Community Resilience Contributors Emergency Management

Preparedness and the Myth of Knowledge

What culture tells us about disaster preparedness (and unpreparedness)

Have you ever met someone who’s never ridden a bike, heard a song on the radio, received a piece of mail, pet a cat, eaten an apple, caught a cold or seen an ice cube? That’s because you’ve never been to North Sentinel Island, nor should you ever go.

A missionary recently learned, as many others had before him, that visitors here are greeted with spear tips. As one of the most isolated people in the world, the Sentinelese have honed an unyielding reflex for self-preservation, which is buttressed by the Indian government’s effort to benevolently quarantine the tiny island from the invasive cultures and diseases that traditionally drive traditional cultures to extinction.

On one of humanity’s darkest days, this endangered tribe emerged unscathed

But there are forces against which Sentinelese spears and Indian ships offer no protection. On December 26th, 2004 at 7:58am, a 9.1M earthquake off the coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia triggered a tsunami that took 230,000 lives in countries throughout the Indian Ocean. The first massive wave would have struck North Sentinel Island at approximately 8:33am.

As a fishing population numbering in the dozens on an island that peeks at 400 feet, the Sentinelese’ survival seemed impossible in a disaster where casualties were rounded to the nearest thousand. Yet, on one of humanity’s darkest days, this endangered tribe emerged unscathed, and with vigor enough to fire arrows at the Indian helicopter sent to check on them. The Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Shompen tribes similarly thrived where “civilizations” buckled.

“The Knowledge Myth: If we have knowledge, we will act in our best interests based on that knowledge. Therefore, the distribution of knowledge will save us.”

As one of the few feel good stories to emerge from the Boxing Day tragedy, the triumph of these tribes over nature’s wrath made headlines: “Traditional knowledge saved ancient tribes from tsunami.” Headlines like that, which we typically swallow without hesitation, reflect what I call the Knowledge Myth. The Knowledge Myth goes something like this: If we have knowledge, we will act in our best interests based on that knowledge. Therefore, the distribution of knowledge will save us. 

What saved the Sentinelese? “Knowledge did”, said the Knowledge Myth, as we nodded in agreement, missing half the story.

The Knowledge Myth

The Knowledge Myth is pervasive in the arena of public safety. Let’s take it for a test drive to see how it holds up. The first Model T was manufactured in 1908, the summer of which saw 30 auto fatalities in Detroit alone. I’d argue that we had a working knowledge of auto hazards almost from day one. Even so, seatbelts only became standard in 1958, and only in 1998 did the actual usage of seatbelts by people like you and me become practice among 70% of Americans, heralding a precipitous and overdue drop in needless fatalities. Knowledge Myth: busted. Why did it take 90 years to address an undisputed and universally acknowledged risk?

I’m guessing you said stupidity. They were stupid and I am not stupid, therefor past mistakes do not apply to me. The Stupidity Myth is a convenient culprit when the Knowledge Myth fails. I get that the Stupidity Myth is comforting. I hear it often and call upon it myself when I’m feeling pissy and disappointed in our collective failings. But it’s a BS answer. Stupidity is not what kept us from buckling our seatbelts in the 70s and knowledge is not what saved the Sentinelese in 2004. Culture is the answer in both cases. And culture, simply put, is the product of what we expect of one another. I concern myself with one type of culture in particular: preparedness culture.

As FEMA has confessed, you can shower the public with resources, slogans and warnings over two decades without yielding results.

One year ago, I spoke to a packed auditorium in Portland, Oregon, where I provided a well-resourced and educated audience a vivid and irrefutable picture of the massive earthquake that will one day befall the Pacific Northwest. When asked if we should individually prepare for the event of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, 3,000 hands shot up. When asked if they expected one another to prepare for this same earthquake, four hands timidly rose. When there’s incongruity between individual commonsense and actual societal behavior, culture is the most likely culprit. History has proven countless times that culture determines which ideas, knowledge and practices are discarded and which become our salvation.

As FEMA has confessed, you can shower the public with resources, slogans and warnings over two decades without yielding results. If the soil isn’t there, the seeds won’t grow.

What can we learn from the Sentinelese – an isolated, spear-wielding, pre-industrial tribe whose way of life is utterly divorced from our own experience?

1.      The messenger of knowledge is at least as important as the knowledge itself:
Everything the Sentinelese knew about tsunamis they learned from someone they knew and trusted, a community member with a shared experience. Like the Sentinelese, you are influenced most by those whom you know, love and trust, and you have the most influence over those who know, love and trust you.

2.      Culture isn’t found in what we know, it’s found in what we expect of one another:
The Sentinelese clearly expected one another to run for high ground when they saw signs of the tsunami’s approach. I doubt they were mocking anyone’s paranoia. This is particularly remarkable as none of them would have personally witnessed those signs before 8:30am on that fateful day.

3.      Culture is a survival mechanism:
“Preparedness” is too small a word for the Sentinelese – they are living in a state of adaptation, like gills to a fish. Their adherence to their culture and its transmission from generation to generation – even through the generations that never saw a tsunami – has allowed them to continuously inhabit this remote corner of the world for 70,000 years.

Many of us are waiting for a disaster event that we have never personally experienced

Like the Sentinelese before the Boxing Day Tsunami, many of us are waiting for a disaster event that we have never personally experienced. Unlike the Sentinelese, we have not taken ownership of the cultural practices that might save us. Fortunately, our culture is not locked and isolated in time. Culture can and does change quickly when regular people make a conscious and courageous effort to stand as counter-cultural ambassadors of commonsense.

Those ambassadors influence those who know, love and trust them best, who themselves can become examples for others, and so forth. As the dominoes of social influence tumble, our perceptions evolve. Weird becomes normal, normal becomes expected, and somewhere along the way a tipping point is reach when the expected becomes cultural. Preparedness is too small a word for us.

This is about adaptation. It’s time for us to grow our own set of gills.

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