Resilience in the Age of Stupid

The Age of Stupid: A world where dialogue is dead; a world where we have stopped engaging with those with whom we don’t agree; a world where we no longer have to listen or expose ourselves to other ideas that may challenge our confirmation bias. Social media has made the promotion of ignorance much easier. With a simple block, unfriend or ban click, we can ensure that the only information we are exposed to comes from our trusted tribe of like-minded thinkers.

The Risk-Monger

Like most of you, I’m sure, I care deeply about the issues of the day. But I know that our media echo chambers (whether MSNBC or OANN) give me – at best – only a part of any story. Over the last couple of years I’ve turned to blogs, trying to see ascertain the actual situation to draw intelligent conclusions. So I read the Recovery Diva and Pointman; Living on the Real World and Climate, Etc; and most recently, the Risk-Monger.

In the passage above the Risk-Monger has provided an all-too-accurate description of the times we live in. The Left and Right are united only in their disdain for everyone else. Their shouted invectives and imprecations of their opponents drown out the more civil voices of those in the Great Middle. Their hysteria is almost cult-like – they sound like modern-day miniature Grand Inquisitors enforcing impossible doctrines.

According to the Pew Trust, a majority of Republican voters are afraid to voice their political beliefs (approximately one-third of Americans). In the wake of the election, we have seen people whose only sin was to work for the White House demonized and denied jobs. Is this the unity and mutual regard our new President promised?

Ultimately, a community’s resilience – its ability to recover from disruption – comes down to the ability of its leaders to work together to achieve common goals. That requires trust, and an ability to communicate with each other. Too often, however, we seem to be living the following parable:

In a land far, far away…

There lived two kinds of people. One was red and could see only red, the other was blue and could see only blue. They spoke different languages. The Reds were great at tasks involving red objects, OK at tasks involving orange objects, but couldn’t even see green or blue objects.

Conversely, the Blues were great if only Blue objects were involved, OK with most green tasks, but were hopeless if orange or red objects were involved.

What one would build – even if good – the other could not see, and would unwittingly blunder into and destroy. Since they couldn’t see each other or understand each other, they never could agree on anything. So no problems were ever solved.

Trust is an essential ingredient for working together, but trust fades where fear treads. This lack of trust in each other – borne of the political cacophany and covid’s woes – seriously compromises our ability to pull together in time of crisis. Thus those of us who care about our communities must ask how resilient they can be in this Age of Stupid.

As for most things in this real world, the answer is – it depends. If disasters have a direction, recovery has a context. The type and magnitude of a disruption; the community’s topology; the resources available for recovery; and the community’s leadership itself will combine to form the context for recovery. Taken together, they will determine how far and how fast a community can come back after disruption. And while I’ve couched this in terms of disaster, it is just as true for communities trying to seize opportunities or to forge new ones.

Disruption. The type of disruption is important because it determines what forms of community capital are lost or damaged and thus what needs to be replenished or repaired. Thus, covid has severely strained our social capital accounts; our responses to it have reduced our financial capital. The magnitude of the disruption sets a minimum level of resources needed for recovery.

Community topology. A community’s topology – how the various people and community organizations are arranged and interrelated – is one of the least studied but most important aspects of a community’s context. The connections – or lack of connections due to conflicts – obviously play important roles in communications and resource flows.* If a disaster sets a minimum level of resources needed for recovery, then conflicts (or the lack of connections between resources and where they’re needed) can raise the resource bar significantly. The rebuilding of the World Trade Center provides a telling example. Deep disagreements among the various regional “partners” increased both the cost (perhaps by as much as $10 billion!) and the duration (by over a decade) of the recovery.

Resources. The resources needed for recovery go beyond the financial costs. Each of the capital accounts impacted by the disruption have to be replenished. After Katrina, the physical damage had to be repaired. This required financial capital as well as human capital – construction professionals – who were in short supply even before the disaster.

Leadership. One of the facets of the Age of Stupid that should be glaringly obvious is that leadership at the national and community levels is not unitary. While the federal government can claim some credit for mobilizing the resources to develop vaccines so rapidly, it was Big Pharma and its resources that actually did it. The mayors of our riot-torn cities – Portland, Seattle, Kenosha and others – can lead the cheers and can remove bureaucratic barriers, but ultimately businesses, non-profits, associations and “just folks” will have to work together if these cities are to recover. And connections from a community’s leadership to external sources of support (federal aid; expertise in recovery of specific types of businesses – think tourism, for example) will also be crucial.

