S1E28 - Liza Kurtz on Disaster Studies and Elite Panic
I talk to Liza Kurtz about disaster studies and elite panic.
In this episode, Margaret talks to Liza Kurtz about disaster studies and elite panic.
The guest, Liza Kurtz, is a a PhD candidate in disaster studies who studies the impact of disaster on society, specifically how class and other antecedent conditions make people vulnerable to disasters. She is @semihumanist on twitter, and you can email her at [email protected]
SPEAKERS Margaret, Liza Kurtz
Margaret Hello, and welcome to Live Like the World is Dying, your podcast for what feels like the end times. I'm your host, Margaret Killjoy. I use she or they pronouns. And this week I'm talking with Liza Kurtz, who is a PhD candidate in disaster studies who studies essentially the impact—well, the impact of disaster upon society. And we talk about a lot of stuff, we cover a lot of ground in this episode. But primarily, we're talking about the ways in which people do and don't respond to disaster. And basically, are trying to kind of bust the myth of that everyone runs around and, you know, murders each other or whatever. And also we get to talk about elite panic which is the idea that basically the people who are invested in the system are the ones who panic during times of extraordinary crisis. This podcast is a proud member of the Channel Zero Network of anarchist podcasts, and here's a jingle from another podcast on the network. Da daaaaa.
Jingle Speaker 1 Kite Line is a weekly 30-minute radio program focusing on issues in the prison system. You'll hear news along with stories from prisoners and former prisoners as well as their loved ones. You'll learn what prison is, how it functions, and how it impacts all of us.
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Margaret Okay, if you could introduce yourself with your name, your pronouns, and then also just kind of, like, what you do, like, what do—you know, why did I bring you on this show?
Liza Sure thing that sounds great. So my name is Lisa Kurtz. I am a PhD candidate at Arizona State University. I use the pronouns she and her. And my research really focuses on specifically heat and power outages in the southwest. That's what my dissertation will be about. But in general, I am grounded in disaster sociology as a discipline, looking at it from sort of a conflict theory lens, which is a fancy way of saying, I look at class struggle and how antecedent conditions of disaster make people vulnerable to what we perceive as these, like, natural events that cause great harm.
Margaret Okay. What does that mean? That last part.
Liza Sure, yeah. That's a good question. So basically I think we have a tendency, and certainly there's a tendency in popular culture and in the media to perceive any kind of disaster as—the term you'll hear used in legal circles, and sometimes in the press, is an "act of God," right? Like something no one could have predicted that just happens, that's nobody's fault. And it causes great suffering, but that suffering often isn't really drilled down on to see why did this happen. And so what disaster sociology and disaster studies try to do really is pick that apart and really trouble the implication that these things are just natural and just happen. Because they don't. And so if you look at who suffers most from disasters, if you look at why disasters happen at all, really all they are these natural events make a lens that that focuses and amplifies what's already going on in society. So if you have inequality, you have injustice, disaster brings all of that to the fore. But there's a temptation to think of it as coming out of nowhere, when in reality, we create the conditions that make suffering happen during a disaster. So Katrina is a great example of this. You can say, "Oh, it was, you know, a hundred-year storm, nobody could have predicted a hurricane that large." And there's some element of truth to that, but there's more elements of truth to how we built the city of New Orleans reflects, like, the racial injustice of its history and the poverty that we've allowed to flourish there. And all of that can get hidden behind the idea that this storm just happened.
Margaret Yeah. It's interesting, because one of the things that I focus on when I pay attention to disasters is actually the almost—the inverse consideration as far as it goes, as far as class—not in terms of like, clearly, people who are oppressed in society along numerous axes are far more likely to suffer during disasters. But I guess I like, I put a lot of my energy into thinking about how people come together during disasters. And the main thing that I've been learning slowly and I kind of want to talk to you about is this idea that, like, everyone except the elite come together and, like, work on shit together during disasters. Is that—
Liza Oh, man.
