Creating the Space - Coronavirus Version
Saturday, May 23, 2020
There's this scene in the movie The Matrix where the survivors have hit a rough spot. Most of the team has been killed by the bad guys, who have taken one of the good guys hostage to break into their most sacred space; the space where the rest of humanity survives.
The team is deciding to remotely kill the one who has been taken hostage, to protect the secrets that would let the bad guys access the core, sacred space.
NEO: Morpheus believed something and he was ready to give his life for what he believed. I understand that now. But that's why I have to go.
NEO: Because I believe in something.
NEO: I believe I can bring him back.
The scene may not seem so powerful if you haven't seen the movie, but it's one of my favorites about believing. I also often cite a couple of scenes from The LEGO Movie ("BELIEVE - I know that sounds like a cat poster, but it's true."), and from the movie Serenity ("I don't care what you believe - just believe it!").
Especially in Serenity and in The Matrix - the characters doing all the believing are about to put their own lives on the line for what they believe. Their actions will ultimately impact others' lives, and they know it going in. They take the risks anyway. Because of all the believing.
We're creating the space here for something new; something to help us get through the moment that we're in; the time that's now.
It's civic engagement - virtual and a bit in person. It's work that can help Shift the Country. It can help us find our way through. Why we're doing that is the main point of this post, and also of this post on the great transformation. We're doing it because so much is at stake.
The Time That's Now
This isn't meant to be a post on belief, or on being a true believer, although I suppose it's at least partly about that.
It's about what I'm creating with my own belief. What I've been creating.
Since the 2016 election, I've been doing research and working through ideas to help with the state of things; with the inevitable chaos that would come with such a disruptor in the most powerful position in the world. Since the 2018 election, I've been attempting to work on it full-time. In posts on why I've put this website and work together and on the great disruption and transformation we're in (and more back stories), I've gotten into more on my own journey and how I got here. I've been serious about the science on population overshoot and collapse since first studying system science and planetary carrying capacity in 1992, with a focus on impacts of a possible pandemic. And then there's half a career (so far) spent working on big disasters and catastrophes - and the structures that can help or hinder effective response and reactions.
And so here we are... the most powerful country in the world; brought to its kneees. With so far left to fall.
And fall we will. We're doing almost none of the things we should be doing at scale to make this less bad; we're actively doing things known to make it worse.
Other countries are doing a better job, are going to come out stronger and further ahead, and may already be making moves to expand their influence in the world.
Most of us are not in a position to stop all of that. It's already underway. At this point, to a certain extent some of the chaos is going to have to work itself out. The disruption spreads. The feedback loops... feedback. Interdependencies and cascading effects are making themselves felt in systems everywhere in every dimension of life in the US.
It's bad. It sounds bad. It looks bad.
It is. For sure.
But humans survive pandemics. Even humans in countries where the pandemic is not handled well.
Less humans survive in those countries. As such, less humans will survive in the US.
That's obviously part of why this is going to be (and already is) so damn bad.
There are people who knew something catastrophic like this was possible (except for the part where the US government deliberately obstructs the US response and actively makes the whole situation worse).
There are those who have been pretty serious about getting ready for something like this. Some of them are people like me; people working on the systems - or on what we can do when the systems begin to fail.
Some of the people who were getting ready for something catastrophic like this have big money and are now likely hiding out; or trying to run away. Some of the people who were getting ready for something catastrophic have outfitted bunkers, barns, and garages with prepper gear; they're likely also fixing to hide out for the long haul. Wealthy, far-off seclusion and heavy prepping are definitely approaches to this catastrophe - but they're not options for the majority of us.
The majority of us are going to be trying to get through this thing, to help keep each other alive, and to survive.
This site wasn't designed for the prepper crowd. This site was made for those of us who will be out here in the world - finding ways forward. With each other. In a country where the systems that were supposed to help keep us safe are failing.
