Thursday, November 8, 2012

What Have I Learned from Sandy? Resilience Begins in Responsibility

I phrase it as a question because, though, considered as a weather event, hurricane Sandy is over and done with, as a psycho-cultural-historical event, it is only in the early phases of its life. In an earlier post (Thoughts on Sandy: We Must Change Our Ways, NOW) I talked about the need to restructure our world:
We have to rethink and restructure. We have to decouple and downsize. Otherwise we’re committing suicide by “civilization” and technology.
That idea isn’t new to me. It’s been with me in one form or another for a long time.

But, whatever lessons Sandy has for others—and I hope her lessons have been deep ones—I’m beginning to think that she does have a lesson for me, a lesson about self-reliance, community, and their interdependence. Still, I’m not sure. It’s too soon to tell. In any event, before I get around to a tentative account of THAT lesson, I want first to talk about some other lessons.

Sputnik, Martial Law, Berlin Wall

These lessons are personal lessons, though not entirely so. They are lessons about the intersection of my life with the larger currents of history. As such, I don’t expect that these historical events will have the same or similar significance for others, though they might. Briefly, these are the events:
  • 1957: The Russians launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to circle the earth
  • 1968 1969: Martin Luther King was assassinated, riots broke out, and martial law was declared in Baltimore
  • 1989: Berlin Wall came down and set the stage for the reunification of Germany
I was ten years old in 1957 and was fascinated by outer space, rockets, and such—a fascination stoked, no doubt, by various TV programs by Walt Disney and films such as Forbidden Planet (1956). The launching of Sputnik marks the first time my dreams and fantasies met-up with history.

The launching of Sputnik was certainly a world historical event. Shorn of politics, it was the first time that humans stepped off of the earth to function in outer space, if only indirectly. But of course, we can’t divorce Sputnik from Cold War politics, nor did I do so as a ten-year old. I knew, in my ten-year old way, that it was important for America to beat the Russians in the space race that Sputnik had catalyzed.

However, by the mid-1960s I had decided that, if the Cold War was in fact a real and pressing international conflict, it was a conflict dominated by a military-industrial complex that was more interested in preserving itself than in preserving the peace. The war in Vietnam had made me a pacifist and the counter-culture had almost made me a hippie.

Almost. I wore hippie clothing, listened to the Beatles, the Doors, and Jimi Hendrix, and smoked weed—yes, I inhaled. But I never made it to full-out hippiedom. I was too much of an intellectual for that.

And when Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, riots broke out in Baltimore, where I was attending The Johns Hopkins University. The riots took place in East Baltimore, far from the North Charles Street campus of university (though the medical school and hospital were in East Baltimore), but that made no difference when martial law was declared. The whole city was put on lock-down. Curfew was 4PM and National Guard vehicles and men patrolled the streets. Of course I had to break curfew, along with some of my hippie (and non-hippie) friends.
While martial law only lasted a few days, I forget how many, that action symbolizes for me the intrusion of the state into the lives of citizens—more so than the military draft, which I had to deal with a year later. I understood that the rioting was dangerous, to the rioters themselves as well as to others. It wasn’t at all obvious to me, however, that the whole city needed to be locked down. But Baltimore was (and still is) a majority black city and the white political rulers in the city and the State of Maryland weren’t taking any chances.

Thus, in that one event, we see the intrusive power of the state, but also the ugly legacy of racial oppression that is so very deep in American history. While that oppression isn’t as bad as it once was—slavery really did end a century and a half ago—it remains with us in various forms, most palpably in the form of the unconscionable incarceration of large numbers of black males by the rural welfare and domestic imprisonment wing of the military industrial complex.

And then we have the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, which marks the collapse of the international regime of the Cold War. While a prescient few realized that the Soviet empire was rotting within—most notably Senator Daniel Moynihan—I was not one of them. I was raised through primary school in the Cold War, and, as a child, had fantasies of a super-cool bomb shelter in the back yard, and assumed that the Cold War would dominate the international arena through the day I died and beyond.

The collapse of that international regime was thus a welcome surprise. The lesson was and is a simple one: the world CAN change in sudden and dramatic ways. And, while I was certainly happy that the Cold War had ended, I was not among those who thought that history had come to an end, nor did I hold much hope that the military industrial complex would start closing up shop. Some people talked about a so-called peace dividend in those days, but it never materialized. That didn’t surprise me at all.

The military state that had flexed its muscles in the streets of Baltimore in 1968 was not going to go gently into that good night. And so we’ve fought a senseless and destructive was in Iraq and are attempting to wind down another such war in Afghanistan. The Cold War had crumbled but the institutions that fed on it are still with us.

* * * * *

Just a few days ago Hurricane Sandy wrecked the upper East Coast of the United States. I suppose some of the damage can be laid at the feet of this military-industrial complex that has fed itself at the expense of maintaining the infrastructure that crumbled during the hurricane. But the storm was such a powerful one that most of that infrastructure would have failed even if it had been in better condition. That’s not the lesson I want to draw.