Margaret Is that true? Is that, like—that's my conception, right.
Liza That is certainly. Yeah, that's pretty spot on in a lot of cases. Yeah. And you're right certainly that people who suffer disproportionately during disasters, the folks who are vulnerable, who take the hardest hit, whether that's health or money or property damage, that doesn't make them not incredible at self-organizing and incredible at building community and responding to those events. It just makes—means they take a disproportionate amount of damage. And yeah, you're super right in the sense that we see—so, to really talk about this I'm gonna have to backup, and maybe this isn't that interesting, but I hope it is. I'm not sure if you know anything about the history of disaster studies.
Margaret I do not.
Liza Okay, so a lot of disaster studies came out of World War Two, like, civil defense ideas. The idea that there might be air attacks or even a land invasion of the United States by Axis forces or, right afterward and during the Cold War by Russia. And so there was this—oh, yeah, of course. Like it all goes back to the Cold War if you look hard enough, right.
Liza So there was this enormous interest in what the civilian response would be if something like that happens, and how we can encourage regular civilians to take the stress off of military forces that might be forced to respond by becoming self-reliant. So that's where you see this, like, advertising in glossy magazines about, like, build your own fallout shelter kind of thing. All the stuff that you see in video games now, all that was super real during the Cold War, and before that it was it was air raid shelters during World War Two. And it was really to take the pressure off of military and humanitarian forces who might be forced to respond. The idea was, you didn't want to be part of the problem. And so there was this massive wartime militaristic interest in what civilian populations would do and how we could train them to be self-sufficient. And so part of that was a ton of interest in and research into—that was funded by the military and a lot of cases—into how people would behave if something went really, really wrong. Like, would they panic? Would there be mass chaos? Would they turn on each other? And the perception that still lingers to this day in the media, if you see any bad disaster movies, and they're pretty much all bad—although some of them are bad and fun and some are just bad. If it's got the Rock, I'm there and I don't care.
Margaret Yeah, no, that's just natural.
Liza Yeah, so the perception and the expectation was that civilian populations would panic. That if there was an air raid, or a bombing, or something went wrong, there would be this mass panic. And then, as you get researchers starting to look into this, what they find actually is that people are usually pretty good at self-organizing in response to an immediate crisis. And so even though the perception is still, in the media, that if anything goes wrong it will be immediately a Walking Dead kind of scenario, as one of my interviewees put itrecently—that's not really true. Especially not among, like, middle class and lower class communities that live side-by-side with each other all the time. And we'll go into elite panic a little bit more. So that's where there started to be the seed of dispelling the myth of disaster panic was then. And that research happened in the 70s and the 80s, and the late 60s a little bit. And that has since been borne out by most of the available data, that people are really good at self-rescuing, that the real first responder is your neighbor most of the time or a family member, and that folks are pretty good at making the best of terrible, terrible situations and making life easier for each other. Now, where you see that start to fall apart is in elite panic, which is when affluent communities or communities that tend to be racial enclaves—like all-white suburbs, and things like that—get that fear of the other bite, because their perception is that as soon as anything breaks bad, it's going to be a Walking Dead scenario and everyone is going to come for their stuff. And I don't know what goes on in their head. It seems like a very, like almost a wild west, like, take your wives and children kind of mentality. Yeah. Which is really, I mean, the more you unpack that and really think about it, the more fucked up it gets. Um, and so the elite panic can be super dangerous.
Margaret I mean, on some level, I might be coming for their stuff.
Liza Yeah, well, fair. Yeah, absolutely.
Margaret Like, I might come for their stuff. I mean, you know, they have too much of it and they're not sharing. I mean, not to tie into their own fears. It's just, you know, the billionaires of this world like...