Resilience is possible in the Age of Stupid, if the context for recovery is right. As the parable illustrates, however, we need people working together to provide lasting solutions to the multi-hued problems we face. Neither the Reds nor the Blues have a monopoly on the Truth – or on Mendacity. We should not trust either side working alone to solve our problems, but only both working together.

* I cannot stress enough the impact on my thinking of the work done by Erica Kuligowski and Christine Bevc, under Kathleen Tierney’s guidance, in this regard. Looking at regional emergency management organizations (UASIs), their work clearly showed that some topologies were more effective at mobilizing resources than others.


Covid-19: Disasters Have Direction

You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended. You can ensure the safety of your defense if you only hold positions that cannot be attacked.

Sun Tzu

This is an updating of an old post.  The original did not have any specific examples; I think Covid-19 provides a good one.  I’m sure the concept “Disasters Have Direction” is obvious to many of you, but I’ve never seen it articulated.  As I try to show in the discussion of the pandemic, it can be a useful construct as we think about a community’s resilience.

For a few years, FEMA and DHS have championed the idea of an “All Hazards – Maximum of Maxima” approach to planning.  The basic premise is that if a community plans for the worst of the worst, then it will be prepared for whatever may actually happen. This is a deceptively simple tautology that I think deserves a little more analysis than it usually receives, especially in terms of community resilience.

Let’s start by looking at an idealized community.   A community can be thought of as an ecosystem.  There is a “human layer,” made up of individuals and families.  There is an institutional layer, consisting of private businesses and other economic institutions, and all of the other “human-serving” organizations in the community.  Then there is the physical, environmental, layer – containing the built and natural environment.  All of these are held together by the social capital within the community (some may argue whether the physical layer is bound to the community by its social capital, but that’s a subject for another post!).

Of course, this is an ideal community; real communities may have a strong economy but be weak in the human element.  Some have a decaying infrastructure but a flourishing natural environment.  Thus, we can depict a real community as follows.  This real community would be relatively weak in terms of its community institutions, have a somewhat stressed natural environment, but have a robust built environment.

Now let’s assume the community is hit by a pandemic.  There is no immediate physical damage.  Any that occurs most likely happens because the humans who normally maintain things –infrastructure, for example – are not able to do so.  This disaster has attacked individuals and families, and – because they are closely tied to the human layer – the community organizations that meet social needs.  For a pandemic, hospitals, clinics and the public health department would certainly be included.  Since, in this case, there is relatively little capacity in the community institutions (e.g., a rural community), they will be particularly hard hit – most likely overwhelmed. 

But what happens in a natural disaster?  The initial impact on the community is going to be on the physical layer; buildings are going to be blown down, debris will be strewn about, flooding may occur. The other parts of the community will be impacted because of these physical blows.  In our notional real community depicted above, there would be relatively little damage done to the built environment, but the natural environment would experience much greater damage (at least in relative terms) because it is weaker. 

A severe economic downturn attacks the community from another direction.  Businesses lay off workers; some close.  Many individuals and families experience severe economic hardship.  There is no immediate impact on the other parts of the community ecosystem.  Eventually, however, all will be affected.  In our example community, the economic impacts are less severe than for a community with a weak economy, or already burdened individuals and families.

Thus, disasters have a direction, as shown in the next graphic. It must be stressed that the graphic points out the initial point of attack.  If the magnitude of the initial impact is huge, or other parts of the community are weak, then the disaster is likely to ripple throughout the community with cascading impacts.

This simple concept is consistent with the idea that vulnerability to a threat depends on weakness at the point of attack.  This is shown in the next figure.  Threat X indicates a potential health crisis (e.g., a pandemic), while Threat Y is primarily a threat to the community’s economy.  As depicted, Threat X is more likely to lead to disaster than Threat Y because the greater relative strength of the community to withstand an economic downturn.

