“This is an extraordinary time full of vital, transformative movements that could not be foreseen. It’s also a nightmarish time. Full engagement requires the ability to perceive both.”
“Disaster Response” presumes that disasters are one-time events, to which response protocols can be applied. For whatever crisis appears, teams of people with training and resources assist in saving lives and easing suffering. Those of us engaged in such work are noticing that disasters are not as discrete as they appear to be. Climate disasters, political disasters, economic disasters and the consequences of old and new means of war are no longer isolated to a time or a place. They are beginning to emerge as a single, continuous event.
This is the Long Disaster. For some, it has always been here. For the rest of us, it is soon to come.
The ideas here have emerged from discussions among responders who rushed into these calamities. We see evidence of this accelerating “forever disaster”, both in the increasing severity of the events as we enter them and the apathy we face towards their ultimate resolution and prevention. Our aim here is not to define conclusively what a Long Disaster Responder is, as much as give a hopeful name and some thought to an evolving concept.
Our world largely relies upon globally interdependent organizations such as governments and corporations, that have brought us unprecedented peace and prosperity. Yet, with each hurricane, earthquake or armed conflict, the fragility of these systems becomes evident while the consequences of their failure bleeds across borders.
Instead of formulating distinct responses through these large, impersonal systems, addressing the Long Disaster involves a radically different approach. The Long Disaster Responder doesn’t rush in, because they’ve been there all along, working within existing networks and fostering communal efforts to prepare for the durable disasters on the horizon. Before the disaster, this work seems mundane. It is only during the disaster that its true power shows.
Like any other paradigm shift, we must reconcile the practical knowledge and inertia of the old way of doing things with the new evidence in front of us. This work is multifaceted, a renaissance of understanding in community and personal preparedness. It should not begin when we arrive at the scene of a crisis nor end when we leave. Just as festival artists prepare throughout the year for transformative temporal experiences, Long Disaster responders address, work and create around gaps in present circumstances to prepare for the temporal crisis. Just as artists seek out a variety of different materials, experiences and influences to inform their work, Long Disaster responders should engage in creative approaches that cross disciplines to bridge these practical gaps we have observed in our own responses to various crises.
These gaps are an opening observation, not a comprehensive analysis or conclusion.
The Psychological Gap
Today’s first responders focus on a narrow set of immediate crises to which they apply solutions out of habit. Those who work within this string of human suffering recognize growing fatigue in broader society as one crisis fades into another one. The stream of wreckage is not just material but psychic, yet while we can express material loss in dollars and tons we have no easy metric for trauma.
While the survivor’s trauma is evident, the responder’s trauma from event to event is harder to grasp, often going unseen behind the narrative of the hero. Some of us have found that the best healing comes from faith in the future, buttressed by the miraculous things we see in our work. In order to do this work, the Long Disaster Responder should start from a place of joy.
In order for our approach to be sustainable, we must not think of our work as responding, but as giving birth to a better way of being. Those of us with the fortune of having worked both in transformative festivals as well as mass casualty events know this incredibly peculiar joie de vivre to the universal human experience present in celebration and crisis, one which fades upon return to normal, “default” living. Psychologically, it is best to take the inspiration of the extreme, and use it to bring change to everyday life.
The Skills Gap
The increasing specialization demanded by the Global Economy leaves the average Global Citizen with a progressively narrower range of skills. While pioneers were often all at once sailors, farmers, builders, ranchers, scientists and artisans, our virtual, symbolic world often leaves us without the skills necessary to respond to and repair parts of the world disconnected by crisis.
Long Disaster responders learn new skill sets by volunteering in their communities. While we are specialists in our paid time, we should become generalists in our free time, gaining practical experience in a variety of tasks that bring beauty, nourish, relieve suffering, and build networks of trust with our neighbors. Instead of showing up to help, we should show up to participate where we live in order to cultivate self-reliance and ultimately respond to disasters with experience.
In a practical sense, learning how to operate heavy equipment, build structures, forage and cultivate food, practice emergency medicine, harness renewable energy, and develop other practical skills gained through service and study are just some of many applicable suggestions along these lines. Nature centers are directly engaged in teaching these skills to volunteers through land stewardship, Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs), and pioneer living interpretation.
The Resource Gap
Thanks to the Global Economy, we are awash in resources. Unfortunately, the systems that deliver these resources have put local producers out of work, reduced inventories to levels quickly depleted in a crisis, and created a reliance on logistics networks that fail immediately upon the slightest interruption of infrastructure.
Long Disaster responders address the resource gap by distributing the tools and teaching necessary to re-create networks of localized resource providers, seed stockpiles of essential supplies within communities, and prepare for emergent scarcity by learning how to do more with less. Instead of trying to consume our way out of the problem, we should practice decommodification in our efforts to create new sources of supplies and strive to leave no trace in their production so the world can begin to heal.
The Makerspace movement is already engaged in the work addressing this gap as centers for collecting various different resources, from scavenged materials to shared tools and experienced teachers. Makerspaces form the nexus of a broader network engaged in encouraging experimentation and fostering solutions to material problems arising from the Long Disaster.