This website was designed with the kind of risk in mind that we're experiencing now in the US. It's why the advice here is built around five things: resilience, connection, community, inclusion, and problem-solving. Those four things can help us find our way through when the systems that were supposed to help keep us safe are failing.
The Center Didn't Hold
I moved to DC a few years after 9/11 and a year after a big wildfire disaster in California to see if I could help this country be ready for other big disasters. More disasters happened while I was in Washington, of course. Too many to name, but they included Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.
After several years of working in some of the deep structural policies and systems behind the scenes, I came to the painful conclusion that the US was in no way ready for the next catastrophe; of which a pandemic was one of the biggest threats.
I knew that whatever the catastrophe was that it would be a cluster.
After 9/11, the US had started putting a bunch of post-9/11 stuff in place, and then we didn't finish it, and then we changed course to different stuff after Katrina in ways that hobbled some of the original stuff.
We didn't coordinate a bunch of efforts. We didn't bring in the right people to make it all happen. We buried critical systems too deep in overly political agencies. Priorities changed with new political appointees. Government people - like most humans - are linear thinkers and not great at working on systems-level problems. And so on. This post called "Why" has a high-level summary of some of what went wrong.
By the end of 2010, I was mostly certain that the US wasn't ready for a catastrophe, and that any action I could take to try and turn it around would not likely work.
I stepped back from two years of active whistleblowing on a post-9/11 program in the fall of 2010, as the Deepwater Horizon response activity was slowing.
(For more on the whistleblowing, check this post on why, this one on the counterfear path, this one on 15 years after 9/11, and this one on disaster heartbreak and resilience).
While I was fairly certain the US wasn't ready for a catastrophe, I wanted to check out one last place just in case maybe there was something I was missing; in case something was buried behind the scenes that could help bring order to any potential chaos.
Structural change is tricky to verify or understand from outside of an office; especially if the structure you are looking to verify is well hidden behind operational security and other protective and security measures. To get a full understanding of what the state of catastrophe preparedness looked like behind the scenes, I took a job in the operational part of the US Department of Homeland Security from 2011-2012 to see if that bunch of secret squirrel types had anything hidden away in the darker world behind the scenes. It's referenced as "dark" because of it's highly secretive and often highly classified nature.
That crowd talked a big game - was there any substance?
Nope, there wasn't.
What was there was vaporware. The structure, function, and process I was looking for to hold things together behind the scenes was nonexistent.
It was an emporer-had-no-clothes sort of thing. No gravity at the center; rather more like an empty vacuum. Gravity is a unifier; holding universes and planets together.
A lack of gravity causes drift. Things float.
It would take some time to spell out how I was able to reach that conclusion. I'm not going to spell it out in this post, because 1) this post is already long enough, 2) to explain the structure and detail of it would take a chunk of time and be the length of a thesis, 3) some of it is sensitive security information which I'm not comfortable divulging in detail as a collection, and 4) some of it involves classified material and systems and is not legal to divulge.
The point is - I concluded with certainty that we weren't going to be ready for a massive worldwide (or nationwide) catastrophe. I remember talking to a few colleagues in other offices around the department at the time; sharing what I'd found. They were as alarmed and disturbed as I was.
Overall, and not just tied to that last office I mentioned - things that were directed to have been built weren't built. Some things that should have been directed to have been built weren't directed to be built.
Vulnerabilities existed that few wanted to see or acknowledge; they were never addressed.
Systems that should have been staffed and funded weren't - at every level.
All of that was just in the federal response world. Overall in the country, support, staffing, and funding for public health, first responder, emergency management, and medical systems has eroded over many years despite short boosts after big disasters like 9/11 and Katrina. The lists of shortfalls goes on and on.
The U.S. President Is Actively Making This Catastrophe Worse
We were not set up well for a catastrophe, and then the US Electoral College process elected a science-denying, anti-government, angry, racist, disruptor into the most powerful office in the world as president of the United States.
Mr. Trump set about eroding the systems, policies, processes, oversight, staffing, funding, trust, and functionality of the very government agencies and institutions the US would need for any kind of catastrophe response almost immediately once he was sworn into office.
