Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 24, 2010

Homeland security’s role in (and need for) restoring a social capital surplus

Filed under: Catastrophes,Preparedness and Response,Strategy — by Philip J. Palin on June 24, 2010

Are we self-serving gluttons of short-term gratification, unable to work together to anticipate problems or seize opportunities?   Is this what 65 years of extraordinary affluence, pre-eminent power, and generous parents produce? 

Television probably contributed.  Rock music too.

Monday several of us — here at Homeland Security Watch and otherwise — considered whether broad-based participation, collaboration, and deliberation are realistic for developing greater risk readiness and resilience.  Tuesday’s post by Dan O’Connor can be seen as continuing the conversation. Yesterday Mark explicitly built out the theme. This was not planned.

I point to research regarding how certain community-based approaches to the management of common-pool resources produce resilience.  Arguing from analogy, I have advocated a similar approach for homeland security.

Others counter we are a society and culture that bowls alone.  As Robert Putnam explained, “Over the course of the last generation or two, a variety of technological, economic and social changes have rendered obsolete the stuff of American social capital.” 

Some colleagues suggest that along with the federal budget and personal credit cards, the USA has been spending down our social capital until we are deep in debt.   What little social capital remains is hoarded into gated communities of the like-minded,  balkanized by our choice of MSNBC or FOX or micro-media, and  tribalized by NASCAR or Soccer or Call-of-Duty (you can choose Version 2 or Black Ops or the real-deal as set out by Dan and John).

Despite this context, a few of us blithely suggest investing the attention, time, and resources necessary to get stakeholders together to participate, collaborate, and deliberate.  For example, as a lease requirement, every party awarded drilling rights in the Gulf of Mexico would participate in and partially fund preparedness activities with other drillers, with state and local officials in the region, with the Coast Guard, with federal regulators, and with representatives of all those who share an interest in the common-pool resources of the Gulf of Mexico.  (To compile a list, start with those filing for compensation from Ken Feinberg.)

These folks must not only talk about bowling, they must regularly bowl together, and just as regularly deliberate about how they can each and all bowl with fewer gutter-balls and many more strikes and spares. And to top it off,  they must actually work together some more to implement their deliberations.

Not realistic, some say.  I’m not certain they’re wrong.  I’m afraid they may be right.

But Tuesday I encountered a paradoxical source of hope in a piece written by David Fahrenthold and Ylan Q. Mui, “Historians debate designation of  ‘worst environmental disaster’ in the US.” (Washington Post)

“In the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s, for instance, a drought was made worse by human mistakes. Farmers had plowed up grassland to take advantage of high grain prices, but when prices dropped, the fields were abandoned, with no roots to hold soil in place.”  The Dust Bowl went on for a decade, left over 500,000 homeless, and permanently altered the ecology of the American southwest.

On the wall of a  dark interior hallway in my mother’s childhood home was a tattered  map of the United States. Piercing the map were several dozen colored pins.  I don’t remember what all the colors meant.  But the blue pins were where my Grandpa McDonald had worked with local people to build a pond, a lake, or some other watershed management system.

Up and down the hallway on either side of the map and on the opposite wall were letters of thanks,  framed photos, and other mementos of hundreds of trips into the impoverished Great Plains of Depression-troubled America.  The blue pins were especially concentrated in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and the Dakotas.  But they reached from California to Puerto Rico.  In the mid-1930s, Grandpa worked for the old Soil Erosion Service of the Department of the Interior and, later, the Department of Agriculture.

As my Grandpa told me, his boss — Hugh Hammond Bennett — told him, “People are discouraged, encourage them.  Ask them what they need, then help them find what they need.”  No federal grants. There was not always enough budget for grandpa to stay in a hotel.  He once showed me a bedroll that he would lay out beside his government car.

Grandpa’s role model was St. Paul.  “Now old Paul, he had a tougher job,” grandpa said. “His job was to save souls.  What does a soul look like?  But anyone can see when the land is hurt and even how it is hurt.  Everyone wants to save the land.”  At least they did after encouragement from T-bone McDonald.

The difference between now and then is defined mostly by our possibilities.  If grandpa had an advantage, it was in the undeniable reality of his limitations.  If we are disadvantaged, it may be because we can do so much, so quickly.  Given our possibilities,  impatience is understandable.  We call it a sense of urgency.

But there are some tasks — like ultra-deep water drilling — that should not be undertaken too quickly.  And there are many tasks — such as, reclaiming a man-made desert or an oil-desecrated ecological system — that require both urgency and the passage of time. 

We all know the factions, fights, and frustrations that arise from a drought of social capital.  But haven’t we also seen how just a drop of trust and a small sense of shared relationship can transform drought into abundance?  One farm pond at a time, one wind-break at a time, one terrace at a time and — over time — the tragedy of the Dust Bowl was largely (not entirely) reclaimed.

