The World is On Fire
If you’re reading this, you probably already have some notion that the world is changing in a big way and facing some epic-scale — even existential — challenges. Confronted by the dawning realities of climate change, peak oil, ecological destruction, widespread systemic inequality and economic uncertainty, it has become painfully clear to a growing segment of the population that the old way — the way of greed and empire, of industrial mega-farming and pollution and privatization, of profligate waste and fossil-fuel consumption — is no longer serving us, and that it’s on us to make a change.
You probably also have some sense of the solutions to which we are awakening as a people: cutting-edge technologies like sharing, respecting one another and working with nature instead of against it, radical notions like peace, justice, equity and sustainability, revolutionary and ancient ideas such as holistic health and permaculture and community resilience… all these vibrations and thought-forms which together come to constitute the Movement.
Perhaps popular culture’s recent focus on cataclysmic and dystopian scenarios — from the success of super-disaster films like San Andreas and The Day After Tomorrow, to wildly popular post-apocalyptic television shows like The Walking Dead and The 100 — reflects our sense of collective and planetary sickness: a very real (if only subconsciously recognized) feeling that there is a big emergency going on.
There is. There are many emergencies going on. As Gotama Buddha supposedly put it over 2,000 years ago: the world is on fire.
Resilience and Transition
Over the last few years, resilience has become a rather powerful buzzword in this movement. At the risk of insulting your intelligence, resilience means strength: the ability to withstand shock or trauma, to bounce back.
Naturally, given the plethora of woes and crises we’ve created as a humanity, many of us have developed a keen interest in resilience, building systems (homes and families, watersheds and foodsheds, neighborhoods and towns), that are able not only to bounce back from great shocks, but perhaps even to avert them entirely (at least the man-made ones) by creating systems of integrity — systems that are integrated with the whole. (For, as early ecological thinker Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. emphasized repeatedly, “it really boils down to this: all life is interrelated.”)
At the forefront of the present-day movement toward building resilient communities (implicitly recognizing this inherent interconnection of all things) are an untold number of homesteaders, activists, educators, grassroots organizations, and nongovernmental organizations — including my favorite nonprofit (and, full disclosure, my part-time employer), Transition US.
Transition US serves and supports local transition (that is, local community resilience) efforts in over 160 cities and towns across the country. It is, however, in the autonomous, local, totally self-organized and grassroots “Transition Towns” themselves that the real action is happening. Community supported agriculture and networked local food systems. Permaculture and natural building projects. Local currencies and time banks. Re-skilling fairs and village building convergences. Climate action working groups, earth grief support gatherings, elder salons — and much, much more.
Our Current (Antiquated) Funding Paradigm
For the last five years of my life, I’ve been serving in the resilience-building trenches as a founding organizer of my local transition initiative, Transition Lake County, and well before that I studied nongovernmental organizations (NGO’s) at New York University. And in all my work in the nonprofit and grassroots organizing world I’ve heard the same wish, the same lament, the same war cry:
Of course, the real war cry, the real wish, is more like Freedom! Justice! Integrity, Interdependence, Resilience! Health and Happiness! But most organizers realize at some point that in order to do the work, to plant the seeds and the maintain websites (and book the event venues and gathering spaces in a world of such vanishing commons) …Oh! How the funding is needed!
Transition initiatives and community resilience projects are no exception to this. We’re a creative lot, and we tend to share an analysis that it’s our culture’s historical focus on money (i.e. capitalism) that brought us to this precarious position in the first place. But still, most every organizer who has done community resilience work in the field has thought some variation of, “Gee, this work really feels important. Sure would be nice if it had some real funding!” Some might even go so far as to suggest that these concerns over resilient community should even be addressed, at least partially funded, by our government! (*Gasp.*)
Cut to Emergency Preparedness: The Great Uniter. The Keystone to Funding our Resilience.
Emergency Preparedness gets bank. Money. They have what we refer to in the nonprofit world as “capacity.” Much unlike the hats we pass around at our local Transition meetings of proletarian farmers, starving artists and retired schoolteachers.
The Federal Emergency Management Authority (FEMA) declared a 2016 budget of $64.8 billion — a number that has steadily risen (almost doubled) from it’s pre-Katrina budget of $36.2 billion in 2004. In comparison, the annual budget of Transition US, the nonprofit hub coordinating over 160 transition efforts across the country, couldn’t be more than $200,000, with a staff of precisely four people (mostly part-timers such as myself).
Back to Emergency Preparedness (whose name I always want to capitalize, no matter what, like it’s Great Britain, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar): Let it be known that money — federal money, our money — is going to Emergency Preparedness. As well it should. But here’s the rub:
They (that is, we) might not be managing those crisis-management funds in the best possible way.
