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People are capable of so much generosity and mutual aid after some disasters — but when it comes to covid and the rapidly increasing toll of climate change, we're hopelessly divided and plagued with denial. Why is this? Last week, I wrote about the myth that if aliens invaded, humanity would unite to face a common threat. For that piece, I interviewed Malka Older, the disaster sociologist and author of the Centenal Cycle trilogy, and she explained the three factors that make a disaster more toxic to a community.
Because our conversation was so fascinating, I thought I'd share the whole thing. Note: this interview has been somewhat condensed and edited for clarity.
So Ronald Reagan said that if aliens invaded, humanity would put aside its differences and come together. But now we face the common threats of covid and climate change, and we have not come together. Is this because we need a common enemy? And if so, how do we bring people together without someone to hate?
So there's this strand of literature called disaster studies, which I've actually written about a fair amount. [It] basically says that after a disaster caued by natural hazards, that actually tends to bring people together.
Like Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell.
There's also a lot of academic literature that goes into it. There's a lot of studies. It's pretty robust. But the caveat is, then there's this other strand of literature that has built off this or spun off this, to say that that happens when it's a naturally triggered disaster. But when it's an industrial disaster, it tends to work the other way. It's toxic to communities.
What do you mean by industrial disaster?
Any kind of human-made disaster. There's a book, and there's an article as well, about an underground coal fire in Centralia, PA, called The Real Fire Is Above Ground, which is a book-length description of basically how this tore the community apart. But there are a bunch of other examples.
There's a paper I use a lot, which is a little bit of a meta-analysis. It looks at a bunch of these studies, and the guy basically finds there are three different main reasons why these things are toxic to communities.
The first one is uncertainty of harm. For me, I kind of always go back to my experience working in Japan after Fukushima, because like: Tsnuami? People came together. Nuclear accident? Not so much.
The thing is, people argue about how bad it is, and how bad it's going to be. And you don't know. With something like radiation, it's invisible, and there's this big area where people don't know — nobody, no expert knows — how harmful it is. It just depends on a lot of different things, and we don't have enough studies. They know a lot of it is really bad, and they know a little bit is fine. But there's this whole area in the middle where they're like: "It might hurt you in ten years, and it might not." [So the community might disagree on whether it will hurt them, or whether they need to move.] So you get that division right away.
And the second thing that happens is, there's this blame game that goes on. Because it's a human-made thing, there's lawyers from the nuclear plant or the chemical spill or the coal mine or whoever, who are like, "Oh, actually, it's the government. Or actually, it's the community's fault for not following safety regulations. Or it was the operator, or whatever." It gets into this whole fracturing around whose fault is it. [And thus, people in the community argue over who to blame]. And that's the second fracture.
And then the other thing that happens is that because of both of these things, people lose their faith in the traditional authority figures and it kind of shakes their worldview, and it's very disruptive. It's very toxic to communities and it's hard for people to get together.
So what we see with things like the pandemic or climate change is that at this point, it's less about they're human-made or not and more about whether those three factors are involved. Because when there's an earthquake, it's pretty clear, and you can see the damage is done right there, and it's been one and done. Most people who are affected by a natural disaster are like, "Oh, the hurricane happened. What are you going to do?" [And yet], you see more and more that these things overlap, because [people] do get into arguments about the levees in New Orleans — as they should. So there is more and more of this blame going on, even with natural triggers.
So we see [uncertainty of harm] in both the pandemic and climate change. People are like, "well, it's going to hurt some people a lot and some people less, but we can't tell you. Nobody in the world can tell you beforehand how much it's going to hurt you." And so you get people with different risk aversion and people with different fear thresholds and stuff reacting different ways, and that creates conflict. Climate change, too. We know it's going to be bad, but there's all this division on how bad, and that leaves the room for people to wiggle around. Then you have the blame game, obviously, and then you have the authority figures crumbling also. And so all of these things make it really toxic, and the fact that we don't face any of this —we don't say, "Oh, we can't actually tell you how much harm [there will be]"... There isn't really a lot of transparency about any of this, and that tends to make it worse.
From my personal experience, I would add another element, which is: It's very easy for people to come together in the immediate impact. And we saw this to a certain extent with the first lockdown. Right? The longer something drags on and there's not a resolution, the harder it is to maintain that cohesion. Because in the moment, people are always going to want to help other people.
And there's an immediacy to it, too, that we see, where people will give money after disasters — if they can put themselves in the person's place, or if it's a very graphic visual disaster. So a tsunami will get many more donations than a famine. Because people can imagine being on a beach and a giant wave coming in. And they can see the videos, and it's terrifying. Whereas with famine? Yeah, you can see the pictures of the babies, but people don't think that can happen to them easily. They don't really identify with that happening.
So a lot of the people out there who don't mask or whatever, if they were asked, "Would you give a hundred dollars to save this person who's right in front of you right now?" They probably would. They're not people who are totally lacking in empathy. [With] a lot of them, it's just the leap of imagination, and the belief in this thing that is invisible initially, and that they can't trace exactly, and it's easy to evade that responsibility. So those are the reasons why this gets so toxic and does not unite people.
If we were to imagine an alien attack, in the first moment, yeah, everybody would be like, "Yeah, we're human and they're alien." But if you're thinking about [Octavia Butler's] Xenogenesis or something, where it's like, "The aliens are good, the aliens are bad, the aliens are somewhere in between," you'd see the same fracturing.
