Bringing disaster preparedness into resilience politics

Introduction

Most discussion of “sustainability” for the last 30 years has been about how to ensure that what we do today is not at the expense of future generations. This is supposed to be so that future generations are safe from the damage done when current generations over-exploit the planet and ruin their future.

That was the theory but the overuse of the planet’s resources happened anyway. Growth got priority and future generations will pay for the planet’s consumer class and the idiocy of its economic priesthood. Ecological footprint analysis tells us that humanity (or rather the rich part of the humanity) has been consuming natural resources as if there were 1.7 planets. This overshoot, the inappropriate growth promoted by mainstream economists may end up sending future generations into earlier graves. They have a right to be angry. Humans born now will inherit an exhausted planet with an increasing number and intensity of disasters. [1]

According to a recent UN report, damage has increased over the last 40 years:

“Between 1980 and 1999, 4,212 disasters were linked to natural hazards worldwide claiming approximately 1.19 million lives and affecting 3.25 billion people resulting in approximately US$1.63 trillion in economic losses.”

That was twenty years ago and it has got worse.

“In the period 2000 to 2019, there were 7,348 major recorded disaster events claiming 1.23 million lives, affecting 4.2 billion people (many on more than one occasion) resulting in approximately US$2.97 trillion in global economic losses. This is a sharp increase over the previous twenty years.” [2]

On current trends it will get worse again. We should not give up the campaigning against further overshoot but we now need to combine this fight with steps in communities to prepare for the disasters that are now baked in – because the growth fanatics cannot take in the dangers of rushing over planetary tipping points. We are facing climate crisis, biodiversity collapse, public health crises and economic turmoil that are already upon us. The failure of interdependency hubs like energy grids and networks, financial arrangements and supply chains, is likely to mean that “failure cascades” across multiple systems. Global society is moving into an era of emergencies and preparing civil society is necessary because governments and corporations are failing us. As people are mobilised to prepare for disasters hopefully they will become more aware of dangers and thus more effective campaigners too. We will see. [3]

In preparing for disaster – and re-developing after disaster occurs – we must guide the redevelopment with a new kind of political economy that is socially just AND pulls back economic activity from recreating the same problems over and again. If and when we have to start again – we will need to start again on a different and safer path.

There is a great deal that can be learned to aid disaster preparedness from the experience of communities around the world which have responded positively to emergencies. The ideal is a response called “disaster collectivism”. This is the opposite to “disaster capitalism” where external business interests exploit the vulnerability of local people after a disaster. In “disaster collectivism” local communities come together to help each other in mutual aid that is organised in a horizontal way, where no one is above anyone else.

It is not necessary to completely re-invent the wheel. Communities have made arrangements to respond to possible disasters for centuries – like lifeboat organisations run by members of coastal communities. Many communities have traditions and organisations that can be drawn upon – even if they are not created to respond to disasters specifically these traditions can still be used in that way. For example, in Ireland meitheal is an Irish word meaning mutual aid by work teams of neighbours – for example neighbouring farmers helping each other get in the harvest on each others farms.

Once people are used to helping each other the mutual aid arrangements can also be drawn upon in a crisis. A great deal of experience demonstrates that when disaster strikes communities come together in responses based on altruism and mutual aid. [4] The response of communities can sometimes be more appropriate, quick and flexible than official emergency services although the two kinds of response are ideally complementary.

The greater the pre-existing trust and networking, the better a community can respond. [5] Community horizontally organised responses often emerge from pre-existing social networks and prior divisions in communities may dissolve as people experience catastrophe together. This is more likely if there has already been information sharing in convivial settings about the need for preparedness, if neighbourliness has already been strengthened – for example by occasional meitheal events – and best of all if vulnerable groups have been included too.

Each disaster is different and the responses to it must be too – but we can think of a disaster as going through stages. Early on, while the disaster is still happening, there is a phase when, ideally, the public authorities are closely involved – police, ambulance and fire and other emergency services. At this stage the community can help with emergency shelter, meals and the like but, once the community has stabilised provision for immediate pressing needs like temporary food and shelter, and once the emergency services have gone, members of a community must pick up the pieces themselves until, eventually, redevelopment comes to the fore.

It is at the stage when the blue light services have packed up and gone that there is danger of a “second disaster”, sometimes called “the disaster after the disaster” [6].

Why might this happen?

