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WC Retro: Refugees in America

By Nicole-Anne Boyer, posted on September 8, 2005.

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What are the positive psychological consequences of the Katrina disaster? That is, shifts in public attitudes and perceptions, and the pressure this might bring to bear on policy-makers?

"Refugees in America." The first time I read this phrase last week it jammed my mental filters like sand in gears. While America is well used to foreign refugees migrating into its country, the fact that we now have American refugees created on American soil -- not the abstracted "other", strangers from strange lands -- is an entirely different psychology, the implications of which will take a while to comprehend. It matters less that the UN and others are pushing back on the use of this term. (Technically, a refugee is "a person who has been forced to leave his/her home and has crossed an international border.") The point is while many of us automatically associate the word "refugee" as an outcome of developing world problems, the fact is many developing world-like problems are appearing with greater frequency in the developed world. Perhaps Katrina might be the tipping point disaster that grounds this firmly into people's mindsets. At least, this is my hope.

So as many commentators get into the nitty gritty of social breakdown and human suffering, I'm interested in the unimaginable: the positive psychological consequences of this terrible event -- shifts in public attitudes and perceptions -- and the pressure this might bring to bear on policy-makers. Seeing the silver lining is hard to do right now; but as the waters recede, it's getting easier for our brains to think ahead. And it's important that we do so: our window is now-- in the next 6 to 18 months -- if we're to influence the conversation and catalyze more sustainable outcomes for New Orleans, the Gulf States, and beyond. Recall that in the wake of 9/11, it wasn't until Bush's January State of the Union speech before the "war on terror" strategy became locked in. We forget this, but people were asking deeper, reflective questions about the causes of the causes. Let's learn from that disaster.

To turn tragedy into something good, it helps to imagine a plausible positive end game, and then work our ways backwards to the present, trying to figure out the capabilities we need and how practically to create them. Already we have Alan AtKisson excellent piece on his vision of a new New Orleans. Like Alan, I'm only looking through one lens here. I don't have any comprehensive scenarios worked out yet, just some ideas and frameworks pointing to the deeper mental and systemic shifts I would like to see. But I encourage us all to brainstorm here about what these scenarios might be. So please tell us your thoughts: five years from now, what would a better Gulf State region look like, and what should we be focusing on now to achieve this?

With so few benchmarks to draw from, it's only natural that people are making comparisons to the South Asian tsunami last year. It's important, however, to note the differences between these two events:

  • the Gulf Coast states are traditional hurricane territory and this storm was forecasted with two days warning, whereas the tsunami was a total surprise;
  • the tsunami was an order magnitude larger with hundreds of thousands dead versus Katrina's thousands;
  • the Gulf Coast is a geography that power brokers care about with strategically important oil fields whereas Sri Lanka, sorry, is not as much;
  • America is the world's richest country with infrastructure and resources to deploy to these stricken areas.
  • To qualify the last point, while every day it's becoming clearer the many flaws and gaps in the region's (and nation's) ability to respond to this crisis, the US still has may times more resources than most places in the world, however poorly implemented. But more on that later.

    Despite these differences, I hope Katrina shares one important feature of the tsunami: I hope it continues to expand peoples' awareness of bigger picture, cause-and-effect relationships that only disasters like these can magnify for all to see. I also hope this event expands peoples' "circle of empathy", which is arguably the most distinctive legacy of the tsunami. This may be wishful thinking, but it's an important wish. It's also worth understanding the dynamics of empathy -- why one disaster drives it global another does not -- because this hard-to-measure and complex emotion will be a key factor in how we address our most important problems on this planet.

    Human security requires environmental sustainability

    The linkage between a healthy environment and human security is something we've written a lot about, specifically, the connection between healthy coastlines and the ability to weather storms (See Emily Gertz's pieces here and here). I hope this gets hammered home, especially amongst locals. This may be a realistic outcome because there is mounting evidence and institutional support behind this idea in places like the UN, which is a symbolic start. We've long known the problems of building on coastal and flood plains. As the data sets are showing, the 1970s-1990s time frame was a naturally low period of hurricane activity, whereas the 1930s-1960s were much more active -- a key reason why the coastal areas were sparely populated.

