In(ter)dependence Day

Yesterday, the United States celebrated July 4th. National Public Radio (NPR) joined in, beginning on Morning Edition with their annual staff reading of the Declaration of Independence. Hard to imagine a finer start to the day!

That afternoon, on All Things Considered, NPR turned attention to a range of stories, including two features on natural disasters.

[The first, Fire-Ravaged Southwest Prepares for Rainy Season, focused on the recent Arizona and New Mexico wildfires, and how they’re teeing up a new threat – this time from floods. A feature of the climate of the desert southwest – the North American (or southwest) monsoon – brings thunderstorm rains, sometimes as much as 2” per hour, to this semi-arid region, from June or July into September. When that kind of rain picks up the ash from earlier fires, the resulting slurry can pose a serious flooding hazard. USA Today covered this story last week, as noted in Thursday’s post on this blog. ]

The second of these stories, The Key to Disaster Survival? Friends and Neighbors, by Shankar Vedantam, is today’s focus.

Vedantam reports on the experiences and research of political scientist Daniel Aldrich. Though anecdotal, Aldrich’s stories from disasters spanning the globe – Hurricane Katrina, the Indonesian tsunami, and the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami – suggest that social connectedness is a powerful key to surviving a disaster. These anecdotes are consistent with other evidence – some gathered by Eric Klinenberg in his study of the 1995 Chicago heat wave, and some artfully and movingly documented in Rebecca Solnit’s book entitled A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.  Klinenberg shows that the demographic most in danger from the heat wave were the isolated elderly. Solnit covers a range of disasters spanning a century, and convincingly argues that in each case, the drive to form community was a strong factor in surviving the event and the subsequent recovery.

The evidence is in – and more is accumulating. Interdependence – as much as independence – is the key to coming through challenges.

As we put July 4th and a weekend of happy memories behind us, we might do well to remember this lesson. Why? Because as we all know, friendship and neighborliness may well spontaneously emerge during crisis, but we’re better off if they were pre-existing. If we’re going to discover when disaster strikes that we’re all in it together, why not reach that awareness early?

Look at the media headlines that document today’s national political process. How much amicability is there? What signs do you see of friendship reaching across the aisle? Is it easy to imagine that if this group had been under the thumb of British rule, they could have banded together and written the Declaration of Independence? And yet that’s almost certainly what today’s political leaders would do, if faced with a common threat. [There was contentiousness aplenty in Independence Hall back in 1776. Check it out.]

Perhaps we shouldn’t have to wait for some such crisis to arise. Maybe we could find the needed comity in advance. Perhaps, as our leaders dialog about the national debt ceiling, options for health care, education, and jobs, they might find it in their hearts to respect the views of others, and to consider those others no less patriotic, no less high-minded, in advance of the day of decision. The country might be better served.

That applies at our level, too. When we look around at our own daily lives, we see no shortage of opportunity for us to be more sociable. We might be a lot more tolerant of others. We might be a little less partisan. A little more understanding.  Less inclined to jump to hardline, unshakeable conclusions on issues based on whether we liked or disliked the source. In our encounters with each other in the days ahead, let’s not see each other as in the way, or different, or hostile. Let’s see each other as friends and neighbors we’re committed to help, and that we can count on in return, when the earthquake hits, or the terrorists strike, or food and dollars run short.

When disaster strikes, we will be interdependent. We will rely on and support one other. Let’s live now so that when that day comes, we won’t be ashamed of our past behavior.

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