The end of one year and the beginning of another gives one pause. New beginnings are a chance to start over. If we’re honest with ourselves, a bit of reflection can help us enter the knew year equipped with insights that help us avoid or at least reduce the impact of new calamities like those that confronted us in the year before. As I look back at 2010 for lessons, here are the top five things I saw that make me wonder what the year ahead holds in store:
We still don’t know security when we see it. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously quipped in a landmark First Amendment case that he knew hard-core pornography when he saw it. Unfortunately, the naked truth about homeland security is we still know know what it is when we see it. Full body scanners and aggressive pat downs to search airline passengers have, however, hinted at the limits of public support for security theater. That said, we still have few clear hints how we should balance the competing interests of civil liberties like privacy and security.
We may be smarter, more successful and skillful than our adversaries, but that ain’t saying all that much; or, maybe it’s just hard to find good help these days. Most of the homeland security successes we witnessed this year, seem more like lucky strikes than genuinely skillful performances by our security services. Maybe that’s because our adversaries have had less success recruiting skilled operatives than we might have imagined. This makes me wonder: with unemployment still running nearly 10 percent nationally (and much higher in some minority communities) why is it so hard to find skilled help? What’s more, as local and state governments find themselves in the death grip of fiscal austerity, how will they meet public expectations of them for safety and security? Judging by public criticism of the response to severe weather events as we end the year, not well at all.
It’s the economy, stupid. Before we had even managed to stop writing or typing 2009 when we meant 2010, Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake that some estimates suggest killed more than 250,000 people and left millions more homeless. As the year came to a close, the country languished in the grip of a cholera epidemic and a presidential succession crisis. The flow of aid lagged far behind pledges from international donors, leaving the impoverished country barely clinging to life. If we ever had any reason to doubt the fact, Haiti confirmed that poverty is any adversary or calamity’s best friend. The corollary to that observation is equally clear and simple: Resilience is about resources. The fungibility of capital — that is the ability of any individual or group to apply their stores of human, social or political capital to conduct transactions that transform natural, economic or material resources to their own or others’ benefit — depends on both the sufficiency and diversity of those hard assets as much or more than any degree of cleverness or incentive to apply themselves. Necessity is the mother of chaos, not invention. In the absence of resources, don’t expect that to change unless you are willing to watch things get worse not better.
Victory (sometimes) favors the unprepared. The benefits of diverse stores of all forms of hard and soft capital was aptly illustrated by the New Zealand response to September’s earthquake in Christchurch and the numerous and still ongoing aftershocks. People there weren’t all that well prepared (especially for the specific event that occurred), but they knew how to use what they had to take care of what they needed. As such, they fared much better than the Haitians and required no outside assistance. The Chileans too, although better prepared than either the New Zealanders or Haitians, demonstrated that was all the more true when a society’s resources and mindsets are both well-adapted to the environment they inhabit.
Casting oil on the water sometimes makes waves. Rather than calming turbulent seas, the explosive destruction of the Deepwater Horizon drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico and the resulting release of millions of gallons of crude oil into the sea made waves for months. Rather than crystallizing public opinion on energy policy and the need to invest in alternatives to petroleum, the federal response — both on a regulatory level and an operational level — came under intense criticism for ignoring the needs of local citizens who depended upon the Gulf of Mexico for their livelihood. Never mind that some depended upon industries that posed a risk to these ecosystems while others depended on the ecosystem itself, the debate never fully confronted the difficult policy choices facing the country now or in the future. As the federal government continues its work with Gulf Coast states on a recovery plan we should be looking forward not backward for answers about the future.
Clearly, many more things happened in 2010 than I have covered here. What were your top lessons learned from 2010? And what are your hopes for the year ahead?