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)