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Can Disaster Point Us Towards Sustainability?


Sustainability requires changes in how we think about the larger world. We all suffer from some attention deficit; not surprising after we're inundated by information-overload about one event which miraculously disappears as another fills the airwaves. Remember Haiti, where an estimated 230,000 people died in the aftermath of an earthquake only five short weeks ago? Where more than a million dislocated people presently face the spring rains living in flimsy shanty-towns? It's getting a bit blurry, isn't it? Especially after several weeks of "news" about Toyota recalling eight million cars, and our TV screens now being filled with the winter Olympics! Do we even remember Copenhagen?

The Olympics is a $6 billion event to highlight 2,700 athletes while creating a massive commercial audience for un-athletic food and drink giants McDonalds and Coca Cola. To put this in perspective, only $3 billion will be expended even if (a big "if") all donors come through for Haiti's reconstruction, which is necessary to bring three million people back from the edge of destitution and despair. I'm not suggesting anyone feel guilty about the priorities and discrepancies. But we should feel something, for sustainability will require us to have better staying power; to better comprehend the deeper truths that lie beneath the fleeting cameras.


And there's still much to learn from Haiti.

What happens when governance collapses after such devastation? Do the mass of people panic, fend for them self and threaten public safety? Does the rescue mission and effective distribution of medicine and aid depend on establishing military order? Or, might the mobilizing of civil society make for more effective reconstruction?

The way disasters get reported from an outsider perspective easily reinforces the law and order rather than humanitarian view. The voice-overs to the photos often encourage us to see a cauldron of violence lying below the injured and grieving people desperately looking for ways to survive. Even block-buster disaster movies depict panicky masses as a backdrop to outsider superheroes. Research on disasters, however, suggests that for the most part, ordinary people, often already living with much insecurity, don't panic. Of course people want to be helped, and they get angry and cynical when help promised during peak TV coverage isn't actually delivered. But on-the-ground help by those who stay is always appreciated. There is lots of tender hearted loving care occurring on the front lines as I write.

Panic is often generated by the country's elite who are nervous about the collapse of authority. This "elite panic" sees the breakdown of customary controls as a threat to relative privilege. This isn't to say that people with more wealth aren't generous in such devastating circumstance. One Haitian man who owned land where homeless families went to squat commented "I won't throw them off, because they have no place else to go." But what happens in a few months or years?

Elites often have direct access to donor countries and aid agencies, and re-establishing control rather than immediately meeting human needs can take political priority. This can lead to the militarization of aid. This doesn't have to be either-or, if security is clearly tied to delivering aid, but when the military takes charge this becomes more difficult. People easily get confused about what's happening.

Public safety is enhanced by working directly with the people in need. Experience after tsunamis, earthquakes and hurricanes shows people are generous, resourceful and brave in helping rebuild their community. Though hurt, shocked and deprived, people are extremely resilient in acting for the common good. By the time a rescue mission got to one isolated community outside Port-au-Prince, the local people had self-organized to dig out survivors, bury their dead and build alternative shelter. Meanwhile the outside media was highlighting looting. How can scavenging for bits of building material or food in the aftermath of such total devastation be described as "looting"?

Aid sometimes gets bogged down in its own bureaucracy. While stocks of canned food piled up at the airport there was fresh food available at some Haitian markets which aid agencies could have bought and distributed, while helping restore the local economy. Rebuilding efforts after the 2004 tsunami show partnerships between aid groups and villagers is the most effective way to build sustainable shelter. The simple act of giving thousands of low-cost wheel-barrels to Haitians had a more positive effect than sending in more high-cost troops. The wheel-barrels acted as stretchers to get injured to field clinics, and allowed those scavenging to better distribute reusable material.


Human resilience grows into the empowerment essential for rebuilding. This strengthens civil society so that governance can become more participatory and democratic. Unfortunately this threatens vested interests who want to profit from reconstruction; to have top-down controls and their privilege return. So the processes used will shape the political and economic outcome, and elite panic and militarization of aid won't leave behind a more participatory society.

Naomi Klein's best seller, The Shock Doctrine, documents the corporate readiness to exploit in the aftermath of disaster. The book has hit a nerve, but its attempt to cover everything from the Chilean coup in 1973, to the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, to Hurricane Mitch in 1998 makes it a bit of a stretch. To learn the lessons of sustainability we'll need to balance this view with one that explores the capacity of the grass-roots to take control of their grave situation. In "A Paradise Built In Hell", award-winning historian, Rebecca Soinit, describes how in the aftermath of disaster people can rebuild their society as they rebuild their lives. One reviewer put it well, saying the book disputes "civil defense planners, media alarmists and Hollywood directors who insist that disasters produce terrified mobs prone to looting, murder and cannibalism unless controlled by armed forces and government expertise." After exhaustive research on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 1917 Halifax explosion, 1985 Mexico earthquake, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, Soinit concludes that there is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid among neighbours and strangers. She argues that such human solidarity points the way to a freer society.

We don't want to depend upon disasters to fully appreciate humanity's resilience. Climate change and militarization won't always provide second-chance learning opportunities, so sustainability is going to require more collective foresight.

Next time I'll look at how well we're doing so far in our 21st Century.