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How to Help in Disasters
Facts: Living well within limits; Feelings: Climate doubt; Action: How to help in disasters
Daffodils are blooming and birds are singing outside my window here in Lund, Sweden— infusing fresh energy for climate action powered by facts & feelings!
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Facts: Living well within limits
We live on a planet with limits. As I wrote in Under the Sky We Make:
Our success or failure as a species now depends on how we learn to live well within some fundamental limits of the biophysical world, by adapting our societies to provide essential needs, rights, and freedoms within the limits of nature. As Jonathan Foley writes, limits can be seen through the lens of opportunity and abundance, not just scarcity.
In recent years, several uncomfortable limits have become clear, starkly highlighted by the IPCC Climate Report on impacts and adaptation last month:
There are limits to the climate impacts that we can prepare for or tolerate. Humans no longer have a choice “between” preventing and preparing for climate impacts; we must do both. But there are limits to what we can prevent or prepare for, which we are approaching every day we burn fossil fuels.
Limiting warming to 1.5°C is true red line for people and places around the world. Lots of current plans aim to keep burning fossil fuels for decades, “overshoot” the 1.5°C limit, then (somehow…) remove a lot of carbon from the atmosphere to lower temperatures later. Even if this were technically possible (unclear), nature will not be fooled by this approach. There will be irreversible impacts over 1.5°C, like sea level rise and species extinction, that will not be fixed if temperatures return to 1.5°C later.
The next, oh, 87 months or so are humanity’s only chance to prevent catastrophic warming. Industrialised countries need to be reducing emissions about 10-12% per year… that’s about 1% PER MONTH. Look back over previous We Can Fix It editions if you need some inspiration for how!
Check out my full plain-language summary of the IPCC report, if you like.
Feelings: Climate Doubt
Wow, there is a lot of pain and suffering in the world right now. It really makes me wonder whether and when and how humanity will ever get our collective act together.
There will always be tough times and situations, so I’m working on expanding my “window of tolerance,” including by sitting with difficult thoughts and feelings, and trying to go beyond binary, black-and-white thinking. (I don’t find either “We’re totally screwed!!!” or “We’ve totally got this!!!” particularly helpful.) In tough times,
It’s hard not to despair, or turn into a climate doomer who concludes nothing we do matters.
But cynicism is a form of denial— of ignoring the very real things you could be doing to salvage what you can. It’s only a bit further down a slippery slope to fatalism about the resilience of nature, or human nature, that leads you to decree that it’s too late for the climate and for human civilization, so bring on the bunkers and the bourbon.
I think this doomerism is wrong. Innocent, young, and vulnerable people and species don’t get to give up or build bunkers as they live with mounting climate hazards, and neither should the privileged.
I take climate fatalism as a litmus test of your views on human nature, not the nature of biophysical reality. There are lots of studies showing it’s technically possible to solve climate change. As Jim Skea said at the release of the IPCC Global Warming of 1.5°C report, “Limiting warming to 1.5°C is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” which the report authors further clarify as “rapid, far- reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
Is humanity actually capable of rising to this challenge and making the necessary, unprecedented changes? No one knows! Social science and history can give insight from past experience, but there is no parallel experimental or historical precedent to draw upon, although certainly humanity has done a lot of epic, amazing things that seemed impossible until they were done.
People who think humanity is too lazy and selfish to bother, that everyone will stick their head in the sand and wall themselves off and step over others to get the last loaf of bread, might be right. But I want to be on the team that’s trying to prove them wrong.
On a particularly bad day recently, when the headlines were especially grim and I felt like nothing I’m doing is making any difference at all, I came across a piece on climate activism by Jim Shultz. (I think I googled something like “climate change when to give up?” Please don’t judge.)
Shultz writes that there are no ways to know what impact we actually have, and no guarantees that what we do will make a difference: “So we guess, and there are two different ways we can guess wrong. The first is to overestimate our power to change what’s coming and to give people . . . ‘false hope.’ . . . The second is to underestimate what is possible, to believe that we are less powerful than we actually are and to do less than we can. That’s the wrong guess that worries me more. Faced with a choice between disappointment or failing to do all that is possible, I don’t find the decision a hard one to make.”
— me in Chapter 6, “Face Your Fears,” in Under the Sky We Make.
Hang in there, friends.
Action: How to Help in Disasters
Disasters will happen to you. They will be less terrible if you’ve planned for them.
I learned this in 2017 when first my parents, then my sister and her family, had to evacuate their homes in Sonoma during a wildfire. I am so thankful they are safe.