    So even without the climate change factor, we're entering a new "natural" cycle of higher activity. Clearly, previous generations had learned something important. Add to this more complexity -- climate change -- and even local knowledge is being challenged. For climate change happens on a much larger scale. To simplify, climate change is changing our ocean systems and warming them up. The evidence is solid (e.g. here, here and here) so much so, that Bush at the G8 Summit in Scotland conceded some ground on the climate change issue. As meteorologists and oceanographers will tell you, warm ocean surface temperatures are jet fuel for cyclonic activity. This is why we can't take Katrina in isolation from these broader, global environmental changes. And why foreign "I told you so" politicians can't resist taking the opportunity to rub in these connections.

    The good news? As we often point out at Worldchanging, our ability to plan, forecast, and access better data, for decision making has never been better. Two days warning is not bad; just ten years ago this would not have been possible. We're also getting better long view data which puts weather patterns in perspective. For instance, armed with the above hurricane data, would you seriously buy a home on the Gulf Coast? I bet not. Developers may soon find themselves operating in a different context. Buyers will demand more information and more transparency; more sophisticated risk assessments will emerge.

    But a lack of knowledge usually isn't the biggest barrier to change these days. Rather, it's a lack of political will. So perhaps the best news is how this event might change the political agenda and process in Washington and the Gulf State regions. As the NYT reports, already Bush has cancelled a high profile meeting with China's President Hu and his schedule has been entirely reworked in the weeks ahead. His advisors are clearly trying to mitigate the political fallout for failing to react with the requisite speed and empathy. As another NYT editorial put it:

    If the Homeland Security Department was so ill prepared for a natural disaster that everyone knew was coming, how is it equipped to handle other kinds of crises? Has the war in Iraq drained the nation of resources that it needs for things like flood prevention? Is the National Guard ready to handle a disaster that might be even worse, like a biological or nuclear attack?

    Indeed. We should also have a conversation about what, exactly, constitutes a natural disaster, a term that's increasingly blurred and hard to define these days. The choice of terms matters because this directs actions and frames mindsets. As I've written before, many of these disasters are exacerbated and even caused by "unnatural" (read: human) factors. But if disasters are perceived as "acts of God", our institutional and emotional response is passive, reactive, and not focused on dealing with the causes. I won't bore you with the bureaucratic division of labor, but natural disasters usually get different institutional responses than say civil strife or a oil spill. Let's call them for what they are unnatural natural disasters. (Okay, wordsmiths, work with me here.)

    We are all third worlders now

    Let's pause again on the use of the word "refugee" in a first world context. Katrina shows us how distinctions between the developing and developed world are becoming increasingly meaningless and problematic. In Europe, it has been another biblical summer with fires and floods dominating the headlines. And in the US, elements of the "developing" world have always been present, whether it be urban ghettoes or rural poverty -- failed states with the States that are systematically ignored, abstracted, or mythologized in film and music. However, watching the images on TV, it's hard not to see that New Orleans looks a lot like Bangladesh after a flood or parts of Honduras after Hurricane Mitch (October 1998). African American refugees, huddled together in squalid conditions, look not much different from the people we see in Darfur or East Timor, Palestine or Afghanistan. Let's hope that they don't stay this way, as they do in the developing world. The larger point is this: will people see these similarities? Will this help link America psychologically at a deeper level to the problems and concerns of the rest of the world? And will Katrina trigger the same kind of empathy and response that the tsunami created? These are big questions. The cynical, history-facing side of me says no: this is all too idealistic, the current status quo would forbid this. But we may be entering new territory where history and precedent are becoming less reliable guides to the future.

    In many respects, the future is already present in the developing South, making this a rich source of learning and insight, something many first worlders don't intuitively take to very easily. For instance, a key lesson in studying natural disasters in the developing world is that weak states and poor people get disproportionately hit by them. While more natural disasters appear to happen in the so-called Third World, this is not just a function of unlucky geography, or more insidiously, the mistaken assumption that this is just "natural" in these parts of the world. Disasters hit these places with more devastating results because their environments have been made brittle by overuse and competition for resources. On top of this they have poor infrastructure, poor planning and forecasting tools, and poor building practices. Also missing are things we take for granted which cushion and mitigate the blow of disasters: things like insurance, government assistance, relief agencies, and functioning social networks and communities. This is why the tsunami effort required such fund-raising because many of these support systems were absent.

