Emergency thinking

What do we need most in a crisis? Good habits.

By Rachel Nolan
March 20, 2011

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Part of the horror of seeing Japan knocked out by an earthquake and tsunami is watching the best-prepared society in the world become overwhelmed. Japan calls itself an earthquake society. It was more prepared for disaster than Haiti or Chile or China or even New Zealand. Japan is richer, yes, so it has the resources to build earthquake-safe buildings. But more than that, the Japanese are psychologically prepared. They have carefully worked out and practiced emergency protocols.

Just last September, the nation held a dress rehearsal for the earthquake. Schoolchildren and businesspeople followed evacuation plans. The prime minister helped fill sandbags and carried an “injured” person to safety on a stretcher as part of the exercise. He also made a speech stressing the importance of mutual aid in case of a disaster. The exercise was an annual part of Disaster Prevention Day, practiced on the anniversary of the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake, which killed about 140,000 people.

One heartening part of the story in Japan has been the calm of the people. Many people behaved in an orderly fashion before the tsunami hit: making calls along predetermined phone trees, driving taxis around their neighborhoods shouting warnings and picking up the elderly. Photos of Japanese people patiently queuing for food and water after the disaster were everywhere uploaded and marveled at.

This sort of preparedness actually contrasts with our common way of thinking about crises, as a new book points out. In “Thinking in an Emergency,” published last week, Elaine Scarry, a professor in Harvard’s English department, argues that one of the dangers of an emergency is that it allows a break from our usual norms, with one of the more dramatic examples being emergency rule. The roots of emergency rule are traceable to a concept in ancient Roman law known as “justitium” which suspended normal business and granted the emperor additional powers during difficult times of invasion or succession. In modern times, declaring a state of emergency is both a normal procedure during disasters and a common first step for dictators and presidents before they seize or consolidate power.

Scarry argues that emergency rule is not only undemocratic and occasionally tragic, but usually counterproductive. States of emergency tend to concentrate power, she says, precisely when we should be relying on the thought processes and preparedness of millions. An instructive example is the Japanese response to the Kobe earthquake in 1995. The government, seemingly paralyzed, looked on helplessly. What got Japan through the disaster was something else: Armies of volunteers, 1.2 million strong, marching in to rescue survivors and clean up rubble. The volunteers were organized by nongovernmental neighborhood groups, called “chounaikai.”

What can nations like ours learn from Japan, the best-prepared nation? Perhaps that we should rely more on “good habits” thinking than on “state of emergency” thinking. Preparation has its limits, but, Scarry argues, it is infinitely preferable to chaos or top-down mandates.

Elaine Scarry spoke to Ideas from her home in Cambridge.

IDEAS: Why emergencies? What got you started writing this book?

SCARRY: I was alarmed by the way in which governments can make a spurious claim about emergency that leads all of us to think that we no longer have a responsibility for protecting each other and that we have to leave everything in executive hands. I was also aware that if you look at emergency procedures, it turns out that we are actually very good at establishing procedures that are highly democratic, deeply thought out, widely practiced, and widely shared. I was worried about the ease with which we and other populations can get seduced into believing that in the modern world we have to do everything so quickly and things happen too fast for any of us to be of use.

IDEAS: When a disaster happens and we have to act fast, how can thought be a part of that action?

SCARRY: For a philosopher like Aristotle, one whole kind of thought he called deliberation had no other purpose than the taking of an action. But in the case of an emergency where time is short, you often have to plan out the action in advance with protocols, rules, laws, habits....That model exists on the level of the individual, as in CPR, or in civil groups, whether a neighborhood association or a whole town.

IDEAS: CPR is a protocol, predetermined, that can kick in without much time in the case of an emergency. But I’m curious how you think of CPR as democratic.

SCARRY: It only works if it is widely distributed to bystanders. Of course people in hospitals are trained in CPR. But since three-quarters of all incidents of heart and lung arrest happen outside of hospitals, CPR can only be effective if people are widely trained and ready to help. Studies in the US and Japan show that the survival rate of someone who suffers a heart attack is many times greater if a bystander helps them, particularly if they start to help in the first minute....The more democratic CPR is, the more likely it is to bring someone back to life.

IDEAS: You argue that mutual aid societies are an alternative to central emergency rule in your book. Can you explain the Canadian phenomenon?

SCARRY: Saskatchewan is a place where a lot of progressive ideas in Canada originate in part because farmers had long shared communal granaries and the practice of mutual aid came out of sharing these structures. These habits of voluntary association have deep roots. These communities often sign contracts. We think of social contracts as a metaphor except in the case of constitutions, but in Saskatchewan there are very concrete documents. One example that I use is the Quills Plain Mutual Aid contract.

IDEAS: And these would bind 5 or 20 towns, saying if we have a fire or flood, you must assist us?

SCARRY: It is not that you must come. It is in the reverse direction: We promise we will come.

IDEAS: Reading the news from Japan, I’m wondering what the neighborhood associations you write about might be doing in the wake of this earthquake.

SCARRY: The news is understandably so focused on the damage that the paths of repair are not yet reported on. Of course when things are done voluntarily often there is no visible sign of it for a while. It’s not self-announcing in the way that government efforts are....The remarkable participation of the population in helping after the Kobe earthquake was a habit. They hadn’t been practicing how to clear rubble from earthquakes. I don’t even know if they explicitly practiced first aid. But they did have habits of feeling it was their responsibility and their ability to keep the streets clean, to help take care of the elderly in their block and their town, and that translated during the emergency. I quote de Tocqueville saying that voluntary associations establish “habits of the heart.”

IDEAS: People in the United States who lay in lots of cans of food before a storm comes are sometimes derided. It’s not a group effort.

SCARRY: Not only do most of us not have provisions, and not only have we as a population allowed our arsenal of weapons to get bigger and bigger, but when people do try to worry about this and provide for themselves, it often seems that there is something foolish about it. While we in the US don’t think that much about our own weapons, other countries think about them all the time.

IDEAS: At the end of your book, you call preparing for personal, community, or political emergency “one of the philosophic and civic responsibilities of our age.” Do you think that responsibility is being addressed?

SCARRY: I don’t think so. But I hope that it will be.

Rachel Nolan has written for The New York Times, Forward, and The San Francisco Chronicle, among other publications.

Elaine Scarry (Rick Friedman) Elaine Scarry