What To Take From the Flood

The New Orleans disaster startled us into several lessons. Now we're talking about the need for coordinated, effective disaster plans everywhere. We're seeing the harms that follow when the ecological integrity of a place is disrupted. We're openly discussing the specter of systemic racial discrimination that continues to haunt us.

The catastrophe in New Orleans forces us to reassess our national priorities. It invites us also to re-evaluate our individual lives and local communities. As New Orleans residents decide whether to rebuild or relocate and city planners tackle the unenviable task of restoring neighborhoods, we all should think about why we live where we do, and the implications of our choices for both our neighbors and the environmental health of our home regions.

As Americans, it is impossible for us to fully consider how we live without also exploring two other issues: (1) the technologies that make our current lifestyles possible, and (2) the notions of self-reliance that permeate our collective consciousness.

America and self-reliance go way back. Benjamin Franklin provided the template for the self-made man, recounting in his autobiography a journey from obscurity to national eminence, and providing the basis for the widely held belief that personal success necessarily follows hard work and good judgment. Thomas Jefferson idealized the self-sufficient yeoman farmer as the epitome of self-reliance and, hence, the representative American.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, one of the most influential writers of the 19th century, promoted self-reliance throughout his work, asserting, "Trust yourself; every heart vibrates to that iron string." Fredrick Douglass describes how he taught himself to read, physically fought and overcame a slave master, fled to the North and rose to leadership in the abolitionist movement. These are but a few examples in the national story of self-reliance.

Capitalism and technology have changed, but certainly not diminished, our allegiance to self-reliance. Technology enables us to push the possibilities of self-reliance even further. As long as we have the money to keep our technology running, we don't need anybody. Jefferson's agrarian age is obsolete. We no longer need to raise what we eat, build our own homes, or fix our belongings so long as we are able to pay someone else to do so.

Yet even at our most independent, we are, paradoxically, at our most vulnerable as well. Things can fall apart quickly. If the technology fails in a crisis, we're helpless. Because we've shaped our neighborhoods and lives to fit our technologies, we find ourselves in mighty unpleasant circumstances when the system breaks down. Without our electricity, cell phone tower or fuel, we can't function. We find ourselves stranded hot, thirsty and hungry on a traffic-snarled freeway.

Hurricane Katrina and other substantial natural disasters of the past year -- hurricanes in Florida, Guatemala, Cancun; the tsunami in Southeast Asia; the earthquake in Pakistan; the flooding in New England -- remind us that the physical world still has the power to crash our computerized, digitized, climate-controlled party. Our technology cannot always save us.

But our neighbors just might. And, happily, we retain the power to shape and revise our communities. We don't have to wait for a local crisis to grapple with community fault lines. New Orleans' woes challenge us to turn off our cell phones, computers and televisions long enough to think and talk about what our individual choices mean for other people.

Some questions will necessarily follow: How do the growth patterns of our neighborhoods, towns and cities reinforce economic disparity? Make us more dependent on cheap fossil fuel? Irrevocably change the character of the land we depend upon? How do our individual preferences and conveniences make others' lives more difficult, marginalized, poorer? How do the technologies we use increase our community's susceptibility to chaos or hardship during times of crisis?

Addressing these questions honestly will be neither easy nor convenient -- and it might just require us to redefine ourselves as Americans.


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