We would not have done well in this catastrophe either way - but the current president has actively made it so very much worse. He started by eroding government itself, well before this pandemic even showed up. Since it begn, he has refused, obstructed, and intensified so much of what has gone on. His ongoing, deliberate actions make everything about this pandemic worse. It isn't just about what he did in January of 2020, or how he dismantled a pandemic team in one part of government a while back, or how he fired this person or that person.
It is his persistent, ongoing, terrible management and active obstruction of systems, authorities, laws, capabilities, capacities, best practices, guidance, and leverage that make the US situation worse every day. It is his complete and total failure to use the full power of his office, of the entire executive branch, and of all of the things on that list that make the US situation worse every day. It is his active, continuing refusal to do appropriate things or use appropriate authorities that make the US situation worse every day.
It goes on and on and on and on and on.
I'm not listing all of the things - because it's THE ENTIRE SET OF FEDERAL AND NATIONAL DISASTER AND PUBLIC HEALTH RESPONSE SYSTEMS, LAWS, AUTHORITIES, AND CAPABILITIES.
A pandemic was always going to be bad. The US wasn't going to be ready. But we could have made decisions early on and as this has progressed that could have made it less bad. We could have AT THE VERY LEAST used the systems that DID exist - even though they were not going to be enough. Using systems that were not perfect or up to par would have been much better than what's actually happened in this catastrophe.
Instead, we have a president, many governors, some local elected officials, a few courts, and a US Senate, and at least one state's legislative body ACTIVELY MAKING THIS PANDEMIC WORSE ALL THE TIME.
The abysmal US reaction to this phenomenon is ratcheting up our vulnerabilities as a country.
It's ratcheting down our true homeland security and national security.
It's eating into every single type of resilience - across the board. It's killing our economy, and dragging out the damage to it. It's eroding the already-heavily-eroded institutions. It's putting us behind the power curve on the world stage. It's weakening our position as a world superpower. The situation in the US will upend the world order.
IT'S KILLING THOUSANDS OF AMERICANS. DAILY.
Again, the lists go on and on and on and on. It's as bad as it can get.
Yet, it will get worse. Lots worse. This post on disruption and transformation gets into more about why - but the short, short version is because of system dynamics like feedback loops and cascading effects in heavily interdependent systems at every level around the world.
It's also partly because as stress, trauma, fight instincts (some tied to a trauma response), and resource constraints increase - there will be conflict, at every level. We already had national security threats in the form of increasing competition for food and water, an increasing world population, climate change, and an increasing number of failed nation-states (more in this post on why).
Add a pandemic to that mix and it's going to be massively disruptive.
So What Are We Creating Space For Here?
For starters... to breathe.
Reading through the lists above on the state of things is overwhelming. Thinking about all of this is overwhelming. Living in a country failing to look after its citizens is overwhelming. Living in states and cities failing to look after their citizens is overwhelming. It's a whole lot of trauma - with more to come.
What we're creating the space for here is for finding ways forward. For finding ways through. For making transformation where we can. For breathing. For surviving. For helping others survive. For helping each other when we can. For getting help when we need it. For looking after each other.
We're creating space for five things (mentioned above, too) that can help us get through this: connection, community, inclusion, problem-solving, and resilience.
Everything we do here focuses on and will continue to focus on those five things. That's what we're all about.
Those five things are five of the 25 focus areas built for this kind of moment in time, since it was likely to occur in some form. Especially since it was more likely after the 2016 election that the disruptor elected to run the White House would make whatever catastrophe hit the US next much, much worse.
And so he has, and so he is. Every day.
Our Plan To Make Some Shift Happen
This is where things get hopeful. Hopefully.
Obviously the US is in a tough, tough year. Perhaps one of its worst ever, as spelled out above because of the abysmal and dangerous US reaction to coronavirus. The most urgent thing for many of us this year will be staying alive; survival. Also urgent will be things like basic needs - food and shelter. There is urgency to stabilizing our fast-eroding government and the institutions that are a part of it.