According to the National Security Strategy, “The ideas, values, energy, creativity, and resilience of our citizens are America’s greatest resource. We will support the development of prepared, vigilant, and engaged communities and underscore that our citizens are the heart of a resilient country. And we must tap the ingenuity outside government through strategic partnerships with the private sector, nongovernmental organizations, foundations, and community-based organizations. Such partnerships are critical to U.S. success at home and abroad, and we will support them through enhanced opportuni­ties for engagement, coordination, transparency, and information sharing.”

We — and I mean you and me — create these opportunities one household, one neighborhood, one community at a time.  Time to get out some colored pins.  What will each color mean?   What map will you choose?

For further consideration:

Soil Erosion: A National Menace (1928, large pdf)

Surviving the Dust Bowl  (PBS)

Sustainability and community resilience: The holy grail of hazards planning? by Graham A. Tobin

Leveraging public-private partnerships to improve community resilience in times of disaster (a detailed review of this restricted journal article is available from Jan Husdal)

New Paradigms for Private Sector Preparedness by John Harrald (March 2010 testimony)

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Comment by William R. Cumming

June 24, 2010 @ 3:25 am

A human lifetime is usually too short a period of record to understand the physical world. For example, in the US as the Buffalo Lands return after a century of failure to acknowledge limited rainfall in certain areas nature does seem in the long run to deliver its message sometimes with a vengance. The great plains were settled during a period of unusually high rainfall and it was NOT just human failures that caused the dust bowl.

The 1% chance flood [sometimes erroneously referred to as the 100-year flood] can occur much more often than once every 100 years since it is in reality the 1% annual reoccurrence flood. The failure of the MSM and even academics to be thoughtful about natural processes and the egos and hubris of humanity have not bypassed the US. Just as Dr. Robert Oppenheimer feared the Promethean aspects of the atomic bomb technology needs fuller evaluation to ensure that it is not the two edged sword discussed in the “Axemakers Gift”!

Hey we spent the last 100 years exploiting oil resources largely not for heating but for transportation usage. Was that decision evaluated at any time by anyone before the BP Spill? Some would say yes but I would argue not really except in the vaguest sense! Now the real costs of that choice are coming home to roost.
Perhaps there is an element is seeking knowledge and making sure that “disclosure” of the real choices is also a governance and resilience mission. Fake science is often used in the US to destroy lives–example–the use of fake numbers to prevent smokers from understanding the risks prior to and even after the Surgeon General’s 1964 report.

The free market can be deadly if there is no real level playing field. Many would profit from ignorance and innocence.

Can we (the US) do better? I hope so or its lights out Charlie Brown for the oldest and richest democracy on earth.

We have missed the cycle for prevention in the Gulf so how about now discussing mitigation efforts and government funding for that?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 24, 2010 @ 4:14 am

Bill, sounds like you and I agree: our understanding is limited. We may not entirely agree on the operational implications of the principle.

Seems to me there is — and will be — a fight over the public and private strategies, government funding, and much more related to mitigation of the ongoing Gulf crisis. There will be yet another fight over recovery operations. There is a perpetual fight over zoning regulations in earthquake, hurricane, and wildfire zones. We are in the middle of an important disagreement over how best to confront violent extremism, foreign and domestic.

Debate is good. We will be more resilient — and potentially wise — the more feedback we can generate on the nature of the problem and its possible solutions. Deliberation is fundamental to the process I am advocating.

But precisely because our understanding is limited, there comes a point when arguing over what is right and wrong becomes counter-productive. There comes a time — especially when under imminent threat — for the “community” (large or small) to come together and engage in positive joint action to protect, prevent, mitigate, respond, recover… In a robust, resilient, real community argument can be put aside for action, even while alternative judgments are heard and considered. I am trying, not very well, to distinguish between fighting and deliberating. The deliberation must continue. But deliberation supports collaboration.

From my perspective in many American communities our fundamental risk is the inability to come-together-and-engage-in-positive-joint-action. The origin of this risk is 1) insufficient investment by both public and (especially) private sectors in the capacity and 2) a stubborn insistence by too many players on their particular analysis and solution and an unwillingness to participate, collaborate, or really deliberate with others. I also perceive number 2 is mostly a symptom of number 1.

So… potentially demonstrating a prideful insistence of my own, I am suggesting that as we mitigate, respond to, and recover from the situation in the Gulf we need to consciously cultivate resilient habits and broad relationships or, whatever else we do, we are just increasing our vulnerability to the next disaster.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 24, 2010 @ 6:38 am

Our system has created disincentives to “resilence” and these should be identified and discarded in return for creating incentives.

A big task, no doubt.

My first choice would be to clearly identify for all those with and without health insurance what the current health system can do and cannot do! This would also include the analysis of the current capabilities of the PUBLIC HEALTH sector.

One example of resilience in this area is the so-called “Free Clinics” and geographically distributed “EMERGENCY CARE” centers. They should be on all GIS maps produced for a community and their exact capabilities provided for public disclosure and assessment.

