What you imagine as overwhelming or terrifying while at leisure becomes something you can cope with when you must-there is no time for fear.”— Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
I remember driving into the office in 2008, looking around at the big box stores, fast food restaurants, and strip malls that were along my commute back then, and knowing that they were all about to go away, that a horrific dislocation was starting. It wasn’t a belief; I knew it. I had done the math at that point. As the financial system melted down, I remember thinking that the comfortable world as we experienced it was all about to end. It was utterly depressing.
Of course, I was wrong. The world didn’t end – not even close – and my daughters who were four and one that fall are teenagers today, having grown up in a time more prosperous than I could ever have imagined. Still, I remember that feeling in 2008. It was a helpless form of resignation.
You might anticipate that I’m going to tell you I’m feeling the same today, but I’m not. It’s not that this isn’t scary – if you’re not at least a little fearful today, you probably don’t have a deep enough grasp of the situation. The unlikely-yet-statistically-inevitable global pandemic I wrote about in early February has materialized.
Statistically, while the odds of any single virus resulting in pandemic is small, a future viral pandemic of global scale is almost a certainty. Your odds of escaping it are not good (doubt that: read about the remote and practically isolated Inuit during the 1918 pandemic), but they can be dramatically reduced by supporting things like a free press in authoritarian countries, strong world health organizations, a spirit of open and collaborative scientific inquiry (not distorted by partisan politics), and aggressive steps by international bodies during early stages of potential outbreaks.
The virus has now definitely arrived in the United States, a country that has never dealt with the underlying financial problems that brought about the 2008 crisis. Yes, we’ve had a statistical “recovery” but it’s hard to defend it as anything more than papering over the problem, printing money and running deficits as a way to avoid the difficult challenge of fixing the broken underlying model.
With the Federal Reserve eliminating interest and restarting money printing operations (Quantitative Easing) this weekend and the Trump Administration declaring a national emergency, freeing up unknown amounts of fiscal stimulus, it’s clear that those of you eager to try Modern Monetary Theory are going to get their wish (as I suggested you would). I’m still not a believer, but we’re going to run that experiment regardless.
The S&P 500 hasn’t seen levels this low since….
…. last March.
We have put such a premium on efficiency, we’ve driven out all the slack in the system. It’s everywhere fragile.
All the other narratives will fade in time. It’s the rickety bridge, not the last truck to cross.
— Charles Marohn (@clmarohn) March 9, 2020
As I shared on Twitter earlier this month: we’re “everywhere fragile.”
Yet, as I said, I am not feeling that helpless form of resignation. You shouldn’t either. And if you’re looking for some inspiration and have some free time in quarantine, pick up a book I hadn’t read in 2008 called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit. In it, she details the astounding things people do to help each other in times of extreme distress.
I’m already seeing it here in my hometown. People are out checking on neighbors. They are sharing food and the suddenly scarce commodity of toilet paper. I’ve been invited to two different Facebook Groups coordinating volunteer responses. School was canceled and already people are coordinating food for students that need it and daycare for the children of healthcare workers, first responders, and those that can’t stay home (for whatever reason).
I spoke with my mother Sunday evening to see if she was still going to be volunteering with Meals on Wheels, a food delivery program she does on Mondays. My mom is in that age group that is most susceptible to COVID-19, yet the people she is delivering to are more so. She’s planning to continue volunteering. I’m scared for her health, but I’m proud of her. People like her will ultimately save lives.
And that’s the thrust of Solnit’s book. The abject frustration most of us had with FEMA back during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita is now shifted to the CDC and their bizarre (dare I say: incompetent) testing bureaucracy. (Ben Hunt at Epsilon Theory has aptly called it Don’t Test, Don’t Tell.) Yet, when we shift to state governments – my home state of Minnesota is extremely competent – we’re seeing systems that are far more flexible and responsive.
And at the local level, scores of humble people like my mom are stepping in to shore up the gaps. That’s what we do in a crisis, and this is shaping up to be a long crisis. While it certainly won’t be universal – dude hoarding and price gouging hand sanitizer as one example – I think we are about to witness the best humans have to offer each other.
That’s what Solnit documents in her book. During times of stability, society seems to accept the grinding decline of these failed systems. Yet, during times of distress, leaders – especially at the most adaptable local level – step forward and fill the gaps left by incompetence and inflexibility. We need to support these people because, despite the scariness of the unknown, this is an opportunity to reshape the direction of our entire country. To make our systems more bottom-up and responsive. To make them more humane.
To think about what this might look like, I’m going to give you another quote from Rebecca Solnit’s book to ponder as you’re out filling those gaps:
“It’s tempting to ask why if you fed your neighbors during the time of the earthquake and fire, you didn’t do so before or after.”
I’m not going to pretend to know what will happen in the coming weeks, months, and years. We might all be back to work in two weeks, or many of us may never return to the jobs we thought we had. However long it lasts, we’re going to do what we can to help you be the Strong Towns advocate. We’re going to help you make a difference in your place, share stories of others who are doing likewise, and get you connected to people who can help you build a Strong Town during this transition. Stick with us.
Be safe out there. Your neighbors and your community need you.