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September 17, 2009

“There is a theory which states that if ever anybody discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.  There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”Douglas Adams

“The universe doesn’t owe us meaning.”Richard Dawkins

The conventional wisdom has it that the world is becoming an ever more complex and confusing place in which to reside.  This complexity, the theory suggests, compounds our risk of experiencing disruptions and discountinuities that require radical regrounding or reconceptualization of our circumstances and relationships to one another, if not to reality itself.  We would do well both to question this premise, and, to the extent we might find support for it, our responsibility for creating the situation we discover.

Complexity has always existed.  The dynamics of a sand dune’s construction and those of a modern skyscraper both involve complexity not so much of degree but of type.  The sand dune’s complexity seems familiar and accessible as it exists in nature and arises without need of human agency or understanding.  The skyscraper, in contrast, requires human involvement and interaction.  It does not exist apart from those who build, use, and maintain it.

The same can be said for the origin of disasters and emergencies.  The environmental dynamics that produce earthquakes, severe storms, wildfires, and other natural phenomena have their origins in mechanisms that involve only a few discrete elements.  Yet the random combination and variation of these elements produces an almost infinite range of potential threats.

These threats, however, existed long before the emergence of a distinct human species capable of understanding them.  The decisions and actions we have taken, particularly in respect of development, have until very recently had relatively little effect on the planet or its ecosystem.  But these changes have had a profound effect on us by setting the stage for disasters, which have arguably increased in frequency and intensity.

Where we choose to live, how we choose to live, and what we expect as a consequence of these decisions produce much of the complexity we now find ourselves confronted with in emergency management.  The increasingly clear evidence that these activities have not only produced vulnerabilities, but have also fundamentally altered the dynamics of the hazards we face should suggest a clear and present need to rethink our relationship with the world in which we live.

The simplest change we can make in respect of this complexity is to accept that our decisions and actions have consequences for ourselves and others.  Expecting someone else to save us from ourselves shifts the blame and increases the complexity of disaster mitigation and response.  The simplest and most straightforward step we can take is to prepare ourselves, our families, and our friends to now to cope with the consequences of the hazards we face wherever we live.

Rather than worrying about the complexity we confront, we can choose simply to accept a degree of responsibility for not letting it grow or overwhelm our lives.  Learning to live simply, build community, share simple kindnesses, and make the most of every moment can do a lot to make us more content and our communities more resilient.

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