Part 4 of a 4-part Primer on Disaster Collectivism in the Climate and Pandemic Crises
At The Evergreen State College, in Olympia, Washington, our winter-quarter class on “Catastrophe: Community Resilience in the Face of Disaster” began in early January 2020, so our students had early warning of coronavirus as it began to spread around the world, but before the disease or public awareness had reached the United States. COVID-19 had reached Washington state by February, as our class held a Catastroph-Fair, and workshopped disaster scenarios such as a pandemic. After the shutdown began in mid-March, our faculty decided to introduce a new “Pandemic Academy” class, with the “Resilience Doctrine” as my inaugural lecture.
As I noted at the onset of the quarantine, “We’ve learned from previous disasters that fear makes citizens more obedient to authority. Fear reinforces the superstate as our protector, and justifies oppressive or unequal responses …‘Elite panic’ generates repressive measures that start to bring out the police, vigilantes, and military, ironically in the name of preventing public panic.” President Trump acknowledged as such one week later when he told reporter Bob Woodward, “I always wanted to play it down. I still like playing it down, because I don’t want to create a panic.”
Trump and similar European leaders used the so-called “foreign virus” as a xenophobic rationalization for “stronger borders” against immigrants, even though Syrians and Hondurans medically had much more to fear from contact with European and U.S. citizens than the other way around. The American mentality of “contagion” has been historically fraught with racial, cultural, and political exclusion, rooted in “Red Scares” and “Yellow Perils.” Anti-Asian sentiment and pogroms have historically been fraught with fears of disease. Latinx and Indigenous immigrant farmworkers and meatpackers bore the brunt of the pandemic, and launched numerous strikes for better health protections around the country. Homeless communities were also vulnerable to the virus, as urban leaders realized too late that unaffordable housing could exacerbate a public health crisis.
The pandemic popularized the phrase “we’re all in this together,” and it’s true that all human beings are vulnerable to the virus. But in other ways, the phrase is not at all true, as the coronavirus has starkly exposed our deep social inequalities in co-called “normal” times. Immigrant meatpackers and farmworkers, African Americans, health care workers, incarcerated people, elders in nursing homes, service and gig workers, teachers and students, homeless people, Native nations, and others, were more susceptible to the virus. Asian-Americans faced an upsurge in racism and women an upsurge in domestic violence. People who were less able to weather the economic collapse need to have their rent deferred or canceled, get government support to pay off debt, and gain better technical resources to work or go to school online. These inequalities became even more stark as the George Floyd Rebellion against racial injustice began in late May.
Beyond exposing social injustice and inequalities, the pandemic has revealed the stark dangers of western individualism and social atomization, and in particular the American brand of “rugged individualism,” or the “liberty” of individuals to do as one pleases, despite the potentially fatal effect on others. Certain areas of the country, particularly the Southeast and Great Plains states, almost made a point of defying health authorities. The college partiers and Sturgis bikers epitomized this “anti-lockdown” sentiment against masks and social distancing, even as many of them fell ill. The “COVIDiot” sentiment against mask mandates fused with a toxic brew of far-right politicians and militias reacting to gun reform laws and Black Lives Matter, as gun sales vastly increased. Rural counties that had largely voted for Donald Trump in 2016 felt early on that they would avoid the worst of the pandemic, but they later paid for their pervasive carelessness.
Meanwhile, Asian societies with a stronger sense of community, social cohesion, and collective responsibility generally fared much better in the pandemic. South Korea introduced near-universal testing for the virus, and flattened the curve more quickly than western countries, in particular the U.S. Upon first hearing of the outbreak on the Chinese mainland, Taiwan ramped up its public health infrastructure, including masks, and initially had fewer than ten deaths. Vietnam’s public health system carried out a “vast and labor-intensive contact tracing operation,” and for several months had zero deaths.
All three of these countries had experience with the 2003 SARS pandemic, but even more importantly had the cooperation of their people, and a cultural sense of intergenerational responsibility and accountability. A few western island countries such as Iceland and New Zealand also had relative successes, but for the most part, European-originated societies constantly had to fight the scourge of individualism and to promote a neighborly sense of community in a time of emergency.
The pandemic (like the climate crisis) has underscored the urgent need both for building resilient communities and undertaking social transformation. Naomi Klein commented as the pandemic began, “Moments of crisis can also be moments where we catapult ourselves forward…People are wondering when are things going to return to normal, we always have to remember that normal was a crisis…normal is deadly…It is transformation that we need.”
Rebecca Solnit agreed that “Hope offers us clarity that, amid the uncertainty ahead, there will be conflicts worth joining and the possibility of winning some of them. And one of the things most dangerous to this hope is the lapse into believing that everything was fine before disaster struck, and that all we need to do is return to things as they were. Ordinary life before the pandemic was already a catastrophe of desperation and exclusion for too many human beings, an environmental and climate catastrophe, an obscenity of inequality. It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency, but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it.”