Case in point: until very recently, those moneys have rarely gone to supporting the organic, grassroots, Transition-type projects that have already taken root nationwide. Instead, our collective tactics in preparing for and dealing with these ‘emergencies’ have in many ways replicated the very same flawed ways of thinking that brought us to the verge of all these manmade crises. Through centuries of rampant overconsumption, resource depletion and militarism, we’ve put ourselves in a position to fear an emergency or natural disaster. And yet, as we’ve seen in the news and felt in many of our communities, the current disaster-preparedness paradigm has proven unreliable, unsustainable, militaristic, even unjust.
Many of our well-intentioned leaders in the field of emergency preparedness have allocated huge sums of resources into planning for military-style supply drops and other plans involving helicopters and stadiums and fossil fuels and who knows what else. Trucks and warehouses of pre-packaged supplies. Evacuation Routes. FEMA Camps. A disempowering picture of a person stranded on a roof in the midst of a flood, waiting to be rescued, waiting for Mommy, for Daddy, for an External Authority, to save us.
Resilience is Preparedness.
The question of our Emergency Preparedness and our Community Resilience really is a question of maturity — perhaps a longer discussion than many of us have the patience for — but it is a topic at least worth broaching. We are the stewards of our communities and lands and watersheds. If we grow up, we’ll thrive together. If we don’t, we’ll perish alone.
There is hope.
Not only are grassroots groups like Transition initiatives getting together across the country to heed the call to mature stewardship of our world; some folks have even begun to make the connection between emergency preparedness and community resilience. Transition Humboldt and Transition Berkeley have members actively integrating into the local emergency preparedness scene (with core team members attending CERT trainings). A retired San Diego Fire Chief is vocally on the community resilience bandwagon; and I recently heard tell that regional resilience hub GoLocalSonoma got a $60,000 FEMA grant for projects overlapping with Emergency Preparedness themes.
It’s happening. Conservatives are driving hybrids and voting against mass-incarceration to save money. Meanwhile, growing pressure in the wake of devastating events like Katrina and Sandy has made it impossible for public figures and legislators to ignore these realities.
And so, increasingly, there is money in Emergency Prep.
They just don’t know what to do with it yet.
There isn’t yet a popular understanding that community resilience is emergency preparedness — that the best ways for us to be ready for disaster include having seeds planted and developing systems of local food security; knowing our neighbors and being connected in community; improving our earth skills like growing food, wild-foraging and natural medicine; creating local, renewable energy systems; and understanding concepts of regenerative design like rainwater catchment, biomimicry and natural building.
In short, the Emergency Preparedness paradigm hasn’t yet evolved to the point of true preparation, but has rather lingered in the inadequate realm of response.
It is on us to stand up, speak out, and invert this paradigm. Indeed, our communities’ survival in the coming days may depend on it.
Finding (and Funding) True Resilience
To be truly prepared, we need to consider how resilient we really are — and our governments (often with staggering ‘disaster response’ budgets like FEMA’s $64 billion) would do well to consider investing more in encouraging and maintaining resilient systems. Imagine more of those federal dollars going to support organic, local efforts to plant seeds, grow food, and manage our watersheds and our waste in responsible ways. Imagine us investing, as a society, in developing more integrated ways to live (more integrated ways of feeding and housing ourselves, more integrated ways of powering our homes, transporting ourselves, and interacting with each other) during this Great Turning in which we now live.
As a community organizer and employee of a small nonprofit like Transition US — with a modest, passionate staff and a huge network of engaged volunteers working to create the very community resilience infrastructure that will serve to make us ready when disaster does strike — I look forward to the day when our local initiatives and working groups don’t have to struggle for scraps and suffer from the inevitable burnout of over-reliance on volunteers. I look forward to us all having greater ‘capacity’ to do this important work. I look forward to seeing more of our collective Emergency Preparedness dollars going toward really preparing our communities — not just responding when our villages are burning down.
The impending exigencies we face — the emergencies for which we prepare — are not something to ignore or deny, nor ought they be a pretense for surrendering our agency to the empire of greed and fossil-fuel-addiction that brought on these crises: They are, instead, an opportunity for us to grow, and to reexamine how we live in community.
Through these initiations in modern crisis and disaster — like the Valley Fire that tore through my community in Northern California last year and displaced me from my home — we are being called to adapt as a species on this planet, to mature, to collectively grow up. We are being invited to evolve: not to double-down on the very paradigm that is producing the climate crisis and its related disasters, but to consider living in a different, a more integrated, way.
Please consider this a humble invitation to join one of the most important conversations of our time. Because when the disaster hits, we are only as prepared — only as resilient — as we have made ourselves through communication and conscious effort.
As they say, preparation is best done in advance.
Thanks. In advance.
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