Liza No, that's real. I've never confirmed this. But there's anecdotal reports in the Balkan Wars of people who stockpiled supplies because they sort of saw things going poorly becoming extreme social pariahs and sometimes even the targets of violence because of their, their hoarding tendencies, stockpiling goods in advance and keeping other people from getting them. So apparently that was like a severe social crime at the time, although I've never confirmed that in the literature. I've just heard that anecdotally. And it's, it's easy to understand why, like, if you're taking it and not sharing, then I can certainly see something similar happening here. I mean, I often tell preppers—when people ask about preppers in my work, I tell them preppers are going to die alone in a bunker full of goods because it's great you have all that stuff, but there isn't much you can really do with it if you don't have the social connections to make social life happen. I think prepping in particular is a particular—a particularly elite and American form of the myth of individualism taken to the most dramatic extreme
Margaret Well it's interesting thoughbecause it—if it comes from this idea of us being asked to self-rescue, us being asked to be resilient, you know—I know maybe it's like I'm always, like, trying to, like, salvage what I can out of prepping because in my mind, yeah, like the the bunker mentality—which I talk shit on, and probably every single episode—because I basically find people who are, like, functionally know a lot about prepping but don't call themselves preppers for a lot of good reasons. The bunker mentality is obviously just going to get you killed, whether it's by disease or, you know, there's like—but, but it's interesting when this idea of like being resilient, being prepared, rather than being like "a prepper" maybe. I don't know.
Liza Yeah, absolutely. And I want to draw the distinction here between what I would probably call if I, in academic speak, like the practice of prepping, which is the knowledge and the goods and knowing how to do basic survival tasks if needed, and sort of the classic American dominant culture of prepping, which is that hyper-masculinized, hyper-muscular Christianity, like, it's just going to be me and my family and my guns and a bunker full of food kind of thing. So when I talk about prepping in a derogatory way, I definitely mean the culture and not the practice. Yeah, no, I think—I have a really complicated relationship with the idea of resilience because, on one hand, I think resilience can be used to recognize how incredible some communities are at self-organizing and taking care of themselves in the face not just a disaster but of tremendously difficult conditions. Like, it is truly astonishing what people can do to find ways to survive. And here especially we see that a lot. In Phoenix, air conditioning—which is where I am—air conditioning is really not a luxury like it is in many other places. It is 110%, a survival skill or a survival tool because it is not uncommon for summers to be 115 here, which is, if you can't cool off that can be extremely detrimental to health. And so the people who have to live without air conditioning, in my work, have a tremendously creative number of strategies. Now, should they have to use them? No, of course not. They should, they should be able to have access to air conditioning for equity and health reasons. But that doesn't make the things that they do any less creative or impressive in doing so. And what's interesting to me is that sometimes we talk about prepping and the failure of systems or natural hazards can sometimes invert the relationship of who is most—how would I put this—of who is, like, doing the best in the sense that in my work in Phoenix, people who live without air conditioning are far more prepared for blackouts. So they may be more at risk in the everyday scenario as opposed to having air conditioning, but if the city's grid failed, they already have the culture and practice of staying cool without access to air conditioning down in a way that somebody who like me, honestly, who can afford air conditioning and uses it all the time really doesn't.
Margaret Just as a tangent that I'm curious about, what do people do without AC in severe, like, in severe heat. Like what do you recommend to people in power outages in the southwest?
Liza Oh, boy. Well, yeah, that's a complicated question. But we've been very fortunate here in Phoenix to never have a truly widespread power outage. And so generally when there are smaller scale outages here, it's possible to seek indoor cooled shelter in another part of the city. But my dissertation focuses on asking residents what they would do during a three day power outage where the entire metro area does not have power. And I think I definitely ruined some people's days asking them that because it's one of those things that's uncomfortable to consider, for sure. But people who don't have power really talk about very, very smart ways. And what's especially interesting is they tap into knowledge that was present prior to the city having electricity. So these really old practices of things like hanging wet blankets over doorways so that your humidifying the air that comes into your house for greater evapotranspiration is one of them. Fairly straightforward things that most of us might think of, like wearing lighter-colored clothing, or staying out of the sun. But then also some really amazing stuff like knowing, you know, knowing which structures in the town are adobe and were built prior to air conditioning and are designed to stay cool. So if you're in a modern house in Phoenix now when you don't have AC, the temperature inside the house will rise very quickly. But many adobe structures were built prior to air conditioning or even, like, swamp cooling which is another thing we use here which is basically a giant humidifier prior to those being accessible. And so adobe structures will stay cool significantly better than modern buildings.