Māori climate resilience leader Mike Smith’s admonition to “weave the social fabric” has been embodied around the world in mutual aid campaigns in response to the pandemic, based on “solidarity, not charity.” At the onset of the pandemic, even highly individualistic and atomized urban communities experienced a “pandemic of people helping people.” Using “pandemic solidarity” social media, “collective care” online sign-ups delivered essential supplies to quarantined people, provided medical support and supplies (such as homemade masks), distributed meals and water to neighbors who had challenges acquiring them, and gathered resources and reliable information on COVID-19.
Mutual aid collectives organized social solidarity with homeless populations, immigrant workers, health care workers, and others highly impacted by the pandemic. Activist groups resisted evictions, launched debt strikes, and blocked deportations. In addition to material and medical support, neighbors sought to lift each other’s spirits, whether Iranian health workers making dance videos, Italians belting out opera, Canadians singing Leonard Cohen tunes, or Americans howling in unison at set times. The Pee Posh/Maricopa/Quechan poet and organizer Reuben Cruz hoped that in people’s isolation in quarantine, “This is a moment of incubation, and something could hatch from this….incubating positivity not negativity.”
The Mutual Aid Disaster Relief network compared the pandemic to the climate crisis: “The global pandemic is a disaster enveloping all of the intersections where climate catastrophes typically surge, storm-batter and strand impacted regions, but when every community is a different version of ground zero, sourcing from within, in as much as possible, becomes a critical component….Fluidity and consistently vetting information as it comes out is critical during this crisis. The decentralized work of data review, resource building, working to severely limit the risks of transmission, providing support for those self-quarantining and those whose vulnerabilities put them at higher risk and disproportionate impact from Covid-19 as well as organizing mutual aid efforts to contribute to the self-determination and survival of our communities across the world continues…. Mutual aid networks have formed and grown to keep us as safe and cared for in perilous times.”
Solnit commented on the mutual aid networks, “I believe the generosity and solidarity in action in the present moment offers a foreshadowing of what is possible – and necessary. The basic generosity and empathy of most ordinary people should be regarded as a treasure, a light and an energy source that can drive a better society, if it is recognized and encouraged. Mostly, it’s overlooked, undermined and sabotaged….Competition is the antithesis of mutual aid, which is not only a practical tool but an ideological insurrection. The fact that even in places like the U.S., where these competitive, isolating messages have bombarded us for at least 150 years, millions still reach out in generosity, and are still moved to meet the needs that become visible in moments such as this, is testament to something about human nature and human possibility ….”
The poet Donna Ashworth envisioned the end of the pandemic as ushering in a better society: “History will remember when the world stopped / And the flights stayed on the ground / And the cars parked in the street / And the trains didn’t run / History will remember when the schools closed / And the children stayed indoors / And the medical staff walked towards the fire / And they didn’t run. / History will remember when the people sang / On their balconies, in isolation / But so very much together In courage and song. / History will remember when the people fought / For their old and their weak / Protected the vulnerable / By doing nothing at all. / History will remember when the virus left / And the houses opened / And the people came out / And hugged and kissed /And started again / Kinder than before.”
But like in earlier disasters, some questioned how mutual aid cooperation could be maintained after the immediate recovery period. Media Studies Professor Nathan Schneider (who founded the self-governance network CommunityRule.info), looked ahead to see a need to formalize and institutionalize these relationships: “Quick-and-easy connections in social media groups, with no structure but the compassion of volunteers—these are beautiful at first, until they begin to fade and reveal the absences of accountability and responsibility underneath. If our communities’ response is to be stronger than the virus, we will need to remember older forms of community-building, which translate enthusiasm into robust organization…..Institutions all around us—including many we take for granted but would hate to lose—started out of community responses in times of crisis. Many credit unions, labor unions, fraternal societies, rural cooperatives and charities have such an origin story. As their founders worked humanely, they also thought institutionally. They recognized that often the needs that arise in a crisis have been there all along, and the solutions need to outlive the crisis, too.”
A welcome sign came during the West Coast wildfires of September 2020, when pandemic mutual aid networks and Black Lives Matter protesters quickly shifted gears to provide relief to fire refugees, and rural groups formed to shelter threatened livestock and animals. The mutual aid template was easily transferable to the context of a new emergency.
The case studies previously discussed in this series—Common Ground in Louisiana, Occupy Sandy in New York, tribally led alliances for climate justice and resilience in Washington state, Māori marae communities facing disasters in New Zealand, and pandemic mutual aid networks— demonstrate the power of proactive action. Not only are the most prepared communities more likely to survive crisis than those that are unprepared, but encouraging resilience also helps to build lasting cross-cultural bridges to neighboring communities, and promotes a healthier future even in so-called “normal” times. Any strategy for building collective resilience must consider the periods before, during, and after a disaster.