Comment by Claire B. Rubin

June 24, 2010 @ 9:52 am

You forgot to give the full citation for the book by Putnam. Robert D. Putnam (2000), Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon and Schuster.

I happened to read it for the first time recently, and found it very compelling. I too am interested in how his findings relate to the emergency management field and to the new interest in “resilience.” Given the exhaustive research he has documented, I am not optimistic that decades of downtrends can be reversed anytime soon.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 24, 2010 @ 10:49 am

One reform would be reduction in the 90,000 units of local government.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 24, 2010 @ 12:39 pm

Bill, Ostrom’s work has actually found that “polycentric governance” is one of the key characteristics of resilience. Among the most common disincentives for resilience is reduction of opportunities for participation in governance and physical distance from centers of governance. I do not — and I don’t think Ostrom — underestimates the operational challenges of polycentritic governance structures, but we should also avoid dismissing their long-term benefits. I am running between meetings and don’t have time for an extensive literature search… but one reference worth checking is

Regarding your other suggestion, I am actually working on a project that would do exactly what you have recommended… and include a bunch of other similar resources as well. Absolutely agree.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 24, 2010 @ 4:33 pm

Claire, I expect you are right. But I will give my best to encourage resilient relationships.

Here’s a conundrum: In almost every aspect of my life I experience a wide web of wonderful relationships. I am certain that my own ability to “bounce back” from personal and professional problems depends a great deal on these relationships. Most of those in my network also seem to benefit from a similar resilient web.

Yet at a distance I hear and see credible reports that my own experience, and these second-hand experiences, are not typical and that separation, alienation, and such abounds.

What is an empiricist to conclude when the direct data and the meta-data are in such conflict?

Comment by John Comiskey

June 24, 2010 @ 8:34 pm

Homeland Security, social capital, and resilience –a Pandora box?


Your Grandpa sounds like a wonderful man. I imagine that he too would be overwhelmed and even frustrated by the levels of bureaucracy and particularly the federal government’s grant strategy (get the locals to do what you want by footing some or the entire bill). “All politics are local and most times federal too” might be the old “all politics are local.” That being said, it sounds like your grandfather would have found a way.

Bennet’s axiom “People are discouraged, encourage them,” should be a homeland security and preparedness mantra. The obvious –helping people seems within our grasp, but eludes us all too often. Homeland security and preparedness are a Pandora box of sorts (privacy intrusions, challenges to rights & privileges, economic costs, and others things that are not so nice). But, we need to remind ourselves that the original Pandora Box also offered hope.

Today, I heard a Coast Guard Commander refer to Deepwater Horizon as the Coast Guard’s Afghanistan.

The “long spill,” Deepwater Horizon, like the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq require fortitude, patience, understanding, and hope. Somebody said “hope is not a plan.” Just the same I will keep on hoping and praying for the best whilst I prepare for the worst.

The emotional toll to Gulf residents, government workers, and cleanup volunteers warrants consideration and is bound to be high. The days ahead present three overarching challenges: stopping the spill, extracting the maximum amount of oil feasible, and mitigating the damage. The current forecast of 23+ storms with a 50% chance of a significant storm make that challenge all the more challenging –or might clean most of the mess up -mother nature is most resilient.

I have come to know some of the people of NOLA and have found them to be concerned but going about their business best they can. They talk a lot of football. LSU and the Saints are dear to their hearts. Last year’s super bowl celebration has continued with the team’s preseason visit to Louisiana communities weary of oil: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=127561660

If I remain in NOLA past September, I will likely attend a game. For the record I am a Jets fan. Football players and fans are resilient.

My new colleagues in NOLA poke fun at my New York accent. In turn, I enjoy their nawlins’ colloquialisms. They seem to appreciate my reviews of their restaurants and haunts. So far Acme Oyster House, Tujajues, and Café du Monde top the list. Nothing like football and food to bind people.

I have found that Katrina has left the people of NOLA with doubts in the efficacy of the federal government and particularly FEMA. NOLA’s celebrated relationship with the Coast Guard seems uneasy at best. I am told too little is being done too slowly. That phenomena might be a study in a relationship earned in one disaster (Katrina) only to be lost in another (DWH). Social capital is easier lost than earned.

The USCG is most resilient. It is and always has been a multi-mission organization. Today that mission is clear: ensure and facilitate the RP’s (responsible party) response –in this case BP. That mission will not make the Coast Guard popular.

From my view BP is doing all that it can and is most instances more than that. The American people need to know that without the media hype. BP too is resilient. I imagine someone or some people high in the organization deliberated as to their course of action –cut and run or invest in their enterprise. BP chose the latter. I can’t and won’t speak to BP’s alleged wrongdoing because I don’t know if they were negligent or had a catastrophic industrial accident. I know that matter is being investigated and await the final analysis.

Recovery requires everyone to look past their factions, fights, frustrations, and everything else.

I’m rooting for the people of the Gulf and the United States of America.

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