Saturday, September 03, 2005

Fragility

I haven't said anything about it here until now, because I don't have anything to say that others haven't said, earlier and better. But the disaster in New Orleans is just unbelievable - and as always, the extent to which life goes on outside of the region is hard to reckon with. It seems crazy that we should be shopping for school clothes and supplies, going to concerts, laughing, watching tennis, when people are without fresh water, without food, without power, dying, being killed, just a day's drive south. And yet, what else are we supposed to do? We can donate money or supplies, but clearly we can't all drop everything and go down there to help, especially those of us without special skills.

I'm not an apocalyptic thinker, but events like this hurricane, the blackout three years ago, 9/11, the tsunami remind me how little it takes to turn our complex societies into chaos. We are dependent on so many far-flung networks for the elements of our survival, and those networks are themselves interconnected, so that a failure of one can cause failures of others. We live far from our relatives, and rely on phone lines to contact them. We depend on electricity to clean our water and deliver it to our homes. We depend on roads, railroads, and harbors for our food. My friend S. and I have talked about walking north to where our relatives live, in New England, where there's at least a chance that people could grow their own food if food delivery systems failed... of course, few of us have the first clue how to grow enough food to support ourselves and our families, or how to preserve it to last the winter. But what to do about it? We can't go backwards, we can't move back into a self-sufficient agrarian society. The only answer I have is that we have to demand of our government accountability for keeping the systems working. It's a vivid demonstration of the idea of a social contract. The government can't anticipate everything, can't prevent every death, but the chaos in New Orleans is inexcusable given the long-term warnings regarding the levees and the short-term warnings about the hurricane.

Then again, Jenny D. links to someone who was there who argues that when we choose to build cities in the path of natural disasters, it's possible that no amount of preparation could prevent damage from "the big one." Perhaps we have unreasonable expectations of peaceful coexistence with - or domination over - nature.

We are experimenting with a new homeroom structure that is kind of like an advisory. Real advisory programs are supposed to be smaller, only 10-15 kids per group, while ours will have 25-30, but we've come up with a schedule of activities that are a little different from the old homeroom, which was attendance and quiet reading. On Mondays, we have issue-based discussions. On Tuesdays, we do a logic puzzle and those who get it right get their names in a hat for a prize lottery. On Wednesdays, we do sustained silent reading. On Thursdays, we have "Get Organized Day," when the teachers help the students clean and reorganize their binders and bookbags and folders. And on Friday, we have class meetings to discuss school, class, and community issues.

We've decided that on Friday next week, during class meetings, we will talk to the kids about the hurricane and flooding, give them a chance to respond, and if they show any interest in helping the people suffering in New Orleans, we will help them set up some kind of benefit fundraiser. We feel strongly that this initiative has to come from the kids, although we will provide gentle nudges in that direction and provide a lot of support if they do decide to help. They need to begin to see themselves as a part of society, something bigger than themselves.

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