Venn Diagram of Awesome: What Environmentalists, Activists, and I Have in Common

A while ago, I posted this blog about how the life-hacking community has a lot in common with Emergency Managers (we both have an attitude of self-sufficiency.) Then I posted my perspective on social activism (I’m for it.). Now I want to talk about what Emergency Managers (and preppers) have in common with environmentalists. (Hint: It’s a lot).

Emergency Management operates at the junctions between the environment, the community, and the individual
Emergency Management operates at the junctions between the environment, the community, and the individual

Short Term

Social justice. Often it seems like people who care about the environment also care about equality issues. People are uniquely linked to the health of the environment and disasters expose the strength of this link. When, for instance, coffee farmers cut down the Rainforest to plant coffee plants, they expose the topsoil to heavy rains which wash away the nutrient-rich top soil. This leads to successively poorer crops which causes hungry farmers to cut down more Rainforest. Furthermore the rains–unchecked by strong trees–causes extreme flooding, much more than would’ve happened before the trees were cut , causing farmers to lose their homes and crops. Which, in turn, causes the country to become vulnerable to famine. Worsening cycles like this one are why we try to buy fair-trade crops and crafts. These situations are a good example of the synergistic mix between social and environmental issues. Disasters just bring these issues to salience.

Bangladesh slum dwellers find helping the poor makes everyone more resilient.

Medium Term

How well a community withstands a disaster is directly related to how well it has treated the local environment. A common example: if you fill watershed areas with dirt and pour concrete over it and the surrounding hills, you will get flooding. If you develop along coastlines, not only do you put more people in harm’s way, but you also erode the beach and damage the protective corals causing storm surges and tidal waves to travel farther inland than they would have before (we’re looking at you, Florida, Texas, and Louisiana). If you cut down forests and plow up grass, wind storms or flooding can carry away the top soil and damage both the recuperation power of the area and cause algea blooms in the ocean where all the nutrient-rich top soil dropped (Ahem, Dust Bowl). This might lead to a bad harvest and starvation (back to social justice again).

Bali fisherman switch from fishing with cyanide (which bleaches coral) to other methods.

Long Term

Global warming is making disasters both more frequent and stronger. First world countries’ infrastructures are also getting (a little) better, but this is not true for third world countries. The worsening storms and unchecked development is causing more and more people to be vulnerable. Island nations are eroding away. African farmers can’t find enough water to give their plants. War is damaging the land and local economy. Refugees stress host nations. No one has enough money to migrate. There’s no where to put them if they could. All of this long-term suffering makes it harder for people to withstand disasters when they do strike. And since they’re striking more frequently, they can hardly recover before the next one comes. I’ve already discussed this here, so I won’t go on.

Climate change has made flooding much worse in Vietnam. A better dam helps.

Take Care of the Environment and it Will Take Care of You

’nuff said.

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“Growing Pains”: History’s Theory of Everything

There’s a huge push in my Emergency Management classes to ingrain us with community-building values. Over and over I’m told (and I believe) that 1. the best way to respond to an emergency is to let local leaders direct the resources, 2. that the best way to keep people safe is to make sure they’re connected to each other* and to processes/institutions (neighborhood watches, hospitals), and 3. that the best way to prepare for or rebuild after a disaster is to be responsive to the ones who have to live in the houses you’re building**.

It turns out to be a very democratizing process if you do it right. And it also happens to synergize very well with the internet and social media. (Think about how Twitter aided the democratizing process in Arab Spring).

The following blog post from Raptitude summarizes a “Grand Historical Theory” that explains why community building is so important and so powerful. [And secondarily, why I, for one, am hugely in favor of net neutrality. Allowing corporations to control the speed of the internet for profit would create a hierarchy which would degrade the powerful crowd-sourcing democracy that’s happening on the internet.] I’m going to give a bullet pointed version of Raptitude’s summary (whoa, so meta), but I highly urge you to read the article. It’s short, interesting, and well written.

1. Early man roamed about in small groups where everyone grew up with everyone else and understood all the viewpoints in their society (represented by knowing each person very well). Decisions were made by consensus–a long, boring, but equal process.

2. As we grew into cities and towns, societies were too large for everyone to know or even understand everyone else so hierarchies formed in order to organize society. This silenced all except for the those at the top. When they wanted to make a new society (America, for instance), it was those at the top who made the laws and processes of getting work done.

3. But the printing press and now the internet allowed anyone (almost–although it’s getting more and more accessible) to write and disseminate their viewpoint and opinions. We began to reincorporate society… or to put it another way, we began to dismantle hierarchy. Which has been painful (French revolution, American revolution, civil rights, LGBT marriage equality, etc.) But it’s happening and it’s awesome and we should encourage that.

Because it makes our world safer, healthier, and better.

* So there was this study done of two neighborhoods who experienced a tremendous heat wave. In the wealthier neighborhood the death rate was much higher than in the other poor neighborhood (very unusual). Authorities couldn’t explain it until they realized that the poor neighborhood was made up of minority groups who had stronger ties with one another. They would look in on one another to make sure people were ok. Elders in the wealthier neighborhood didn’t have anyone to call 9-1-1 if they collapsed from heat stroke. So connecting people to people keeps everyone safe by leveraging social ties to get information disseminated.

** In an earthquake zone in India, NGOs used to come in and build villages with cinder block houses. Sturdy, square. But the square huts fell over in the next earthquake while the more traditional mud huts stood firm. It took a while for NGOs to figure out that the simple mud huts stood during earthquakes while Western styled houses–though cement– fell because the huts were round and could resist the movement of the earth in every direction. Squares get warped. Since then EMs have learned that you can’t just import solutions out of context. You have to listen to the community because they know these things.