Although I've had friends caught in the middle of natural disasters (the Los Angeles earthquake and the Prague floods), most of my personal experience of threat has been from people rather than nature. From being near Detroit and having a father working in the city during the riots in the 60's, to sharing a neighborhood with warring gangs in Los Angeles in the late '70's and early '80's, to living half a mile from the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, everything I've seen first hand has been the dark side of human behavior in groups. Since natural disasters frequently bring out this dark side, and since most of the excellent posts I've seen on the subject so far emphasize the much pleasanter prospect of people getting together to pool resources and ideas in order to help one another, I will try to suggest here some ways of dealing with this kind of threat.
First, though I'd like to talk a little about our reactions to threats of all kinds. One of the biggest problems in dealing with disaster is the reaction of most people to being faced with something completely unexpected: they tend to freeze. If they do not quickly see some means of responding to the situation, a sense of helplessness then sets in. Both of these natural responses can harm any more constructive attempts to handle the situation. Fortunately, there is also an easy way to deal with both problems.
On an individual level the simple way I and many others found to deal with threats in our surroundings was to think about what to do in different situations. In some cases, considering a possibility and what you would do is all that's really needed. What if someone breaks in the front door? Go out the back. In other cases, thinking about what to do leads to major changes in behavior. I learned to become aware of my surroundings at all times and to make sure there was a safe distance between me and any strangers on the street. I learned some basic self-defense moves. I rarely went out at night, never alone, and made sure no one was within grabbing distance before getting into or out of my car. We put bars on the windows.
The same applies to other, more sudden threats: After 9/11 we thought about where we would go if the bridges or metro was unsafe and we couldn't get home. We arranged places to meet. We thought about how we could contact one another and family if cell phones stopped working, as they did for awhile on that day, or if the internet was down. We bought hand-cranked radios and started keeping a few gallons of water on hand for emergencies. We couldn't eliminate the danger, but we could and did reduce our own anxiety and get rid of the sense of helplessness.
The more important actions people can take, however, are on the group level. In the 70's and 80's we organized neighborhood watch associations, got to know our neighbors and exchanged phone numbers. In most cities organizations like the Guardian Angels began to escort women and older people who would otherwise have been alone and in danger. Again, after 9/11 we set up discussion groups to talk about coordinating disaster information at work. I signed up for first aid training and tried to locate cla**** in my area to get an amateur radio license. (There are a number of good posts on Ham radio-- particularly NomadHAR's.)
Working in groups is especially effective for two reasons: just like individual actions it reduces anxiety and helplessness, but in addition acts on an important psychological trigger: People are social animals and we take our cues about how to behave from others around us. A number of studies have shown that how people behave depends crucially on how they see others behaving. A big factor in the steep reduction in crime in New York City in the late 1980's and 1990's was the simple practice of fining people for minor infractions such as not fixing broken windows. Such things as fixing broken windows, cleaning up litter and graffiti contain a powerful psychological message about what is acceptable behavior in public. Most people will behave as expected, and those that don't may decide to take their activities someplace where it is less likely to be noticed. A more recent study shows that people can be induced to save water by reusing towels simply by placing signs in their hotel rooms telling them that most other people did so. By working together we encourage others to follow suit and set off a positive cycle.
In addition to these by now traditional ways of responding to crisis we have the new tools of mapping, cellphones and the internet to add to our toolbox. These provide us with new ways to respond, but also help with some of the difficulties of traditional responses: If it is not safe on the streets, people can organize on line or through cellphone networks. They can organize to arrange escorts and larger meetings, call on each other for aid or arrange watch groups to keep public assets from being stolen or vandalized.
Both the old and new methods of response to crisis and threat are effective, but I would like to go farther. Rather than just reacting, is there no way to respond in a creative, dynamic way that might completely turn the situation on its head and change the situation into the second meaning of the Chinese character for crisis-- opportunity? I think that there is.
The tools I have in mind come from recent psychological research on three subjects: play, luck and creativity.
In his ground-breaking book, "Play", and in his Ted Talk, Stuart Brown talks about play in the animal kingdom and how essential it is to adaptability and survival. Rats, for instance, if exposed to cat odor will hide. Those deprived of early play, however, never come out again. They die in the 'safety' of their dens. Play does much more than teach us to take intelligent risks, however. It is also important to learning social skills, the ability to improvise and solve problems. Several of the most important technical and scientific centers in the US - JPL, NASA and Boeing- have learned that people who didn't play with their hands as children have impaired problem-solving skills and as a result now require a 'play history' along with a traditional resume before hiring.
How much better would we deal with crisis and threats if we not only made sure all children had plenty of opportunity for open, unstructured play of whatever kind they loved best, but continued to play as adults? How would our response change if we investigated new possibilities through games or improv theater?
Or here's another possibility: Maybe we can save ourselves from catastrophe by getting lucky. Psychologist Richard Wiseman has studied the differences between those who believe themselves 'lucky' and those who think they are 'unlucky' and discovered large differences in the two groups. One difference is that the 'unlucky' tend to focus narrowly on their objectives. This causes inattentional blindness and leads them to overlook opportunities that their 'luckier' counterparts easily notice and take advantage of. In short, he concludes that luck is mainly a matter of developing certain habits of mind. We can change our luck-- and considering the direction things have been going on earth, shouldn't we give it a try?
Finally, whether we have played enough as children or learned to be lucky as adults, we can all benefit from an infusion of creativity in our lives. And it turns out there are some simple tricks to make ourselves more creative. Here are 10 tips to boost creativity, and here are a couple of bonus tips: 1) Take a trip, or talk to someone from a far away place. 2) Solve problems by breaking things out of context. If you take the thumb tacks out of the box in the 'candle problem', the solution becomes easy to see.
So stop being serious. Stop making sense. Play, get lucky, get creative. Why aim just to stay alive, when we could thrive?