Why Don’t We Ever Learn?

By Jim Selman | Bio


As we watch the devastation in Haiti on television, the world recoils at the horror and the suffering, mobilizes its resources and tries to clean up the mess and help the survivors. The media forages, looking for who to blame (usually corrupt or incompetent politicians). We’ve witnessed this scene following earthquakes countless times: in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake 2008 when 69,000 died in China; in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake when 230,000 died in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, India and Thailand; in the 2005 Kashmir earthquake where 86,000 died in Pakistan; in the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake when 142,800 died in Japan; and even in 1908’s Messina earthquake when 100,000 died in Italy. If we think about the hurricanes, volcanoes, fires, tsunamis and famine, it seems the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” are doing a fabulous business these days. The fact is that natural (and some unnatural) disasters happen all the time.  But if you look at the impact of these events in developed countries and compare them to the impact in underdeveloped countries, the contrast is shocking.

The reason for this has been clear for a long time. The extent of damage in any earthquake depends on many variables, including the magnitude of the quake and the aftershocks, what type of soil buildings are on and the distance of population centers from the epicenter. Underdeveloped or developing nations face particular challenges—especially when dealing with high population density areas—because they lack the necessary infrastructure to respond. In addition to this factor, many of the buildings in developing nations aren’t designed or constructed for earthquake regions.

I remember reading a report somewhere that in a major disaster more than half the deaths following an earthquake result from insufficient fire, police and medical facilities. We repeatedly see this after the fact when a worst-case scenario becomes reality (which it does sooner or later). After Hurricane Katrina, we saw that how a government mobilizes after a disaster can make the difference between life and death in terms of public health and safety. In many developing nations, the sad fact is that corruption and incompetence have undermined or destroyed any sense of responsibility in both preventing and responding to emergencies. Moreover, in some nations, the government and public seem to exist in two different worlds … and the public tends to avoid or ignore the government anyway.

Poverty, ignorance, apathy and resignation constitute our modern “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”. They are the conditions that permit the persistence of problems in both underdeveloped and developed nations. Working together, they perpetuate a vicious cycle that leaves us reacting to what happens over and over again.

There is an old saying that defines insanity as: “Doing the same thing over and over again thinking things will be different in the future”.  At a time in history when most agree that our entire civilization is at risk from environmental and social breakdowns, can we afford to NOT learn from the past? Can we afford to wait any longer before we begin to urgently transform how we understand and relate to large-scale, life-threatening breakdowns?

I’m not suggesting that the solutions lie in throwing more money at problems or commissioning new studies. Transforming our world begins with transforming ourselves and taking personal responsibility for all the day-to-day things we know can make a difference but which we don’t practice. Look at areas in your life where you are not ‘walking your talk’ or in which you’re drifting in some form of complacency or resignation. What will it take to ‘wake you up’ to what you can do?

If we all can just awaken enough to motivate some degree of ‘unprecedented’ action, we can begin to shift the consciousness around us (and eventually the world). As Margaret Mead once said, “Never underestimate the power of the individual or a small group of people to change the world—indeed that is the only way it ever happens. “

People make mistakes. Disasters happen.  

Whether we learn from them and take action to reduce or minimize human suffering in the future is optional.

© 2010 Jim Selman. All rights reserved.

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