The Communications Gap
At no point in human history have we been more connected. Yet, we are increasingly dependent on multinational corporations to provide us that connectivity, ones who keep us largely in the dark on how those connections are sustained and monetized.
Long Disaster Responders practice on, use and develop communications tools that are resilient, immediate, and independent. We should encourage radical self-expression through means not mediated by those who monetize. While we should not avoid using tools that help us achieve these other goals, we should be prepared to fail over to other tools. We should focus not only on the vital links necessary to respond when global communications systems fail, but also on storytelling, face-to-face discussion, and other paths to a future where everyone feels free to tell their stories and achieve global understanding. We are too used to responding with our own language and prescribed solutions to crises. Instead, we should train ourselves to listen to those we strive to help.
Amateur radio operators (HAMs) are at the forefront of addressing this gap, both through their efforts in providing resilient communications to local crisis responders and by encouraging direct and immediate contact with peers around the world. Becoming a licensed amateur radio operator in any nation is an excellent first step as a Long Disaster Responder. It connects you to the global amateur radio community and establishes practical experience in using a communications medium that is not dependent upon anything other than the operator’s skill and equipment.
The Community Gap
Community is not often a word applied to the entire planet. Yet, it should be. Global real-time communication is within reach of even the least resourced humans, and they use that technology to build communities of choice with other humans they may never meet in person. The travel distances between even the most distant inhabited corners of the Earth today are measured in hours, not weeks or months. Unfortunately, this means that the risk of global conflict and cascading failure has never been greater. Warfare both conventional and asymmetric, through bullets, bombs, or bits has never been within easier reach of unstable actors.
Long Disaster Responders nourish and cultivate the communities in which they live while thinking about strategies for repairing nations and villages broken by crisis. We should focus our civic responsibility on daily efforts while doing the hard work necessary to sustain and strengthen communal efforts. We should respond to the people, not the crisis, empowering survivors to help them in the struggle against the suffering of the victims.
Transformational festivals with an emphasis on participation, such as Burning Man and the biennial european hacker camps, are temporal experiments in the kind of community we believe exists on the other side of the Long Disaster. By engaging these temporal experiments in alternative communities, we can practice life with others outside of their element, observing the positive and negative patterns of people in a controlled transition so as to be prepared for uncontrolled ones that come with disasters. Most importantly, through these events, we can get in touch with that joy so we learn to recognize it and then cultivate it when we need it most in difficult times.
The Empathy Gap
We know far more about the lives of our fellow humans than ever before. Yet thanks to all these other forces, our empathy for each other as a species is wearing thinner than ever before. We see this in increasingly nationalistic political movements, our inability to talk with others across an ideological divide or the pain of those shunned for having the audacity to live as their true selves.
Long Disaster responders practice radical inclusion in every moment of their lives. We must accept everyone for who they are, welcoming and respecting the stranger. Our efforts in this sense and all others are gifts with no expectation of reward or acceptance. We should not respond as conquering heroes, but as neighbors and fellow victims of shared tragic global circumstances. We should always strive to understand and know those for whom we work at home and abroad. We do the hard work of giving everyone the opportunity to join in through building bridges, clearing obstacles, and welcoming the marginalized who live lives of adversity or are struck temporarily by it. By focusing on empathy in our actions, we are uniquely prepared to respond in ways that ameliorate problems, not aggravate them.
Homeless shelters, food pantries, suicide hotlines and other similar efforts towards those living in crisis among us provide opportunities for engaging in challenging, practical empathy. One skill essential to Long Disaster response is the ability to learn how to help those who do not have the means to navigate the help they need. Getting acquainted with this skillset is critical for bridging the empathy gaps of the temporal moments of crisis in the Long Disaster.
In conclusion: Surviving Together
Odds are most of humanity will respond to this Long Disaster at some point, in some way. These thoughts are offered to those interested in preparing for it, for those who are called to adventure and may lack an idea of where the first threshold is.
It is tempting to ask who to talk to, where to go, what class to take or how to become “certified” as a Long Disaster Responder. Those questions align with the processes that brought us to our present state. As such, we future Long Disaster Responders should be encouraged not to ask others to make us, but to make ourselves, along with those around us where we live. Any of us can start doing something today. Necessary communities of Long Disaster Responders will bloom tomorrow. By providing mutual aid where we live, in circumstances of relative comfort, we’re researching potential solutions to problems that are not yet fully understood.
Communities are already naturally converging around the concepts described here. Some might call this design pattern thinking. As such, we urge those interested in this work to remain conceptual and resist the pretenses of “official”. This work will involve officialdom like spawning new institutions, obtaining certifications, licenses, contracts and other agreements as a matter of course. Yet, the core task is one so large that it cannot be contained by officialdom. It must exist as festivals do, as gatherings of humans taking a break from the normal order and experimenting with a new way of being that we can see taking root in the soils of rubble soon to come.