Margaret Yeah, I like—then you also have the problem how dry it is because, yeah, the thing that immediately strikes me as evaporative cooling, like, I would be like, oh, can you like, you know, I don't know, build, like, water catchment on the roof that holds water on the roof so it evaporates instead of transferring heat or whatever. I don't know. But that's dependent on a very different ecosystem. And also just some bullshit that I made up right now.
Liza I mean, if you think about it, that's how all survival strategies started, right? Like, hey, I wonder if this works? Yeah, no, water is a huge, a huge cooling strategy here. And it's funny because I'm originally from Tennessee, and I literally until I moved here did not know it was possible to buy humidifiers. I'd never seen anything but dehumidifiers. And so when I got here I was like, why would you want to put water in your house? And then my first summer I was like, oh, I get it. Yeah, water is hugely important in everyone's cooling strategies here. And that's another issue with blackouts in particular, because certainly if you go and ask many people who are responsible for critical infrastructure systems, they will tell you that power outages will not cause water treatment and pressure issues. But if you look at the history of citywide blackouts, the United States, there's almost always somebody who is having to cope without household potable water at the time. And so it seems like these systems are not as resilient as we would like in terms of critical infrastructure. And here, if you don't have access to household water, a huge number of your cooling strategy is, like, you know, just slam dunking yourself in a cold bath if you need to—suddenly become less tenable. And that can be really, really a problem.
Margaret Yeah. Let's talk about—I kind of accidentally derailed you or intentionally derailed you while you're talking about elite panic. But I'm really interested in that, because I'm really interested in this idea—like, again, the the working understanding that I've had, just from my my layman's perspective or whatever, is that during disasters, overall, people like essentially self-organize—not in a utopian way inherently, but often in a way that people kind of miss when things go back to normal. But then when everything gets really fucked up seems like when the existing power—the previous power structures attempt to reassert themselves. That's like been my observational understanding of, like, talking to a lot of people involved in disaster relief and things like that. But it seems like that ties into elite panic, this idea that people who are actually invested in the previous power relations, and especially property relations, are maybe the ones who can't handle the idea of everyone suddenly taking care of each other and shit.
Liza Yeah, absolutely. I think that's spot on. And I think you really see this sort of that—well, you might almost call it like a pivot point, or an inflection point where things could turn one way or the other in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. And you really see that reflected in the practice of disaster capitalism. So I think sometimes we overlook—because it seems so inevitable—that disasters have poor outcomes, and they do for many people. Disasters can also be an opportunity to say, "Hey, business, as usual, is what got us to this outcome. How can we do things differently?" Because there's sort of a shock to the system, whether the system is you as a resident or the household or the town or the county or the state, like, they're really, they're a shock point. And so they provide an opportunity to stop and say, like, okay, business as usual—the everyday practice of how we run things—got us here? How do we make sure this doesn't happen again? And if you really start engaging with how does this not happen again, that means transforming those everyday practices that got you there. So I think you're spot on with that idea that elites and people on the top who have an interest in preserving the status quo see the inflection point and sort of grab it and pull as hard as they can in the other direction. And so it's not just that there's, I think, a desire to go back to the way things were and preserve the power structure and the property relationships and everything else of the place before the disaster happened. In a lot of cases, they're perceived as opportunities, which is extremely messed up and amoral, but it's true that really these things are seen as, here is a great opportunity to restructure things towards a more capitalist, a more stratified, a less just system. And one of the things that I think you can see right now with that is because COVID closed public school systems, which is a good thing, like, kids don't need to be spreading COVID. Like, I'm broadly supportive of the public health need to close school systems. It provided this vacuum for all these alternatives, and these think pieces to crop up, etc. And these companies to start pitching like, well, do we really need public schooling anyway?