    This pattern is now showing itself with Katrina. The fact that it was the poor people in New Orleans who struggled to evacuate the area because they didn't have access to mass transportation speaks volumes about the social tradeoffs these communities have made. The positive flip: disasters like these can provide a special space, however temporarily, to talk about the "undiscussables". The unacceptable levels of poverty in the world's richest country certainly seems to be one of those taboos in some American political circles. Let's hope this catastrophe starts a productive conversation about the causes and consequences of the third world in America.

    Expanding the Circle of Empathy

    In using the phrase "circle of empathy" I'm referring to a theory developed by Jaron Lanier, a virtual reality scientist (amongst many other things). Found in his essay One Half of A Manifesto, the theory, in a nutshell, is that every person draws a circle around them; inside the circle are things that deserve empathy, outside the circle are things that don't deserve this emotional investment. A simple enough concept, intuitively obvious, but how we define the boundaries of this circle are complicated and vary across individuals, cultures and contexts. Nevertheless, this framework is worth understanding better because figuring out how we construct this circle may go a long way to creating a better future and reducing human suffering when disasters strike.

    Lanier describes the pros and cons of defining the boundaries of our "circle of empathy". Quoting from a GBN interview:

    If you try to make your circle of empathy very large, it takes tremendous energy to maintain your circle of empathy. There is the opposite problem where people make their circle of empathy so small that they cut off a part of themselves. But first let’s talk about the energy required to keep a circle of empathy big.

    Right now we have global telecommunications. All of us are aware of how awful it is to be poor in a big city in India and how miserably short life is. We’re aware of how many people die from malaria. We’re aware of what’s happening with AIDS in central Africa. We’re aware of what will be happening in all likelihood with AIDS in central Asia. We know all of that, and yet our capacity for empathy is simply exhausted. We have empathy fatigue.

    Yet problems compound when:

    ..the more partial or one-sided our communication is with people who might be within our circle of empathy, the more vulnerable we are to have our empathy degrade into vanity... It’s a thing we should spend carefully if it’s going to mean anything at all. Narcissism is cheap; real empathy is expensive.

    So apply this to politics. Lanier believes that "the Left generally seeks to expand the circle, but occasionally overreaches by including too much. The Right, on the other hand, generally wants to tighten or defend the circle, which gives it an inherent organizational advantage." But this eventually becomes self defeating for the Right. It's only when crises hit (like this one) that people realize the advantage of investing in the "social capital" of a community. All of a sudden, society becomes nasty, brutish and short. The headline is that both the Left and Rich have historically failed to strike the right balance, and this suggests an opportunity to reframe the problem and policy solutions.

    Like many serious thinkers, Lanier is skeptical that empathy can scale, especially when it requires transcending cultural, political and social boundaries. Multicultural societies, he argues, don't make the same level social investment in their people as do homogenous cultures. But I think Lanier may be wrong or only partly right. This may explain Japan, but how do you explain Canada? Or eras of the Ottoman Empire? (High social investment, highly diverse.) In fact, I'll go further: he has to be wrong. Because empathy -- putting yourself in another's shoes -- is the key to successful dialogue; and dialogue is a special form of communication, a social technology if you will, that we need to invest in because it's the best way to build shared understanding across different worldviews and beliefs. (For more on these dialogue tools, see Adversarial Politics: Is there another model?)

    Granted, empathy is "expensive" as Lanier puts it. It's hard to practice empathy even with your best friend, let alone strangers in strange lands. But the response to the tsunami, however imperfect, challenges this negative view of our ability to scale empathy. Sure, there were real "narcissistic" factors driving the flood of money and sympathy for the tsunami victims. But it was a genuine start. Actions were taken. Babies were adopted, organizations formed, and many American households regardless of political orientation gave money. I think there is tremendous untapped human potential in the form of empathy waiting to find positive outlets. As Lanier alludes to, the solution spaces are better, more authentic, many-to-many (or peer-to-peer) communication channels. The mainstream media is just a one-way broadcast. We also have information overload, and this doesn't help facilitate engagement and participation, which is what I think people really are craving. More and more, people want to get involved, for all kinds of complex psychological reasons. We just haven't figured out the requisite social ingenuity to match the social needs with these individual needs and latent capabilities. The good news is that the blogsphere is an experiment in many-to-many communications, and the blogsphere has triggered decisive actions (for better or worse), so this is evidence of an emerging new pathway forward.

