Disproportionate risk vs. human resilience

Author: Joyce Coffee

I continue to mull over several 2014 New York Times articles with the general view that Americans don’t share an affection for communal giving and living. One sage contended that New Yorkers could never respond as the Dutch do under similar circumstances because we just do not know community. I once again dwell on this issue because of the resurgence of childhood diseases considered to be virtually wiped out in the United States, including measles, mumps and pertussis (whooping cough).

Part of the problem is cultural, surmises a Times’ Sunday Review article entitled “Americans tend to think more about individual than communal rights.” This Ethics of Infection piece  described the wearing of masks in Asia not simply to protect the wearer from others’ diseases but to protect the public from an illness the wearer has.

“America has gotten so focused on rugged individualism and the autonomy of the person that we forget we have wider ethical responsibilities to our families and communities and our country,” asserted one of those quoted.

Contrast this with a session at a recent ICLEI Resilient Cities Presentation. Nicole Lurie, Assistant HHS Secretary for Preparedness and Response spoke of the value of spontaneous helping “bystanders who don’t stand-by” as a part of the American spirit.

Recent ND-GAIN analysis about disproportionate risk  shows that many African and Asian countries exhibit the dangerous combination of high vulnerability and low readiness. This made me think of a vector ND-GAIN doesn’t explore: human resilience.

Consider a recent outreach I made to a company that started awkwardly. I realized their resilience for their business model reflected the human resilience to shocks and stresses and post-traumatic stress disorder. It wasn’t the resilience of the built and natural environment to shocks and stresses. Yet isn’t that what all this work is about, anyway?

In Bending Adversity, journalist David Pilling examines Japan’s resilience in the face of calamity. He notes three words for which, as I try to pronounce them, I clench my fist, hold back tears and soldier on with feeling. The words are ganbaru (to endure), ganbatte (keep going) and gaman (plucky resolve). He contends these features helped Japanese rebound after the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.

While it may seem crass to apply a metric to ganbaru, ganbatte and gaman, I certainly would like to know what cultures have figured out how to grit their teeth and persevere. Then I could investigate if elements of those cultures might prove replicable elsewhere. My intuition tells me that, whatever factors trigger it, those living in countries with disproportionate risk could teach much to those of us who are relatively less vulnerable to physical, governance and other shocks and stresses.