Margaret Oh, shit, uhuh.
Liza Can this be replaced by a different system that's more private, that's more controlled by capital, that's less interested in the public good, that is more about profit. And that's a classic, classic example of what's called disaster capitalism, where something goes wrong and suddenly it becomes an opportunity for someone somewhere to restructure things so they can make more money.
Margaret Yeah, and that's, I mean, you know, Amazon, Jeff Bezos, all that shit. Like, with COVID now, everyone buys everything online. I buy everything online. I'm terrified of COVID and I work from home. So, you know—and then you're like, I don't know, just watching. society restructure itself to buy everything online. And online is kind of, it—I don't know whether it's naturally or it's designed that way by evil people. But, like, overall, the internet is so good at decentralizing things and yet in terms of, like, commerce, it seems like it's really good at centralizing. It's like really good at having the everything store. You know?
Liza Yeah. And I don't know enough about the architecture of the internet and economics therein to say, like, if that's by design, or just a function of the way it works. But yes, it does seem to be—seems to be so good at creating monopolies in that way.
Margaret When you're talking about adobe houses, you know, and how, okay, the old houses are actually built with adobe or whatever. You know, it just—it really strikes me about how completely arrogant the colonial and industrial system is, in that it's like, well, whatever works in New England is what should work in Arizona. And it's so baffling to me, you know, because it's like, well, there's so obviously, like, a steep pitched roof exists that way to shed snow, you know, and then people were like, "Oh, we'll just put these steep gables everywhere." And like—
Margaret It's just... I mean, I say that as someone who lives in a a-frame somewhere where there's no snow—well, not no snow, but not much snow. But in my defense, I actually just built it that way because it's the cheapest and most structurally sound way for someone who doesn't know how to build a house to build a house is have fewer walls, more roof. I don't know, it just, it—it depresses me to think about. Yeah, no. This the centralizing urge. Go ahead.
Oh, I just, I think you're so right. And I think it's, it's—maybe there is something to the idea that accelerated consolidationist capitalism makes everything sort of a bland universalism in much of the way that Amazon is a bland universalism. Because I do think one of the things that we've really lost that is super helpful in the practice of preparing for disaster is local knowledge. Just localization in general is such a huge thing. Whether it's knowing where in your landscape the water is, or knowing what kind of house does best without AC. And certainly here in Phoenix I have been known to just, like, scream a little bit in my car driving around because there is a massive fad for pulling out old, beautiful 50s Ranch homes and putting in—I've heard them referred to as "McModerns." So houses that take up the entire lot, that look, like you say, very much New England-y. They're often two storeys which is dumb in the desert, they have no green buffer around them at all to help cool anything, they're made of, like, the cheapest possible, like, wood and sheet rock and very little insulation, very large windows that face, you know, like east and west, often. And so you just look at these buildings that are literally the worst possible choice for this environment. And they are building them constantly and it really like it is tremendously painful to see in these beautiful neighborhoods that were originally orange groves. And so when people started building houses there, they would leave the orange trees around their houses, and so there was significant shade and food in your front yard, and then they will just rip them all out and replace them with these. And what really gets me—and this is like such a classic example of a thing people think they're doing for a good reason that is actually worse —s many of them have astroturf lawns, which I understand from the perspective of not wanting to use water or like your grass always being green. But you've replaced, like, not that I support suburban lawns, but you've replaced something that is at least a plant, even if it's a monoculture, with plastic. And sure it doesn't use water. But the thing that gets me the most is my colleagues study surface temperature, and astroturf is the worst thing you could put down for heat.
