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Monday, June 23, 2014

When Will They Ever Learn?


Not to dwell on the thoughtful refrain from Pete Seeger’s 1960s anthem, but the question is worth asking frequently—of ourselves and our society.  George Santayana wrote: “Progress... depends on retentiveness.... When experience is not retained... infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Here's a good example.  FEMA’s Emergency Management Higher Education Program Description (January 10, 2014 update) provides a useful summary of the way FEMA works to implement and accredit college-level programs to train new generations of emergency managers and planners. 

Of particular interest to me and to this blog, the section of the document titled Background Context of Emergency Management Higher Education in the U.S.” (page 4) provides a summary of the state of hazard mitigation in the 21st Century. 

Here are some examples of how things have changed from the problems faced by our parents and grandparents:

  • Growth and changes in this country and in the international political environment have created new threats and challenges for our society. 
  • Life is getting more complicated, with new technologies and the unfamiliar vulnerabilities and threats they bring, and aging infrastructure.
  • Population growth and development has placed more people in harm’s way.
  • The movement of people into the warmer and/or coastal states places them at greater risk to such hazards as earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, and tornadoes.
  • With the planet becoming “smaller” and more populated, threats of communicable disease spread, including pandemics become more probable and conceivably more dangerous.
  • The most recent rise in international terrorism makes life more dangerous. 
So here are some of the things we did generations ago that we continue to do now—in spite of better information, better technology, and a seemingly more-enlightened society:

  • We build in floodplains.
  • We destroy wetlands
  • We build along earthquake faults
  • We build on the coast
  • We build on the alluvial fans from mountains
  • We build in and near forests susceptible to wildfire
  • We don’t zone, code, build, inspect and maintain as appropriately as is feasible
As a result (says the document) disaster losses are increasing in the U.S. – doubling to tripling per decade, controlled for inflation.  In one sense, problems are the same; in the other they’re much different—and far more serious.  And yet our response to the problems has changed little over the years.  Which begs the question…

Why don't we do more to prevent these losses?

Or more specifically, why haven’t we learned from our mistakes of the past and done more to prevent the same kinds of losses now that we know better?

One somewhat philosophical answer may be that, as Ioan and Daniel Tenner state in their blog, “Wisdom extracted from the past is not considered a part of the historical record.” In other words, when we recount an event of the past, we tend to focus on what happened (names, dates, places) without delving too deeply into the “how’s” and “why’s” of the event.  Perhaps this is because we don’t know (or don’t want to ask) and we simply report what we see and hear.

But when it comes to learning the lessons we should have learned from the natural disasters of the past, I think the reasons for our failure to prevent loss in the future are less based in history or philosophy than they are in something that we learn about in physics:  Inertia.


For many of the same reasons we see in the first set of FEMA bullets (above), individuals, government leaders, developers and planners seem to have a hard time moving in the direction of “the right thing.”  Even when faced with stark examples of floods, storms and earthquakes that wreak havoc on communities near and far, the cost of the solution (financial and political) always seems to get in the way. 

What does it take to keep a development from a coastal area or flood plain?  It takes the courage of a leader to step forward and say (gasp) “No.”   

What does it take to bring a town or neighborhood together to build a shelter or fund major mitigation infrastructure?   It takes the creativity and patience of community members to forego their own interests and pull together for the common good. 

Ironically, both strong leadership and selfless community cooperation are qualities that built this country.  We had them once.  We need to find them again.  In some cases, our very lives depend on doing so.


Image from the University of Vermont Libraries collection