There's this other great piece I really like about women in Grand Forks. They suffer from a natural disaster and this researcher went in and basically showed that the attitudes these women had about welfare recipients, they projected onto themselves about receiving disaster response. So if they looked down on welfare recipients, they felt uncomfortable about receiving disaster aid.
That's so depressing. So with covid, you're talking about undertainty of harm. We were told early on that it would only affect elderly people. Over time, that picture has gotten more complicated. But a lot of people heard the thing about the elderly and decided not to worry about it — even though most of us have seniors in our lives.
If you don't have to be terrified, you'd rather not be terrified. And if you don't have to change your life in a dramatic way and admit that things are going seriously wrong in the timeline, you don't want to.
So if a threat is more ambiguous, if it's not a natural disaster, if there's a potential for finger-pointing, and so on, it's less likely to bring people together. As we face these giant systemic problems, including future pandemics, is there anything we can do to help people come together long-term?
This is an answer that's terrifying for all of us, but leadership is one [factor]. Having a strong leader — and by strong, I don't mean "strong" — but someone who is able to speak clearly about what we know and what we don't know, and who's able to lay things down clearly [and] say when they were wrong. And not lay blame on people, not enter the blame game thing, and try to preserve some sense of community, that is important.
It doesn't all have to be top-down. I think we saw a lot of mutual aid going on. Anything that supports the idea that communities help each other is going to [strengthen] communities. It can become a virtuous cycle. [If] someone gets aid or someone gives aid, [or] even if they only hear about it, it's going to make them feel like the community is there to support them somehow. And the more they think the community is going to support them, the more they're going to support the community.
I heard about this so much in the research that I did about disasters. You can hear when [people] talk about it. In the moment, they're like, "Oh, we got together and we went out and we looked for people who were stranded and we brought them back." And you can see how good that felt. How that made them think differently about things.
And then, as things dragged on, scammers would come in from out of town and maybe try to get assistance, and that kind of fractures it a little bit. But if they can say, "Oh they're from out of town." Or they can say, "Let them have it, we don't care, we don't need to worry about them, we're going to focus on what we can do." As long as they can keep that going, and they have their communities of volunteers, and they have a thing that gives them purpose. People being able to do something, even it's very small — being able to contribute and help somebody — and feeling like they are part of the community.
That's what it comes down to. There is a fair amount of disaster literature on this, too, that says that communities with [strong] social ties, or individuals that have a lot of social ties in their community, do much, much better in disasters.
Is this a thing where the ongoing polarization around things like Black Lives Matter and critical race theory, which involve a lot of scapegoating and othering in society, makes the problem worse? Do we need to solve some of these divisions before we're ready to cope with a disaster situation? Or are those two things unrelated?
Yes and no. You could argue from one perspective that that whole thing is an emergency — that we are living in a constant emergency right now — and that those things are attempts to build uncertainty and fragment communities, so that they can't deal with it as well.
So from one perspective, that is the problem. From another perspective, you do see people come together who wouldn't otherwise when they're in, again, that sharp, clear, and seemingly blameless phase.But you also see horrible things, like the bridge after Katrina, when people were trying to get out of New Orleans, and the sheriffs fired at them, because for them, it was a few days after and they saw this as outsiders. They saw it as people from outside their community. And there was race in there too — they saw people coming in who were going to do bad things. And the media was playing up all sorts of lawlessness that didn't actually happen after Katrina.
I think we need to have as much clarity as we can on the actual threats that are facing people. Let go of this idea that none of the threats are real, and we can just go on living our lives like always, because everything is fine and we never have to change. That needs to go. I would really like to see a shift [in focus] from assets to people [after a disaster]. Because there is a lot of disaster response that is all about assets [and that's why we worry about things like looting.]
It really depends. Some people might be willing to get all worked up about critical race theory, [when] they have no idea what it is, at a school board meeting. But if the community is hit by flooding the next day and they can help out a family that's a different race — or someone who just was on the opposite side of the school board meeting — they might do it quite easily. But then there are going to be other people who just get so entrenched in that that it's harder to let go, especially when it's not an obvious [situation], like, "Oh there's a flood and I can save this person immediately." But when it's more like, "Oh, I should put on a mask. Or, build this culvert now, so that next time it protects us." It's those longer term, fuzzier, less clear things that are harder for people to bridge.
So where do you find hope about our ability to deal with these big, long-term challenges that we're facing?
I do see a lot of hope in the mutual aid that people do. People will do this, and we're seeing more and more of it. We are seeing attitudes change. They don't affect everyone equally, but they do affect everyone, and that is some reason for hope.
The other thing I think about a lot is how many large challenges there have been in the past. If you think about the 80s, there was this threat of nuclear war, there was the ozone layer, and these seemed really intractable at the time. And yet, we were able to do something about them. Is it the same situation? No it's not. But at the time, that looked really terrifying and unsolvable. Does that mean we're definitely going to do it this time? No. But does that give me hope that there was a similar situation that looked hopeless and people managed to get out of it? It does.
Top image: Centralia, PA coal fire, photo by Kelly Michals (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Why I Opposed the Patriot Act (The Nation)
Warnings of Violence Before Jan. 6 Precipitated the Capitol Riot (Washington Post)
The Scientists Are Terrified (Gizmodo)
For years, I've been organizing a spoken word "variety show" in San Francisco called Writers With Drinks. It's been on hiatus since February 2020, but it's coming back as a monthly event! The first one is Nov. 13 at the Make Out Room, featuring Lucy Sante, Adele Bertei, Nazelah Jamison, Mike DeCapite, Baruch Porras-Hernandez, and me! It's going to be a whole lot of fun and I hope you can make it. Details and RSVP here.
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