This simple picture of a community also has meaning in terms of recovery and community resilience.  If community resilience is measured by how fast – and effectively – resources are deployed to achieve community restoration and recovery, then the social capital within the community plays a crucial role.  Suppose Threat X above actually materializes.  The vulnerable part of the community has few available resources.  It is the community’s social capital – its connectedness – that provides the pathways for resources to be shifted within the community.  It is the community’s social capital that determines whether resources from outside the community are effectively brought to bear.  In a very real sense, it is the community’s social capital that determines whether the community actually recovers from disaster.

If we look at Covid-19 through this lens, clearly the pandemic attacked individuals and families, and community health organizations.  Its magnitude varied from community to community, but – initially – dealing with the pandemic exceeded the resources (e.g., PPE, ventilators) available to most communities, i.e., it was a disaster and it had a direction.  Communities had to rely on their connections (bridging and linking social capital) to others in the region and to the state (and, for the biggest cities, to the federal government) to get the resources they needed.  In a later post, I’ll outline a methodology that, if used, could have reduced the impact of the pandemic at the community level.

Our response to the pandemic triggered an economic disaster.  For those of you who remember my old post “Of Ice Storms, Interdependencies and their Impacts on Running a Bar” I pointed out that the number of businesses which could reopen after a disaster depended on how long they were closed.  In some places, the Covid-19 lockdowns lasted for months – and the economic consequences have been devastating.  I intend to update that post as well and expand upon it a little based on the knowledge we’ve gained from the pandemic.

Dan Alesch once said that we recall a disaster by the name of its triggering event, but remember it because of its impacts.  If that’s the case, Covid-19 will join the Dishonor Roll with Katrina, Deep Water Horizon, the Great Recession and so many others.  Each of these disasters were daggers that first pierced specific parts of the community, i.e., they had a direction.  Their impacts were determined by communities’ strengths at the point of attack and the force of the dagger’s thrust.  A community’s social capital determines how rapidly resources can be brought to bear to heal the wounds.  However, those who are not connected – without significant social capital – have to recover on their own:  resources won’t flow where messages don’t go.  In this way, the community’s social capital plays a crucial role in its recovery – and thus is a key component of the community’s resilience.

The challenged and community resilience

Several years ago, CARRI embarked on a massive undertaking focused on developing – and then testing – a community resilience system.  During a meeting of its Community Leaders Working Group, I was asked why we had included “The community works to maximize the value of those with special challenges” as one of our important community functions.  In fact, two of the most in-my-face questioners (both former mayors of sizable cities) actually accused me of being politically correct (If this were true, it would come as a huge shock to anyone who has ever worked with me, not to mention my wife!).

I thought it would be worthwhile to talk about who are the challenged, and why it makes practical sense for communities to treat them as potential assets, not liabilities.

If we look at our communities today, 5-10 % of the population have some debilitating mental or physical condition.  One in eight Americans receive at least part of their food through food stamps; one in five of our children lives in poverty or extreme poverty.  Those with disabilities are 1.5 to 3 times more likely to live in poverty than those with no disabilities. Fully one-third of those who could be employed have exited the labor force.

After a community is hit by a disaster, recovery makes huge demands on the permanent personnel who actually keep the community running.  More people are needed to remove debris.  More people are needed to handle the flood of permits for rebuilding.  People are needed to reconnect families and to help get services to those who need them.  Many communities meet these needs by hiring “outsiders” to provide these services, but if they do so, they lose in at least two ways. 

  • These communities send the resources to pay for these services outside the community.  Since the federal government will pay for many kinds of temporary workers after a disaster, it makes good sense to hire these workers from within the community – to keep as many precious dollars within the community as possible.  The challenged – particularly the employable unemployed – should be the first resource tapped by a community (To their credit, BP agreed to do just that in southern Louisiana communities affected by the oil spill.).
  • These communities have to spend more of their resources helping the challenged recover from the disaster than they otherwise would. That means much less accomplished with limited resources and possibly a longer recovery period.

In other words, communities who don’t use the challenged to aid in the extraordinary challenges of recovery are turning potential assets into real liabilities.

Thus, by making use of its members who face significant challenges to meet the extraordinary demands of recovery from a disaster, a community can keep dollars in the community while maintaining a more productive and motivated permanent staff.  This isn’t political correctness but enlightened self-interest.