This experience made me realise that the time to plan for disaster is right now— before a disaster happens. Disasters include be natural disasters like earthquakes, human-caused disasters like war, or disasters like flooding and wildfire that human-caused climate change are making worse.
Solidarity, not asshole hoarding
When you hear about preparing for disasters, you might think of conspiracy theorist preppers, or billionaires building bunkers, preparing to cut themselves off from society. (Or, weirdly Instagrammable emergency kits that cost major bank??)
That’s not the look we’re going for here.
The aim of disaster prep is to be able to take care of basic needs for yourself and help those around you, so that in an emergency, society’s limited resources can be prioritised for those who need help the most.
Not everyone has the physical or economic ability to prepare for a disaster, or be able to take care of themselves during one. If you do, please get ready to play your part when needed, and to help others out.
Official government resources are never going to be enough to meet all needs in a disaster. If you can avoid it, you don’t want to be the person clogging up the system for those who truly need help.
Before you buy any stuff:
Make an Emergency Communication Plan with your family for staying in touch and where to meet in case of disaster.
Think through how you would manage for several days without running water, electricity, or internet, or cell phone service.
Get to know your neighbours! It’s so nice to be able borrow a cup of sugar or have a friendly chat in the hallway. And, in case of an emergency, these are the people you’ll rely on, and who may need your help.
Prepare to stay put
As we have all learned over the last couple of pandemic years— we need to be prepared to stay healthy and safe at home, if we can’t go out or if services are cut.
Sweden’s eye-opening guideline, which I got in my mailbox in 2018, “If Crisis or War Comes,” offers this list to have on hand at home. Don’t go wild; buy a little bit extra during each of your next several grocery trips if you need to stock up.
Current Swedish government advice is that citizens who can should be prepared to manage their basic needs at home for one week without support. That includes 21 litres of water per person, stored in a cool, dark place.
Here’s my list of food, medicine, and health supplies to have on hand during the pandemic. I was happy that I had planned ahead last year, and had gradually ordered extra Covid tests, masks, a pulse oximeter, and cough medicine last summer that I was able to share with friends and neighbours who needed them during the Omicron peak, when they weren’t available.
Prepare to go
Since my family evacuated from the 2017 fires, and after listening to friends who have suffered the loss of their homes and all their belongings to fire, I have kept a go-bag packed and ready with essentials if I would have to leave home on short notice in a crisis. (It lives under our piano.) Here it is:
There are heartbreaking (and occasionally funny) stories of what people took with them, and what they regret leaving, when evacuating from California fires. (My mom grabbed a can of her beloved, discontinued 1980s TAB soda!)
People and pets. Obviously, the most important.
Papers (passports, birth certificates, marriage license, house deeds, legal docs) and phone numbers (written on paper - doctor, relatives, out-of-state contact, coworkers, insurance agent…)
Prescriptions (anything you need for health, including medication, eyeglasses, toiletries, menstrual supplies, basic first aid)
Pictures and personal items (irreplaceable memorabilia and photos)
Personal computers (laptop, any external storage drives)
Plastics (bank and credit cards and ID)
And hey, here’s something I looked up recently, that I hope we never need to know: what to do in case of a nuclear explosion (TLDR: get inside a building, away from windows, preferably in a basement, and stay there for 24 hours— have a supply kit there). Eeeeeek I hope I never need to poop in the bucket I put in my basement.
Prepare to help out
Learn basic skills like first aid and firefighting.
Consider donating blood if you can.
Join or support a local chapter of an organisation to help out if a disaster happens in your area, like the Red Cross or Civilförsvarsförbundet in Sweden.
Volunteer with organizations in your area that are helping those in your community who need it, and/or helping welcome those fleeing disaster, like Refugees Welcome in Sweden.
To help people suffering from disasters elsewhere: send money, not stuff. Local people can decide how best to use money to get what they need. Stuff creates a huge backlog and requires resources to manage, sort, and distribute.
If you can afford it, support an organization working for disaster relief. I recently became a monthly donor to Doctors Without Borders. I decided this was a more helpful approach than haphazardly trying to research local organisations to support during specific disasters.
I was glad to contribute an interview for, and I learned a lot from reading “How the World’s Richest People are Driving Global Warming,” by Eric Roston and colleagues.
Recommended Reading: Zen and the Art of Saving the Planet, by Thich Nhat Hanh. This book almost made me cry on the first page. It is so lovely and simple and profound and centering. Highly recommend.