Catastrophe As Evolutionary Driver

My family and friends live on the East Coast.  Last week as the whole world was mesmerized by the monster storm “Sandy”,  I found myself reacting differently than I had to other climate dramas when I realized my own family and friends were in danger.  At first I thought all the media noise was just American hype and convinced myself not to worry.  But as the worldwide awe about the size and the potential catastrophe emerged, I became alarmed.  And when family members began reporting “screaming” winds, I got really afraid.  I was surprised at my own reactions.  Perhaps we unconsciously keep things at an emotional distance until they get personal.

When the main hit of “Sandy” was over, family members reported in.  Lost electricity but no fatalities, no fallen trees on houses or cars. Phew!  But then the pictures of loss, favorite beaches and waterfronts devastated, New York in tatters, millions without electricity and many people killed poured in.  We are grateful for the good fortune of our little clan but saddened by the rest.  Compassion and concern replace fear.

Interestingly another blogger talked about this.  Of all places- in Harvard Business Review, where the author pointed out the importance of admitting our feelings (conflicting as they may be) – especially in difficult situations.  Catastrophe is a feeling-loaded situation and has a great potential to awaken compassion and empathy.

We have seen how big catastrophes wipe out differences.  The things that separate us become meaningless in face of life and death situations.  Loss creates bonds and softens the heart.  We saw this with 9/11 and in Norway with the terror attack, we call 22/7.  In the aftermath of “Sandy”, we see individuals coming together to support each other and acting quickly help.  On LinkedIn I came across a posting by Beth Kanter where she started a disaster relief drive. It turned out her parents lived in Atlantic City.  The Hurricane became personal for her.  She reacted with generosity and compassion.

Companies have also jumped in to help out. Free pizzas for the displaced people by a local pizza shop. Airbnb, a popular website for holiday rentals announced that it had suspended all fees and encouraged people to open their spaces to those who needed a place to live. “Hurricane Sandy has affected millions of people. But it has also provided an invitation to share our space in truly meaningful ways.”

Big organizations are also stepping up.  CSRwire, the leading global source of corporate social responsibility and sustainability news reported recently on twitter that at least three major companies – CVS Caremark, Volkswagen Group of America and Western Union – have donated large sums to recovery. Crowdsourcing, couchsharing, social networking and all the other new stuff is ready at hand to show empathy and make a difference.

Empathy also shows up in another way by asking important challenging questions!  This article wants to know why there was no mention of the homeless in the media. “What Happened to the 50,000 Homeless in NYC During Hurricane Sandy?” posted by Sunny Bjerk.  I was particularly impressed by the comments to the post – passionate ideas and deep concerns –  giving insight into what could happen if ordinary people put their heads together around difficult issues. Passion and compassion can lead to innovation.  Things want to change – evolution is pushing everything forward.

I have taught “change” for most of my career and it is often hard to accept until you really “get” that it is absolutely necessary!  It is always easier to see how others need to change but not yourself. Change can be put off by fear of cost and denial of the need.  This event is a wake-up call for the United States.  The vulnerability of the coast line and of New York City have been long warned of by scientists and has been consistently ignored.  Now there is talk of needing to be better prepared for this happening again – as it will!  Doing something in advance is cheaper that cleaning up the mess afterward, not to mention the loss of lives.  And many people are finally connecting the dots about climate change.  This could be a big step for the United States.

In Norway a known commentator wondered about how the East Coast got all the media attention while Haiti and Cuba who were also hit were ignored, even though the loss of life and the devastation was equally catastrophic. They reasoned that it is easier to feel empathy for those we identify with. What an evolutionary step it would be to feel empathy towards everyone in need.

To close this post, a little synchronicity. As I was writing here, one of my friends sent me a video on the evolution of empathy!   This RSA Animate video, “The Empathic Civilization” with bestselling author Jeremy Rifkin, must really resonate as it has almost 2 million hits!  Understanding the evolution of empathy opens our minds, catastrophe opens our hearts and empathy opens our will to make a difference. That is the real evolutionary impulse!



2 thoughts on “Catastrophe As Evolutionary Driver”

  1. Dear Mara – what an important post. We’ve spoken often over the past few years about the degree to which catastrophe might be required to wake us from our disconnected, consumption-oriented slumber. It is truly tragic that tragedy is what eventually brings many of these conversations out. Gives many of us an outlet through which we can engage our true essence. AirBnB was cool before they wrote what you quoted above – but now they have my loyalty.

    I look forward to thinking and reflecting with others on how we can keep the connected and empathetic momentum created during this horrible event. We’ve seen how quickly its faded in other situations but his situation is unlike all others – it’s not a one-off and it affects all of us. If we’re willing to “see” it and acknowledge how tightly our current ways of living are woven into this, we might actually be able to do something that will slow our impact down…

    1. Rick,

      Thank you for your passionate engagement around these issues! I know you will do your part to carry the momentum forward through your 2Lead posts. I love what you say about being willing to see and acknowledge where we actually are. Reflecting together can help us all to open our minds, our hearts and our will – to act.


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