Social Infrastructure: A Remedy for Disastrous Times

Last week The New Yorker printed a fascinating article called “Adaptation,” which addresses “social infrastructure: the people, places and institutions that foster cohesion and support.” Author Eric Klinenberg reminds us that a comprehensive strategy of resilience in the face of disaster will involve more than changes and repairs to our physical infrastructure and reliance on outside help while that infrastructure is developed or restored.

As usual, a lot of the relief work after Superstorm Sandy has been done by large-scale professional organizations (including governments). Results are mixed. The salty language in this Gothamist article from the days after the storm may not be representative of the public’s general attitude toward professional outside help, but the frustration expressed still suggests the limits of top-down organizing.

Fortunately, another channel of assistance is growing through the grassroots. Bottom-up relief first made headlines after Hurricane Katrina with New Orleans’ Common Ground Relief, which is still in action 7 ½ years later. And as recovery from the latest mega-storm grinds on, Occupy Sandy has emerged as an inspiring model that shows that the mutual aid model tested during last year’s occupations is good for more than just enduring a winter in the public square.

Unfortunately, the official response is not only aloof to this grassroots self-help organizing; it is sometimes even hostile despite the benefits of bottom-up relief work.

There is a role for national, professional organizations in a sustainable response to disasters. However, we also must recognize that these organizations are not getting at the root of the problem. In fact, they may even be worsening our vulnerability to disasters through encouraging dependence on outside help and replacement of physical structures that will be destroyed again eventually.

In a world with fewer resources (most notably oil and clean water) and more disasters, we shall see that this disaster industry is built on a weak foundation of plentiful support from government and donors, which is badly undercut by the rising seas.  More disasters yield donor fatigue, and it seems that the pace of disaster is only going to increase: In the face of rising storms – both meteorological and economic – we must learn to depend on help given person to person, without as much emphasis on keeping track of everything through centralized systems.

And here’s where that article comes in: Klinenberg interviews Michael McDonald, who “has been coordinating relief efforts by volunteer groups, government agencies, corporate consultants, health workers, and residents in vulnerable areas” through something McDonald calls the New York Resilience System – one of the “ fragile, agile networks that make a difference in situations like these. It’s the horizontal relationships like the ones we’re building that create security on the ground, not the hierarchical institutions.”

Klinenberg declares that McDonald – who presumably should know what works and what doesn’t – is “convinced that civil society will determine which people and places will withstand the emerging threats from climate change.”

Klinenberg also observes some telling patterns that emerged in the killer heat wave that struck Chicago in 1995. The Chicago event was much deadlier than Sandy, with roughly 750 deaths concentrated mainly in poorer neighborhoods where many lived without air conditioning. In this quiet disaster, the presence of social infrastructure – “sidewalks, stores, restaurants and community organizations,” as he puts it – served to mitigate the danger as well as the ability to physically cool one’s home.

And the benefit is not just in lower death rates. Social infrastructure is making a difference in the rebuilding of places like the Rockaways. As recovery from the storm has ground on, Occupy Sandy has emerged as an inspiring model that shows that the mutual aid of last year’s occupations is good for more than just enduring a winter in the public square.

Grand proposals like flood gates to block the rising seas are both temporary and unlikely to come to fruition in a nation that can’t maintain its roadways. The same is probably true of even modest fixes like requiring or subsidizing air conditioners for dwellings. When we are unable to maintain even our basic infrastructure, do we really think that there will be the long-term political will to fund and construct new projects that ultimately provide only a false sense of security?

Once we come to terms with the lower economic growth rates that seem to be the new normal, it will be foolish to expect things to ever be as they were during our previous orgy of consumption.Even now, before we have reckoned with economic decline in the aftermath of the financial crisis, we find it challenging to easily agree upon what was once an obvious act of rebuilding (nearly 40 percent of the House of Representatives voted against the recent relief bill).

The bad news is that we can’t spend our way out of this mess. The good news is that we don’t really need to. We’ll be better served by nurturing relationships through the daily work of creating a better economy based on social infrastructure. We do need levees and earthquake-resistant buildings, but none of these are failsafe and when they fail we’ll need each other more than anything outside funding can promise in an era of reduced affluence and increasing disaster from climate change.

As Klinenberg concludes, “Whether they come from government or from civil society, the best techniques for safeguarding cities don’t just mitigate disaster damage; they also strengthen the networks that promote health and prosperity during ordinary times.”

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3 Responses to Social Infrastructure: A Remedy for Disastrous Times

  1. Pingback: Disaster, Social Infrastructure, & the Bible | Two Cents

  2. Pingback: Moment of Truth | Cooperate and No One Gets Hurt

  3. Pingback: Disaster, Social Infrastructure, & the Bible | Two Cents

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