    Katrina, however, may not generate the same outpouring of empathy as the tsunami for several reasons. As I've mentioned, ironically, the perceived "advantages" of this disaster happening on American soil -- the money, the institutional capabilities, the infrastructure -- may become liabilities, because the average person inside or outside the US won't be as compelled to participate in this event as much as they did with the tsunami. The perception of America in the world as being a "rogue superpower" can't help either. Also, because there was a lack of infrastructure or systems in place to channel money and effort to the tsunami victims, these things were created fresh without the baggage of previous institutional arrangements by social entrepreneurs, many of whom used the Web to directly connect people with places, ideas with money. Worldchanging, for instance, played a small part in this amazing effort, only too happy to facilitate the Architecture for Humanity campaign and promote the Southeast Asian Earthquake and Tsunami Blog. I'm not saying that the tsunami response was without faults; the usual donor-recipient pathologies were present in full. But it was a qualitatively different experience, I think, than previous mass outpourings of sympathy. None have been so global and self-organizing. Fortunately, these innovations are crossing over now to help with Katrina, with examples like Katrinahome by WAP. Again, this is reverse leapfrog of sorts, which we'll see a lot more of in near future.

    Another hypothesis why Katrina is different many have to do with the legacy of policies that have encouraged a narrow circle of empathy in these communities and in America as a whole. Social capital and trust matters when it comes to creating the conditions for adaptiveness and resilience, and these things don't get formed overnight. I'm no anthropologist and I know nothing of the community structure in the Gulf States. I can only guess that one of the things people love about New Orleans, and now morn, is its richly diverse culture, old communities, and thus social capital. But somehow this didn't trickle up into helping the city adapt to this event, or this was missing in some quarters. We'll know more later. In any event, local senators are now talking about how this disaster showcases "institutional racism". I have no idea if this is true, but the fact that most of the victims were poor African-American people may have something to do with the delay. If they were white Bostonians or Palm Beach residents, would the reaction be any different? I would like to say no; that what we're seeing is equal opportunity incompetence. Future investigations may tell us the truth of this matter.

    Crash and renewal?

    I know things seem really bad right now. While this may be small comfort to the victims, many dynamics of systemic change follow a "crash and renewal" cycle where things have to get bad for them to get better. (See Jamming in the Flux for more on this dynamic.) Disasters are a frequent catalyst of this cycle. Whether Katrina will be a catalyst, it's hard to say. It's even harder to predict whether any new norms will emerge, like a broader circle of empathy. We'll likely need more shocks, more disasters, and a whole lot more social ingenuity and activity to make this happen. Our experience coping with disasters will only increase in frequency, so we'll have many more opportunities to test our capacity for empathy. On the other hand, if we are experiencing such a renewal process in the Gulf Coast states, it won't be long before we can test this hypothesis. Tangible things to monitor over the next 18 months include: new legislation, changes in building codes, changes in people and personnel in public office and agencies, and where people elect to live and rebuild. Less tangible changes revolve around these questions: are people retreating to old norms, old behaviours, old ways of doing things? Or are they "reorganizing" in new and different ways? I'd love to have examples of the latter, not being close to this situation in New Orleans.

    Lastly, a better future for the Gulf States requires a plausible, positive end-game scenario from which we can measure and test the developments and proposals that will be flying fast and furious in the weeks ahead. This is best created collaboratively. I hope this is happening at many levels, as I write, amongst policy makers and community groups. This can't just happen from the top-down, especially when it's clear how badly a top down strategy and system failed to protect people. In these precious months ahead -- remember, we have a narrow window -- we also need the collective energy of citizens in these communities to put pressure, from the bottom up, on the political forces that may get in the way of better ways of doing things. And above all, we need to do this with empathy, and not lapse in objectifying and distancing ourselves from what's happening on the ground in New Orleans. Because the new reality is that we are all just one or two degrees from being third worlders. A humbling feeling and this is no bad thing.

    Coming: more on the role of disasters as catalysts for change


    (Image: BBC Website, no author mentioned)


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