Before the Disaster: Collaborative Resilience
Before the disaster, community organizers need to prepare for the inevitable crisis, not just respond to it. They should not merely wait for disasters, nor should they leave a vacuum in planning for the privatizers to exploit. They can actively propose alternate disaster planning based on the public sector, economic cooperation, and environmental sustainability. They need to learn the depoliticized jargon of government agencies to make such radical proposals into nonthreatening, common-sense proposals, but also use the language of organizing to inspire and move community members into action, particularly young people.
Before the disaster, concerned residents need to “work the system,” and get into positions to make a difference. Many students ask me about how to secure “Green Jobs” after their graduation, but the fields of habitat restoration, renewable energies, etc. are becoming increasingly corporatized and difficult to acquire. Another option is to seek employment in community planning and emergency response and recovery, in agencies such as the Red Cross, FEMA, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Health and Social Services, state and local departments, and so on.
Some of the most important “green jobs” may be in rural and urban planning, disaster prevention, and emergency response, to make communities more humane and sustainable than they were before the disasters. Getting forward-thinking people into those jobs are critical, partly to keep them away from the privatizers and elitist bureaucrats, but also to be able to blow the whistle on agencies that undercut their mission to serve people.
As the planner John Randolph commented on “collaborative resilience” in an era of climate change, “If we are going to create climate resistant communities, integrating…social dimensions into climate change planning must be the rule rather than the exception. Social strategies for localized resilience need to become a social movement.” Randolph cautioned that planning for “resilience to global warming requires adaptation and transformative change not only to reduce further vulnerabilities, but also to mitigate carbon emissions…Resilience focused on bouncing back to the status quo may actually impede necessary adaptation to climate change.”
Before the disaster, communities need to adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change, not to give up or surrender to the fossil fuel industry, but to be proactive in preventing the worst effects that will devastate unprepared communities. As Oxfam has noted, “Even extreme weather need not bring disasters; it is poverty and powerlessness that make people vulnerable. Though more emergency aid is needed, humanitarian response must do more than save lives: it has to link to climate change adaptation and bolster poor people’s livelihoods through social protection and disaster risk reduction approaches.”
The most critical planning is not at the national or state scale, but at the local and regional scale, recognizing that local communities may be on their own in the first hours and days of an emergency. Collaborative resilience is being recognized as a critical part of planning by the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), representing “Local Governments for Sustainability.” The website initiative pResilience explores issues of “Local Social Adaptation.” The Transition Towns Network prepares local communities for climate change instability and decreasing reliance on fossil fuels. The Washington Emergency Management Division has organized a “Map Your Neighborhood” disaster planning exercise for residents of a single block. The Shareable network has guides for making community spaces into longer-term hubs for local resilience and mutual aid.
During the Disaster: See the Stars
During a disaster that involves a prolonged power outage, we have to forget the assumptions of a wired industrialized society. In a mass power outage, communities cannot rely on refrigerators, the internet, or even the water supply. In response, neighbors can share generators, barbecue meat from thawing freezers, collect rainwater, use solar or bicycle power to recharge phones and other devices, and much more.
Neighbors can plan ahead for communication during a crisis. Even though the internet is rarely available during disaster blackouts, using social media has also become an important part of building preparedness and resilience in advance. The Nextdoor app, for example, lets neighbors get to know each other to find missing cats or chickens, but can also be used for neighborhood emergency planning, or identifying generators and shelters. Old-fashioned mimeograph machines, cranked by hand, could copy off hundreds of leaflets containing urgent information, which teams can drop at each home and apartment building in the neighborhood. While authorities are relying on radio and TV bulletins that few people will be able to hear, neighborhoods can organize themselves to meet their own needs and make their own demands of officialdom. Face-to-face organizing is more effective than facebook in mobilizing shocked communities in times of disaster.
Communities that are proactive and plan ahead will be the communities that survive the disaster, rather than those that respond wildly and ineffectively as the crisis shatters familiar norms. Because Americans cannot rely on FEMA or other agencies to rescue them, they have to build networks of local social relationships, particularly across ethnic and racial barriers.
In these ways, catastrophes can focus residents’ thinking on how to effectively prepare for emergencies, and how to respond to disasters. According to Solnit, in her book A Paradise Built in Hell, even the roots of these terms reveal how these experiences can destabilize a society. “Emergency” comes from the Latin for e- (opposite) + mergere (submerge in liquid), a clear reference to flooding. “Catastrophe” is from the Greek for kata (down) + streiphen (turning over). And “disaster” is from the Latin for dis- (without) + astro (star), because normal life directions and guidelines may no longer apply (10).