No, the lesson is a bit more personal, closer to home.

Pick Up Your Trash and Don’t Litter

First let’s step back from hurricane Sandy for a moment. My neighborhood, like many, has a problem with trash. People will eat a candy bar or a small pack of potato chips and simply and casually toss the wrapper wherever; the same with water bottles, soda cans, and beer cans. Why? I assume that these people wouldn’t toss trash on the floor in their home. So why toss this stuff on the street in the neighborhood where you live? It’s your home as well, no?

I don’t know the answer to this, but I suspect it has to do with alienation and, as well, with the existence of a welfare state—which is the more or less benevolent arm of the military-industrial state complex. That is, like many well-educated people of the left, I’m willing to offer a social explanation for this phenomenon.

An explanation is one thing. However that explanation, assuming it is true, does not justify or excuse irresponsible, disrespectful and ultimately self-destructive personal behavior. Littering is unacceptable. Period. End of discussion.

Sort of.

So, this summer the Morris Canal Community Development Corporation initiated an anti-litter campaign in my neighborhood. The start has been a bit shaky. It proved very difficult to get people to agree to be block captains, where the block captain would be a liaison between the residents of a particular block and the Jersey City Incinerator Authority (JCIA), the agency responsible for garbage collection. Nor were people willing to volunteer to spend one morning on clean-up patrol. As far as they were concerned, trash collection was the City’s responsibility, not theirs.

Well, yes, the JCIA does collect garbage and sweep the streets. They don’t put the litter there but they do empty the cans, collect the trash bags, and drive the (ancient and decrepit) street cleaners. But it’s not enough. We need more.

Ultimately, we need for people to stop littering. Until that happens we need people to help the JCIA with trash clean-up. If we don’t do these basic things, then we’ll continue to live amid our own trash. It’s that simple.

The litter problem represents a joint failure of personal responsibility and community ethos. Individuals keep tossing trash and the community is willing to tolerate it. How do we create the community spirit, the ethos, needed to enforce personal responsibility for one’s trash?

That, writ small, is the issue posed by Hurricane Sandy, writ large.

From Hurricane Sandy to Personal and Communal Responsibility

We weren’t ready. Too many individuals and households failed to make adequate preparations—myself included. But the problem is greater than and different from that.

Once Sandy had struck and gone we didn’t know what to do. It took us awhile to figure out how to help one another and to help ourselves. We aren’t used to this and so we didn’t know how to act.

So, we struggled to find our way through the mess and destruction. And once power began to come back—through the efforts, I should say, of utility workers from all over the country, not just the local region—people began to organize a variety of volunteer efforts to help out, efforts that are ongoing as I write this.

But what will remain of those efforts once the worst of the crisis has passed? Will there be a permanent legacy of increased self-help and communal resilience? Will we, as individuals and as neighborhoods, change our ways, immediately and forever going forward?

I don’t know.

But, all of a sudden, I do find myself thinking thoughts I’m used to hearing from political conservatives and from libertarians, thoughts about responsibility and self-reliance. When I hear those thoughts from conservatives I tend to hear them as a call to abandon the poor and less-fortunate, to destroy what social safety nets we have. And I hear them as a cover for greed and smug self-satisfaction.

And there really is a lot of that going around—greed and smug self-satisfaction. But Sandy has made it clear to me that that’s not all there is in conservative calls for responsibility and libertarian complaints about the nanny state. The real conservatives, the ones who want to conserve, not simply to hoard, and the libertarians who understand and value liberty, and aren’t just seeking permission to accumulate wealth without acknowledging any responsibility for the common good, have a point. The state’s become too extensive and too intrusive, and we must extricate ourselves from it.

This extrication has to start in individual households in particular neighborhoods and communities. We need to take responsibility for our immediate world and to create and organize local institutions that can, day to day, deal with trash, for example, and can, in extreme circumstances, help us cope with the disasters that global warming is surely going to serve up at an increasing rate.


  1. A minor point: Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968, the same year RFK was (a few months after King was taken from us). What a year: the Tet offensive, the McCarthy challenge, Johnson's capitulation, the King assassination, the short-lived Prague Spring, the May revolt in France, the Catonsville 9, RFK's assassination, the Chicago DNC's police riot, Nixon elected, and in December, three humans orbit the moon and return to Earth safely.

    On Sandy, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (sorry for the cliche). And prevention is, in a functioning democracy, a governmental or otherwise a collective responsibility. But no democracy can function pretending that 100-year events will never occur in 1000 years. And it's not 100 years anymore, more like 10 or 20 with the trashing we've given to the climate.

    Bill, you are correct that the Cold War was perpetuated by the military-industrial complex's drive to perpetuate itself. As the so-called "fiscal cliff" is approached, I have to chuckle about how we are, once again "all Keynesians." But look what all the pols agree on: no cuts for defense! There will be some, of course, but not what is needed.

    --Frank Munley

  2. Thanks, for the correction, Frank. Do you remember martial law in Baltimore?