Saturday, February 14, 2009

Community Preparedness

Whatever happened to the idea of community preparedness? You would think that with all the natural disasters and economic troubles we have been experiencing lately that it would be a subject of much interest and discussion. How can it be that during such difficult times we ignore the whole subject?

It’s true that most communities have plans for disasters. In the earthquake zones of California, for instance, building codes reflect this danger and most homes lack basements. In the South, coastal areas build for possible hurricanes. Along our major rivers, people who decide to build on floodplains, usually take precautions to build levees.

Schoolchildren all across the country are drilled on what to do when they hear the public siren sounding a warning of danger. Scouts are taught the importance of safety and preparedness and so are almost all businesses. It might seem, then, that we are more prepared than I have claimed. And I haven’t even mentioned our community funded fire and rescue squads. We’re more focused on safety now than we’ve ever been.

Of course, all of these programs and precautions are worthy efforts. In fact they often save lives and property. But they are not to be confused with true community preparedness. Truly prepared communities certainly have these same programs, but they also have something more - they are self-reliant and even sustainable.

Unfortunately self-reliant communities are a rarity these days. This is a shame considering how common they were just a few generations ago. In less than a hundred years, we have forgotten many basic skills that were intuitive to our grandparents.

How does one go about planting and caring for a garden? I know this might sound ridiculously obvious to many. But it’s a serious question. You’d be surprised at how many people don’t know even the basics of how to grow their own food. Who knows how to build a root cellar anymore? Or who knows how to irrigate and fertilize a crop? Who knows how to fertilize a crop if you can’t go to the store and buy fertilizer? Who knows anything about rotating crops or how to keep insects from destroying your plants?

Well the answer to most of these questions is that almost nobody does. And, in fact, almost nobody even cares. What makes this so troubling is that these basic skills are necessary for sustainable communities, despite how trivial they might seem in our current economy.

Perhaps we convince ourselves that we are self-reliant people. It’s just that our self-reliance is a nation-wide phenomenon. Why does it matter if we get our vegetables from the local farmer’s market or from another state (or continent, for that matter)? After all, the broader our trade connections become, the better off we all become.

Or so it might seem. Nonetheless, the error in this thinking is pretty obvious with just a little perspective. Things never remain as they are. We might like telling ourselves that it is our ingenuity that drives change and that we can control the future; but in reality, most significant changes come because of disruptive influences - even disasters. We adapt to the new circumstances because we have to, not always because we want to.

Our modern society exists in a precarious position. In many ways we’ve built ourselves a culture that exists as an upside down pyramid. Things that we need - such as food and shelter - are in the hands of a very few people. Most of us make a living out of providing goods or services that are not really necessary. I don’t mean that they aren’t worthy professions, they just aren’t required to sustain life. A sustainable community is comprised of a broad base that provides the basic requirements for survival. Further up the pyramid are those professions (such as education, government, and cultural luxuries) that are progressively less necessary. Our society is clearly top-heavy.

One example immediately comes to mind. The number of lawyers seems to me to be excessive. I haven’t counted but I expect that we have as many lawyers in the US as we have farmers. In a way this is a compliment to the abilities of Americans. A lot of us are smart enough to become lawyers. Who, in their right mind, would stay on a farm when they could use their abilities and make a lot more money in the city?

But this is a little misleading. First of all, one can be a farmer and a lawyer (or one of many other professions) at the same time. Secondly, it fails to consider the importance of wisdom. It takes more than cerebration to be wise. One must also have perspective. With our society turned upside down and vulnerable - vulnerable to being toppled from any of a myriad different directions - we need wise citizens. We need citizens with the wisdom to come together and create sustainable communities. Agrarian communities have always been sources of wisdom.

We have lived a long time under the mistaken belief that disasters won’t happen to us. Or maybe we’ve admitted that they might happen but that we’ll somehow come through OK in the end. That’s the beauty, after all, of a global economy. If disaster strikes in one place, someplace else can come to the rescue. There’s only one thing wrong with this sort of thinking. Not all disasters are local. Wisdom teaches something quite different. Sustainability is.

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