In the midst of all this - it's an election year. Voter engagement and the election itself will both be challenging; because of 1) the presence of a highly infectious disease, 2) Republican voter disenfranchisement and endangerment actions, and 3) persistent election interference from foreign entities. The three areas are interrelated as well; with actions in one of the areas creating feedback loops or other effects on the other two areas.
We'll need to hold this country together. We'll need to help each other find our way through.
We intend to help foster civic engagement to help with that.
And that's what the Shift the Country work is all about. Making shift happen. At scale. By the people, for the people.
Why Civic Engagement Can Help This Country Survive
Civic engagement will be increasingly critical as collective, widespread pandemic shock and overwhelm will push many people into a natural trauma response to freeze and disengage.
The trauma response will be a challenge to overcome as the disaster intensifies, as fear increases, as resources are spread thinner, and as other natural trauma responses toward fight or flight occur. There will be widespread cascading effects from interruptions to interdependent systems; and as previously stable systems destabilize. The Trump administration will likely continue to worsen the trauma through its deliberately obstructive response; exacerbating the disaster in ways that will harm or kill more people.
Civic engagement can be powerful to help with this crisis, as disempowerment spreads in a persistent shock overseen by a corrupt administration with authoritarian tendencies. Our stress biomarkers are lower when we feel like we’re working together, versus feeling that we’re on our own. Visible, inspired, collective civic engagement activity can empower people to help pull each other forward through this crisis, to hold the republic together, and to vote in 2020.
Civic engagement tools can help with connection, community, problem-solving, and resilience – core things that can help people navigate the coronavirus crisis.
Civic engagement tools can help bring hope, inspiration, vision, teamwork, strength, and solidarity. They can help anyone volunteer, and pull in people who may be overwhelmed by the pandemic; to solve urgent problems together; to advocate for the needs of the city, county, or state to elected officials or candidates; to tell peoples' stories; or to bring attention to how government is serving or failing citizens. Civic engagement can help get disenchanted, inactive people engaged in society in a time when involvement will be more challenging and more critical than ever before in our lifetimes. Voting is one of a thousand things we'll need to make sure we do during this crisis; this work can help.
How will we do that?
By putting out tools, writing, video, workshops, and posts that can help people help people.
We'll get content out as funding allows. We're starting a Discord community (called a "server" on Discord) - an online chat, video, and voice forum to create a space for real-time conversation about this virus and how we can find ways through it.
We've identified about 15 civic engagement tools that can help us get through coronavirus in the US, so we'll start by writing those and getting the info out.
We're doing fundraising now to help with that, as writing / editing takes time, and there are bills to pay. Fundraising will help us get the word out about the tools, too, as they get done - so we can get them out to as many people as possible. This work is made possible primarily through fundraising, so we'll keep at it to keep growing this.
In this crisis, we all have to find a path that resonates for us. It might change a lot. Adaptability is a key for everyone getting through this - us too.
What we are setting out to do might resonate with you. We are planning to grow community, connection, and resilience here. We plan to advocate for inclusion. We plan to do some problem-solving while we're at it. We're going to need it all.
Sign up for updates, track this website, or follow us on social media (Shift the Country on Facebook, and @ShiftTheCountry on Twitter) to see when we get the first tools out.
We're here to counter fear, to put out tools that can help us find ways forward, to mitigate and address risk, and to find ways to navigate it and make our way through.
We intend to make some shift happen. Let's get it done.
This website was created for this kind of moment; for a great transformation. We have free tools + info that can help people + organizations. We hold virtual events. We do coaching at inclusive pricing rates; we do consulting & training for organizations. We help each other navigate disruption & find ways forward.
How Can I Help Make Shift Happen?
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Shift the Country
The Focus Areas to Help Navigate Disruption
This piece has become one of the anchor pieces in the story of getting ready for the great disruption that began in 2020 with the pandemic. More pieces to the back stories are here.
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