The answer is that institutions and authorities that are supposed to help may be out of their depth, particularly when problems “cascade”- i.e. when there is a domino chain of failing arrangements. The local economy may have not have enough spare resources for rebuilding. Resource scarcity may be an especial in a “systemic” crisis. A domino chain of failures may play out something like this – an extreme weather event paralyses energy grids which in turn paralyse transactions systems of buying and selling. One thing leads to another and the community becomes and stays paralysed.

Unassisted communities may not be able to find either the psychological strength, or the material and financial resources, the skills and connections to re-develop. Furthermore the urge to “return to normal” may be in conflict with types of redevelopment which offer greater security against a repeat disaster.

Even where a disaster does not have an obvious climate connection, the climate crisis and the danger of crisis contagion must be part of a rethink about what will make for a safer future for all, particularly young people. It is not altogether obvious what kind of re-development is for the best when the future is also threatening.

Another issue is that there may be a need for a vulnerable community to resist plans by external interests who seek to profit at their expense. When a community has been seriously disrupted so that its members face ruin and destitution, the temptation to sell up might be strong. The ideal is for there to be strong community organisations that have effectively organised disaster relief which can transition into organisations where the community plans, directs and benefits from a participative re-development process but that is not always going to be possible.

What is to be done?

Ideally civil society will start to organise in anticipation of developments like these. Groups already exist which are anticipating problems like “energy descent” – for example the Transition Movement. The proposal here is not put forward in competition – but as a complementary idea. Thus a Transition Group might think of what it would add to its activities to prepare for emergencies. Likewise it is important not to get into competition with organisations such as the Red Cross which will have skills and resources that are very valuable. It will make more sense to approach them to explore why and how disaster preparedness in response to climate and economic crisis has become more important and to explore potentials for collaboration and complementary activity. It is important too that the blue light emergency services do not see the kind of community disaster preparedness proposed here as a competitive arrangement – what is considered here is more about what happens in that stage of disaster response after they have packed up and gone home.

Information gathering

Anyone intending to initiate something of this sort needs to research and gather together

(a) the reasons it is important for community based civil society organisations to consider vulnerabilities in uncertain times to highlight the kinds of disaster that are becoming more likely and what may happen in different localities – flooding, fires, waves of unemployment and destitution, hunger and food shortage, water and waste water crisis.
(b) examples of effective response from organised communities in different places around the world,
(c) examples of ineffective or absent responses to disasters and/or cases where external interests seek to exploit a vulnerable and disrupted community [7][8],
(d) system-level policies and/or actions that would powerfully assist local-level recovery and mitigation, and
(e) research that helps address the needs of young people so as to enable us to create participative presentation materials for civil society organisations working with parents and young people.

Community meetings (perhaps as common meals) and presentations

From such activities it will be useful to compile presentation materials tailored to a variety of civil society organisations to strengthen community links, develop relevant skills and raise awareness of system wide threats, threats specific to particular locations, and opportunities for effective local and system-level responses.

Presentations that are participative can be organised with the members of groups by arranging and preparing common meals together. In almost all disasters the task of feeding large groups of people becomes central – preparing a meal as an occasion for participative presentations is therefore an appropriate advance activity.

So too are meitheal work projects. Presentations will be inspirational but realistic about difficulties. Discussion and information exchange would include not only technical information but also discussion about the likely emotional and psychological impacts and what can be done to help people become more emotionally resilient.

The importance of horizontal participative structures would be stressed and the view to longer term rebuilding. Discussion would also identify policies and/or actions which are currently beyond the ability of local people to achieve but would powerfully assist recovery and mitigation – the preparedness activity will alert communities to the need to campaign for policies that avert or diminish the effects of systemic and environmental catastrophe.

An ideal outcome would thus be local networks strengthened by occasional meitheal activities – for example, gardening or farming events – as well as becoming informed and committed groups of policy influencers.

Going forward

The next phase would be identifying groups who are so far not part of the information exchange meetings with a view to refining materials and lessons so that it is adapted and made appropriate to different age groups. This refining and adaptation is also appropriate to find out more about particular needs of black and minority ethnic communities, disability groups, homeless and destitute people, Travellers and so on.
Another aim would be strong links with international networks of disaster preparedness organisations which are working from the philosophy of disaster collectivism.

What kind of eventual outcomes would be aimed for?

