and bottom-up systems – and outside-in and inside-out approaches – so that they enhance each other rather than undermine our collective power. I see our main challenge is three-fold: the compassionate task of ameliorating the suffering that accompanies crises; the transformational task of developing enhanced capacities and systems in ourselves, our communities and societies; and the activist task of reining in or replacing the powers that degrade our capacities and tap the energies of disaster for unhealthy ends.

I believe these three strategies are not as separate as they may at first appear. I suggest that compassion, generative interaction and mutual aid – in all their many manifestations – are not only the primary qualities of the world we want, but are also the primary resources we will use to get there.

Blessings on the Journey.

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