Disaster resilience in a leaderless world

Our typically magnificent summer in the Northwest Pacific region is getting lost under a blanket of extreme heat.  Friends driving up the coast from California tell of the smell of smoke from wild fires raging.  But none of this is not as frightening as reading about the mother of all earthquakes that awaits us. A too well written article about the Cascadia earthquake fault line appeared in a recent New Yorker magazine. It was passed around like proverbial wildfire. Quiet panic ensued. (In fact the article caused so much panic that the author wrote a follow up piece to focus instead on offering practical advice such as, stockpile water! Check! Retrofit buildings to withstand the damage! Check!). I reflected on my own and my community’s  panic.  My action researcher instincts also kicked in and I convened a meeting with my neighbors.  In effect we could comfort each other by panicking  together and agreeing to share our stockpiled water!  Reflecting a little more deeply I realize that the problem is not specific to earthquakes, of course. The Cascadia fault, similar to the faults off Chile or Japan, both portends disaster and is also a reminder of larger ecological doom created by the way we have lived in the Petroleum era. So how should a community respond to a looming disaster of uncertain timing knowing that if we don’t, catastrophe surely awaits the next generations (of all species)? Clearly we find it hard as a society to even begin to do this reflection when our systems, most importantly including our system of knowledge production, leaves us ill-equipped to respond with intelligence. So many of our leaders/politicians still simply insist that the science on climate change is inconclusive. We are, in effect, a leaderless people in the worse sense.  So how does an action researcher respond to potential catastrophe? What does action research have to say in response to climate change?  I do think that the instinct to convene community is a good one.  Knowing our neighbors is a necessary first step.  Sitting and talking is important. We are a collaborative species but too often only after the fact, after the disaster.  An action researcher preempts disaster response with community building for resiliency before disaster strikes. But as disaster is already striking, that time is now. Getting to know one another, offering to help one another is a first step. Deciding how to take emergency action together is a next step (in my community we share gas lines, so who will be in charge of turning off the gas needs a little coordination).   We are playing with multiple epistemological voices here (not that I would mention that to my neighbors!). We are bringing our own first person experience (starting with panic and moving to collaborative intent), to second person coordination in the present. Bringing first and second person voices together we are forming the future from the present. We also keep third person (objective) knowledge in mind – after all it is the geological facts that instigate our meetings and the call to stockpile water and supplies is a practical step that also becomes a vehicle for coordination.  In a way just doing this is already doing a lot – it’s stepping over the modernist myth of the separate individual  who relates primarily to large institutions (like a head in the sane government).  It’s stepping out of the totalizing system in which we have spent too much time working just to own a house (that may fail us anyway when the earth trembles). It puts time and effort in where it is needed – to begin to remake our systems from below, with our communities. In that remaking it allows our concern for the common good to take responsibility for the health and prosperity of ourselves and the environment. (And here’s hoping the Earthquake doesn’t hit for a 100 years or more, after the bridges have been seismically retrofit 😉

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