Awareness raising and information exchange with community organisations about

(a) potential local threats as well as potential system wide “cascade crises” if/when hub interdependencies fail
(b) identifying potential actions, equipment and tools that could be needed to respond to disasters
(c) Identifying locations in the community which could conceivably be a focus for mutual aid activities – including meitheal events organised in advance of any emergency so as to strengthen trust and to bridge between different social networks
(d) training in protocols to ensure accuracy and easy accessibility of public information during and after an emergency –
(e) Number of people, taking various kinds of informal and formal training – first aid, domestic skills, emotional first aid, basic cookery, information and logistics
(f) discussion and consensus building about longer term goals for a safer and more resilient community passed on to politicians and officials with policy responsibilities
(g) Identifying work programmes to create a sustainable impact and sustainable awareness – ideally without the need for future funding
(h) Recommendations for any groups who wish to carry out a similar programme in other places
(i) ongoing links between and with groups with relevant experience in other areas, regions and countries.

In Conclusion

This article was derived from a financial application for a “disaster collectivism” project worked up by members of Feasta, a think tank in the Republic of Ireland in the summer of 2020. The bid was not successful – there was money for only 15 projects and there were 152 bids. However, researching and working up the ideas was, we believe, a useful exercise. Furthermore the need for a project does not go away just because there is no money for it. For that reason the bid is published here in a rewritten form with an invitation to all those who like the idea to contact myself via Feasta (info [AT] Feasta.org).

For many years I was a “development worker” in the so-called mental health field. Developing a community project does not have to be a complicated process – it can start just by gathering together friends and neighbours and chatting informally – and then organising a larger event to which more people are invited. A presentation from a guest speaker or from one of the initial group can explain the issue and the idea and then have an open discussion. Some food and drink makes the meeting more convivial but that might be for a later stage. Ambitious goals are best left for a later stage as the group gets used to working together and gets more resources – if it decides that this is a good idea. At the beginning of a group few people will want to rush into big commitments – and they may never do. That’s OK. Organise what suits you – and organise around the time and resources that people can offer.

Alternatively, as explained already, the idea presented here, and information about disaster collectivism and preparedness may be better taken up by an already existing group. There is not one model – the main thing is to organise in a way that suits you and the people that you know – and enables you to reach out to people that you don’t know across your own and other communities…… faith groups, sports organisations, trade unions, tenants associations…

At the time of writing the covid 19 crisis and controls would make gatherings difficult so what is written here pre-supposes that in a few months the crisis will be over – if not so then improvisation using technologies like zoom meetings would be necessary. If interested please and just want to explore further then please do get in contact via Feasta…

(With thanks to Caroline Whyte, Tim Watkins and Harminder Singh )

References

(1) Brian Davey, The School of Economics as a Suicide Academy, https://www.feasta.org/2019/10/03/the-school-of-economics-as-a-suicide-academy/
(2) United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction: “The Human Cost of Disasters: a Review of the Last Twenty Years (2000-2019 ). https://www.undrr.org/publication/human-cost-disasters-overview-last- 20-years-2000-2019
(3) Pablo Servigne and Raphael Stevens “How Everything can collapse. A Manual for our Times” Polity Books, April 2020; David Korowicz and Margaret Calantzopoulos Beyond Resilience: Global Systemic Risk, Systemic Failure, & Societal Responsiveness, November 2018; David Fleming “Lean Logic. A dictionary for the future and how to survive it”. Chelsea Green Publishers, 2016; Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty “The Resilience Imperative. Co-operative Transitions to a Steady-State Economy” New Society Publishers, 2012; Richard Douthwaite and Gillian Fallon (Eds) “Fleeing Vesuvius: Overcoming the risks of economic and environmental collapse” Feasta publications, 2010
(4) Tom Llewellyn, The Response: Disaster collectivism and community resilience, Shareable Blog, September 2018 – with links to Podcast Documentary Series; Rebecca Solnit – A Paradise Built in Hell, Penguin Books, 2010;
(5) Daniel P. Aldrich and Michelle A. Meyer Social Capital and Community Resilience
American Behavioural Scientist 2015, Vol. 59(2) 254–269
(6) Beverely Raphael “When Disaster Strikes”, Routledge 1990
(7) Naomi Klein – “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism”, Penguin Books, 2008
(8) Tim Watkins: “The Disaster after the Disaster” Consciousness of Sheep blog – February 26th 2020 https://consciousnessofsheep.co.uk/2020/02/26/the-disaster-after-the-disaster/

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

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