Using this last definition, Solnit described the 2003 Northeast blackout: “the loss of electrical power meant that the light pollution blotting out the night sky vanished….the Milky Way could be seen in New York City, a heavenly realm long lost to view…You can think of the current social order as something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster. In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative, and local society….The constellations of solidarity, altruism, and improvisation are within most of us and reappear at these times. People know what to do in a disaster.”
After the Disaster: Make Collaboration Last
Immediately after disasters, many Americans seem to be more open to a cooperative message and policies. Individualized and competitive economic models, dependent on globalized corporate supply lines, are the least efficient means to ensure survival. The public is also more open to an environmental message and sustainable planning after they have witnessed how climate change intensified a storm, how clearcutting enabled a landslide, or urban sprawl facilitated flooding.
But after a few weeks, the crisis lessens, and the larger lessons are usually forgotten as society begins to return to “normal.” The dominant perception is that the crisis and collaboration were flukes, even though social inequalities and climate change are meanwhile conspiring to provide the next crisis. Which begs the question: how can the life of collaborative resilience be extended beyond the crisis?
Cooperation can last beyond the disaster by institutionalizing it, and embedding it in new structures, so it is not overwhelmed by old, pre-crisis structures. As Elaine Scarry asserts in Thinking in an Emergency, effective responses to crisis are practiced ahead of time as habits or protocols, rather than developed as the emergency unfolds (108). Communities can create stronger networks of local relationships, build practical skills and mutual help systems, and prepare for the inevitable changes ahead. This means focusing on the brass-tacks logistics of meeting human needs, beyond “do-gooder” and “band-aid” work.
This process of sustaining disaster collectivism blurs the distinctions between social activism and social services, as it necessitates both face-to-face social networking and meeting immediate human needs, beyond merely sandbagging a river. Community organizers who have worked on providing social services to homeless residents or youth in crisis will be better equipped to face a disaster than activists who have merely debated political points at meetings.
This path is already being taken by some homeless communities, urban gardens, and other projects emerging from social and environmental crisis. In Olympia, Washington, in 2007, homeless adults founded Camp Quixote, which was taken in by several churches until 2013, when it was transformed into the permanent tiny-home community of Quixote Village. Grassroots activism made the project possible, but community organizing transformed it into lasting social change that strengthens collaborative resilience.
Solnit acknowledged that as the pandemic recedes, “Some of that sense of urgency and shared destiny will fade away, as it often does after a disaster, but one of the important things to remember is that some of it was here before this pandemic. I sometimes think that capitalism is a catastrophe constantly being mitigated and cleaned up by mutual aid and kinship networks, by the generosity of religious and secular organizations, by the toil of human-rights lawyers and climate groups, and by the kindness of strangers….The pandemic marks the end of an era and the beginning of another – one whose harshness must be mitigated by a spirit of generosity.”
The twin crises of climate instability and the pandemic, folded into the “slow violence” of economic inequality and colonial and racial injustices, indeed mark the beginning of a particularly harsh era. Much as governments and corporate interests use disasters as an opportunity to institute a “Shock Doctrine” that reworks society in their interest, social movements can not only defend communities from shocks, but institute a “Resilience Doctrine” that builds communities back more sustainable and equal than before, and hardens them against inevitable future shocks.
The Resilience Doctrine goes beyond the period of a disaster, to address the brokenness of lives, relationships and ecosystems that preceded and outlast catastrophes. Disaster collectivism, or Solnit’s idea of “a paradise built in hell,” can rebuild communities across racial and cultural barriers, but also strengthens social and ecological cohesion and prefigures a healthier and more just future.
The Resilience Doctrine can be embodied in government policies that emphasize public ownership and services, community, cooperation, equality, and sustainable planning over private property, profits, competition, extraction, and growth planning. But it goes far deeper than political decision-making, because it requires a social and cultural shift that opens people’s eyes to solutions they would not have explored in so-called “normal” times, in collaboration with partners they may have previously shunned.
The Indian writer Arundhati Roy observed that the pandemic “offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”
Resilience is not merely about surviving present or future disasters, but goes far deeper, into shifting social power relations and transforming our relationships with the Earth, and thriving in a society based on justice and regeneration. In this way, decolonization is not just about reversing the domination of oppressed or colonized peoples, but about a process of indigenization that both reverses and heals the harms of settler colonialism, racism, and overseas imperial expansion. Through studying our planning for and responses to disasters such as climate change and the pandemic, we can identify the pathways toward a more hopeful future.
Part 1: An Introduction to Disaster Resilience
Part 2: How Disasters Can Encourage Social Change
Part 3: Indigenous Nations Understand Disaster Resilience