Margaret Yeah. Okay.
Liza Like, it's worse—you might as well have paved your yard.
Liza And it's also carcinogenic. And so there's this, like, pseudo-greenwashing that's actually just absolutely the worst thing you could do for everyone involved, all these horrible McModerns that are the worst thing you could build for the desert. And we have—and I think it really all just comes from a desire for, I want to live in a place that looks like every other place. And we've come so far from, like, the localized knowledge of knowing adobe is better and xeriscaping is better and all of that.
Liza Oh, sorry, X-E-R-I. Xeriscaping is desert landscaping. So it's the practice of planting your yard in a way that is congruous with, like, the natural environment of the Sonoran Desert that we're in here.
Margaret Yeah, it's this arrogance that I almost can't handle. Because it's, like, if you build your life around, I assume that I will always have a gas line and a power line and, you know, I will always just have as much electricity as I could possibly want. You know, it's like, now that I live somewhere where I generate my own electricity—I mean, a solar panel generates the electricity for me. It, which isn't, you know, carbon neutral, either, you know. But I'm so aware of, like, how incredibly not necessary wasteful AC is, because you kind of need it in a lot of circumstances. It's not a waste. But it's not exactly this, like, low power device. You know? And, I don't know, just the things that we take for granted, it confuses me sometimes.
Liza For sure. And you shouldn't have said solar panel, because in my head it was just you biking furiously on like a bike generator to keep the computer on while we do is so you could have had me there. No, absolutely, I think—yeah, I mean, an AC is one of those things where, I don't know, it's almost like putting a band aid on a bullet wound here a little bit in the sense that I'm not going to argue that centralized air conditioning is the single most effective intervention for saving people from dying from heat, which is a huge problem here. About 500 people in the state died last year from heat-related causes last year, which is not an insignificant number. And actually, extreme heat kills more people in the United States than any other weather-related hazard. So you know, when you worry about hurricanes or tornadoes or things like that, it's really heat that's the major killer of people. And so I would never say, like, don't have central AC for ecological reasons, because it is a huge and immediate public health intervention that saves lives. But also, it doesn't solve this fundamental problem which is, part of the reason we need AC so badly is we built the city in a really stupid sort of 70s-thinking kind of way, which is there's tons of uncovered pavement, and really tall buildings that, you know, like, the urban heat island here is very, very real, it doesn't cool off overnight. And so the need for AC is great, but the need to think beyond AC and think about how do we look into the future and actually reduce the need for this, like, immediate public health triage of just get in a cool environment so you don't die right away?
Margaret Well, okay, so the the need to fundamentally restructure huge parts of our society seems very apparent and increasingly apparent to more and more people, especially as, you know, climate change barrels down on everyone, even if you were willing to ignore all of the systemic oppression that people face. And I think sometimes—and I know I do this, and I wonder whether—you talk about how capitalists look at disaster as opportunity, and that's a problem. And I'm like, so do revolutionists, and so do people who want society to be fundamentally different. Because you have this, some level of like wiping the slate clean, and there's a certain amount of opportunity to restructure society. And it seems like very often capitalism is better at this than us. But there are also these, like, you know, like watching mutual aid networks pop up all over at least the United States last year in a way that like—and I wouldn't, you know, I don't want COVID to have happened, right? But when people look at that and say, well, we actually need to learn how to take care of each other and build these, like, networks by which to take care of each other. To me, that's the beauty of it. But then it's—now I wonder whether I'm doing the same kind of ambulance chasing that capitalists are. Do I let myself off the hook just because I think what I'm doing is good and what they're doing is bad, right? Like, they think the opposite. But I'm right.
