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Discuss: State of the World 2013 > Chapter 33. Shaping Community Responses to Catastrophe.

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Comments on Chapter 33.

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Paula Green, founder and senior fellow at the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding and a professor of conflict transformation at the School for International Training Graduate Institute in Vermont..

This is the penultimate chapter of the book.

The Introductory section mentions several cases of massive catastrophes that have occurred in the last couple decades: The Bosnian crisis in the 90s; the years of carnage in Sri Lanka (both from ethnic violence, and from the 2004 tsunami); and the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In each case the author talks about an individual who survived the catastrophe and afterwards has devoted their lives to helping other survivors put their lives back together, and to finding pathways of reconciliation between the parties in the conflict.

The victims of these catastrophes were largely unprepared for what befell them. However, Green concludes by saying

In our current moment … with climate crises already occurring, population increasing, and vital resources diminishing, social capital, resilience, and preparedness may make the difference between life and death – or between bare survival and a more ample post-disaster transition.


This section talks about the “collective fog” of denial, passivity and ignorance which seems to underlie the refusal, particularly in the U.S., to grapple with the reality of catastrophic change which appears on the horizon. It goes into some of the likely causes for this “cultural trance of denial”, psychological and otherwise. But it doesn’t really contain much that advances the narrative.


Talks about the spectrum of human response that has been seen in the crises in Sri Lanka, Hurricane Katrina, and Bosnia. This general topic was dealt with briefly in chapter 24, where the book A Paradise Built in Hell was referenced in dealing with short term, cataclysmic crises. In that chapter the author (in the section The Real Face of Crises) wrote about the differing responses seen to these crises, as opposed to longer term, slowly unfolding crises.

In referencing the three crises mentioned above, Green is talking about both types of crisis: cataclysmic (Katrina), long term (Bosnia), and both short and long term (Sri Lanka). Thus, it comes as no revelation that she sees a spectrum of crisis response in these examples. (It is telling that she describes the response in New Orleans as illustrating both “the best and the worst” in human behavior. It is in these fast moving crises that the book above claims to see unexpectedly “good” behavior. However, as one reviewer of the book has pointed out, her exemplary crises are perhaps not representative, and certainly not representative of catastrophic crises in the developing world.)

Green comments that “rescuers” are found in most, if not all, catastrophes; though perhaps not in sufficient numbers to make a great difference, even in small numbers they make all the difference in the world to the people they actually help. Of such rescuers, she says
… they (emerge) in all cultures – often unpredictably and with no previous indication of heroic disposition … (as in the Holocaust) … Their outstanding acts stand at the pinnacle of moral behavior, in sharp contrast to the violence and betrayal committed by some and the bystander behaviors of most, who neither contribute to nor prevent violence. Rescuers provide a counterpoint to the worst human behavior observable in war and upheaval.


This section discusses some political scientists who have written about the importance of “social capital” for coping with disasters. Green defines social capital as “the sum total of resources, knowledge, and goodwill possessed by everyone in a network”. So “social networks” increase social capital, and social capital, as Daniel Aldritch (Building Resilience Social Capital in Post-Disaster Recovery
) contends, “is a more critical variable than wealth, education, or culture”.

Aldritch has concluded that “Those who are strongly rooted in community often rely more on themselves than on their governments, whereas more individualistic, less connected populations expect state services and support.”

(view spoiler)

Social scientist Ashutosh Varshney in India “found that Indian cities with positive connections between Hindus and Muslims prevented inter-ethnic riots whereas those without solid inter-religious relations could not stem (a) rising tide of violence.” (See Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life Hindus and Muslims in India.)

Green also cites Bowling Alone The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert Putnam. And Green admits that high social capital in communities “does not always prevent violence”, particularly in second and third-world nations.

Near the end of this section Green talks about the Transition Town movement, quoting Rob Hopkins: “There is no cavalry coming to our rescue. Transition says we need to come to our own rescue.” She cites “Farmers markets, Transition Towns, the Occupy movement, degrowth, and many other citizen-led initiatives” that are arising “in response to an increasingly fragile planet”, and believes that even in cases where these bonds do fail to survive “assaults”, they can help to rebuild communities for a better future.


This concluding section is kind of unfocused and all over the place. I’ll just mention a few highlights.

Crisis planning progresses beyond denial to deliberation and decisionmaking. Well-prepared communities anticipate and manage denial, helping those caught in anxiety or bewilderment.

Many of the services that can support communities may exist primarily for economically privileged communities and nations. “In the global South … (some) people already live with almost constant disruption, (and) little climate vigilance exists. And for situations of armed conflict, the best planning is mitigation of the conditions that give rise to war and violence.”

A four-pronged approach can create disaster-resistant communities: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery/reconstruction.

Some new approaches to aid and cooperation are coming into play. For example, “Community-driven development” (CDD) is a concept being promulgated by the World Bank.
And the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) (which has been around for 40 years) “is tasked with minimizing environmental threats to human welfare from the environmental causes and consequences of conflicts and disasters. Like CDD, UNEP “seeks to empower rather than lead, to inspire rather than direct.”

In Resilient People, Resilient Planet, the U.N. Panel on Global Sustainability noted that a resilient world requires the eradication of poverty, inequality, unsustainable consumption, and inadequate governance. Continued existence for all the world’s communities demands a radical shift from resource competition to appropriate allocation of what remains; a willingness to share responsibility for climate mitigation, resource management, and vulnerable populations; and a commitment to resolve increasing sociopolitical tensions without the additional affliction of armed conflict. Civilization depends on acknowledging our capacity to destroy our common nest, focusing our collective energy on its survival, and respecting planetary limits.

This is probably as good a summation and conclusion for the entire book as we will find. If only I could live long enough to see my own country subscribe to this vision.

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