Sunday, 13 March 2011

Earthquakes and floods

At Woodbrooke, when we first started thinking about the work that evolved into the Good Lives Project, we were calling it – between ourselves – ‘spiritual civil defence training’. This was not meant in the militaristic sense of ‘civil defence’, but picking up the idea that is inherent in civil defence thinking, that an entire population needs to be prepared.

In the reporting on the earthquake and tsunami that have devastated Japan in the last few days, many journalists on the spot have commented on the preparedness of the population, and the calm with which earthquake drills have been put into practice. Here is a country where, of necessity, the whole population is taught from an early age what to do when the earth shakes. However, nothing can prepare for the devastation of a tsunami – except, perhaps, never living near the coast. But 13 of the 20 most populated cities in the world are coastal cities. This means that not only millions of people are vulnerable, but so are $bns worth of economic assets. Beyond the tragedy to the people caught up in the Japanese tsunami, beyond the enormous impact on Japan’s own domestic economy, there is the effect on the global economy – on all of us. At a time when the global economy is weak, affecting the lives and livelihoods of many, this disaster is Japan has rocked the financial sector and the world’s stock markets.

Population growth and rapid urbanisation suggest that this global vulnerability may increase to something affecting 150 million people within 60 years from now – within the lifetimes of children already born. The ‘asset exposure’ is forecast to rise ten-fold to $35,000bn. Countries most exposed, by population, are, in order: China, India, Bangladesh, Vietnam, USA, Japan. In terms of greatest economic exposure, it’s the same six countries, but in a different order.

In terms of the genesis of the Good Lives Project, we were doing our thinking not long after Hurricane Katrina, and the scenario we were thinking of was: what if events on this scale were to be happening in several places in the world simultaneously? What if no-one could come to the aid of the stricken, because the potential aid-givers were struggling with their own disaster? What if there is no ‘cavalry coming over the hill’? The Tewkesbury and Gloucestershire flooding of 2007 gave us in Britain just a tiny taste of what a larger disaster might entail.

This led us into thinking about the nature of population resilience. Clearly, there are physical and practical matters that the Emergency Planning departments of Local Authorities are charged with anticipating. But alongside those official concerns, what of ordinary people? What helps each of us to be resilient in the face of calamity in our lives? What enables ordinary people to step into leadership in their local communities when the need arises? These are the questions that lie behind our concept of ‘spiritual civil defence training’.

We believe that Quakers, with our history and practice of shared leadership and responsibility, with our network of meeting houses and communities, are potentially a significant group of people in this concern. Our own resilience starts – but does not end – with our individual and corporate spiritual disciplines.

Spiritual discipline matters both for its own sake (for God’s sake) and as preparation for the times that are ahead of us. The point of a spiritual discipline lies in what the Buddhists call it: practice. It is practice in the same sense as training in sports; or as playing your scales and doing your five-finger exercises if you are a world-class concert pianist. It is not exciting, mostly it is not interesting, often it is dull and tedious, but you do it regularly and faithfully, because without it you cannot do what you deeply and truly desire to do – break that world record, play that difficult sonata. Spiritual discipline is five-finger exercises for the soul. It trains the mind and heart, the psyche and the emotions, so that when the going is tough, when the ordinary comforts are not available, when the demands on us seem to be greater than our capacity, we have something that we discover we can rely upon. We cannot start to create this resilience when things are already difficult, any more than we can run a marathon tomorrow morning if we only started training this afternoon.

A spiritual discipline is not, of course, undertaken for utilitarian reasons, in the way, for instance, that a stress-management programme might be; but a spiritual discipline, sustained for intrinsic reasons, will turn out to have extrinsic benefits. All such practices remove our individual egos from the centre of the stage; similarly, we – humanity – also need to find ways of moving our collective ego out of the way.

Undertaken faithfully, and sustained over time, such practices attune our inner ear to the promptings of the Spirit, so that when we are called, when our service is required, we will first of all hear the call, and secondly will have the capacity to respond. This is all true for each of us as individuals; it is also the case for us as local communities of Friends and as a national or world Quaker community.

We have seen three major earthquake disasters, since the major devastation in Pakistan in 2008, caused by both earthquake and monsoon flooding. Pakistan was hit again in January 2011, Christchurch (New Zealand) in February 2011 (after a previous quake in 2010), and now Japan in March adding the fear of a nuclear alert to all the other problems. All this strains the relief and reconstruction resources of the global community – the time to start increasing local resilience is now.
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1 comment:

  1. Hi I was raised in Christchurch, although I now am an (almost) permanent resident in the UK.

    Resilience means so many things. Meeting for Worship was held on the first Sunday after the earthquake at several family homes around the city. I am sure there will soon be working bees to get the meeting house back to functional, but family homes must be the priority.

    Resilience is also about planning and preparation. This post very much highlights the difference between Christchurch and Haiti
    In NZ we have known this earthquake would happen for 40+ years. We have a national insurance scheme that means there is now money available to rebuild. We had earthquake drills when we were children, and you weren't afraid, you just knew what to do if the earth shook.

    Resilience is also about humour. Here are my two favourite links that explain how kiwis have laughed and reached out to others in what is a trying time

    Resilience is also about people doing their every day jobs and keeping going when things are tough.
    I am hoping people can go to this link on facebook and see a very inspiring post about the work being done by every day people to get the city back working
    Also a slight irony - there is a daily update on the power supplies in ChCh, and the computer tech who is updating the map lives in the last area outside the CBD to have its power restored - yet he came in every day to do his job.

    Reilience is about acts of bravery. My brother and SIL are both doctors in ChCh. My eldest niece went and got all her young cousins from their various schools after the earthquake struck and kept them calm and quiet, because she knew that her auntie and uncle would be needed elsewhere for some considerable time.

    Resilience is about family and friends: people in other parts of NZ have opened their homes to people from ChCh. Schools have let children from ChCh be enrolled temporarily. My brother's children stayed with our sister and went to a local rural school, and have loved the experience, which is so different from their urban lifestyle.

    Friday 18th is a day of national mourning for the people of NZ, but I know so many people will be praying for the people in Japan. So many Cantabrians I have spoken to keep saying "but we didn't have a tsunami, or a nuclear reactor to be damaged." The Cantabury USAR team was one of the first mobilised to Japan last week. Reilience is being strong enough to reach out and help others, even when times are tough for you.

    In peace