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Are natural disasters opportunities?

January 15, 2010

David Brooks says here that the devastation in Haiti is an opportunity to rebuild it bigger and better and more prosperous than ever before. That can be done, he says, only by aggressive programs that change the culture from the ground up, something like the Harlem Children’s Zone for a country of 10 million:

It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

Note that after Hurricane Katrina, Brooks said the exact same things about opportunity, poverty, and the value of cultural engineering:

[Katrina] separated tens of thousands of poor people from the run-down, isolated neighborhoods in which they were trapped. It disrupted the patterns that have led one generation to follow another into poverty.  It has created as close to a blank slate as we get in human affairs, and given us a chance to rebuild a city that wasn’t working.

The only chance we have to break the cycle of poverty is to integrate people who lack middle-class skills into neighborhoods with people who possess these skills and who insist on certain standards of behavior.

Now ending poverty almost certainly means ending certain poverty-infected cultural patterns. And I suppose any time is the right time to think seriously about poverty. Indeed, there may be some advantage to raising these issues when people are already focused on Haiti for other reasons. At the same time, though, Brooks’s prescriptions seem sort of naive.

First, and most obviously, Brooks is probably way too confident about the value and feasibility of large-scale cultural engineering.

Second, Brooks’s vision is ambitious, and that’s admirable in a way, but it’s also possible that even if cultural engineering is the long-term answer, focusing on it now just impedes the pressing nuts-and-bolts short-term improvements that are preconditions for its success.

Third, I’m inclined to be skeptical of the hopeful thought that natural disasters offer special opportunities for rebuilding in all but the most literal sense. On the critical assumption that appropriate funds and know-how are available, the destruction of buildings and infrastructure does offer the opportunity to rebuild them better than ever before. But as for rebuilding culture and civil society on better terms, it seems to me likely as not that improvement is just made that much harder by mass chaos and suffering. We shouldn’t abandon the project, of course, but we should be clear-eyed about whether its chances are improved or worsened in the wake of catastrophe. In any case, it’s an interesting social science question that someone much more qualified than I should take up: is there any evidence that natural disasters offer special opportunities for improving culture and civil society?

(Another interesting question is whether Brooks-style ambition in the wake of natural disasters is a persistent feature of the Right’s response to such disasters (George W. Bush said similarly ambitious things about rebuilding New Orleans) and, if it is, how this rhetoric affects their actions. My naive impression is that even after Bush’s speech the federal government did not acquit itself very well.)

Information about how to donate to Haiti relief is here and here.

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