Liza Well, yeah, I mean, I don't think it is—if it's ambulance chasing, you're only chasing the ambulance, to help stop the bleeding as opposed to charge the patient. So I think that there's a fundamental value difference there. And so yeah, no, you're you're absolutely correct in the sense that they're are opportunities, and there are opportunities, whether we want them to be or not, so we might as well seize them. But I think part of the problem is about how—not just in media, but even to each other-how we storytelling around disasters as, like—it's very hard to hold the tension in your mind. Like with COVID, it's very hard to hold the tension in your mind between so many people, particularly people of color and otherwise vulnerable folks have paid this horrible price for our inability to cope with an epidemic. And at the same time, this sort of—and that's, there's nothing good about that, that is massively negative. And at the same time, we are being presented with this opportunity that could allow us to build something better, like these mutual aid networks that you mentioned. But it feels–it's very hard to talk about, in a way that feels respectful and honorable—to say like, this is an opportunity for something better to be born out of the ashes of this enormous tragedy. And so I think it's easy for those conversations to get derailed, one because of how we talk about disasters as, you know, like always negative with the panic and everything like that—the mythology around disasters makes it hard. And then two, the difficulty of respectfully talking about this. But I would certainly argue that if we want especially—and I'll use COVID, as the example here—if we want to honor the people who died unjustly of COVID, there is no better way to do so, than taking this opportunity and seizing it to make a system and a world where that won't happen again.
Margaret Yeah, that's a—that's a good way to put it. And I wonder, you know, it's like, I mean, what we should be trying to do—and what people do try to do is just that the systems of power we're up against are rather good at what they do of maintaining their power—is do this anyway. You know, it's like, there's been mutual aid networks for—well, ever, obviously—just assigning a word to it in the 19th century, or whatever. But, you know, we need to restructure things anyway. And if you were to take Phoenix as an example, it's like—I mean, I kind of, I have to admit, I look at Phoenix as like this just grand arrogance in the desert, that, like, probably shouldn't be there. And I know that that's not fair to the actual individual people who live there, you know. And so I don't want to be like, get rid of Phoenix or whatever, right. But like—but instead it's like, well, probably the slow, hard work of restructuring needs to happen anyway. Like the slow, hard work of figuring out how to rebuild the city in such a way that it isn't just, like, waiting for disaster. I don't know.
Liza Oh, yeah. I think you've touched on something there that I always try and challenge people with when they talk about Phoenix as a grand experiment in inevitable failure—building I think at this point the fifth largest city in the United States—or the fifth largest metro area, actually—in the desert which is—I don't necessarily disagree that that is not an immediately intuitively good idea. But now that it's here, I like to think of Phoenix as the perfect testbed and sandbox because it's the hottest large metro area in the United States. And if we can turn this thing around, and we can make Phoenix in the next 30 years cooler and more livable and more just and more sustainable, than it can be done anywhere. We're the edge case, and so this is the perfect place to find those solutions, and then take the lessons learned and the things that worked and export them to less extreme environments where they might be useful. So in that sense, even a little victory in Phoenix might be a big victory in somewhere else.
Margaret Yeah. Okay. So, to go back to disaster studies, we've talked about how the mainstream, like, certainly the media conception of disaster is, you know, the Walking Dead scenario is the everyone running around, like, you know, everyone for themselves scenario. And—but, but disaster studies, it seems like even though it came from this, you know, kind of shitty background, it seems like—have the people who study disaster academically, have they kind of known this entire time, that's bullshit? And if so, why isn't that getting out? Like, why aren't more people aware of the fact that everything we know about how people respond to disaster is wrong?
Liza That is a great, great question. And I'm not sure I have, like, a perfect answer for you. But I can certainly offer some thoughts. So yes, you're right that disaster studies, even though it came out of this very militarized and military-funded background, really starting with a wonderful scholar named E. L. Quarantelli who was active in the 60s to the 90s really started questioning those views and pushing on this idea of panic and other things like that. And so, disaster studies in general as a field—not all of it, but for a long time—has been very justice-oriented in its approach. So if you've heard the words "social vulnerability," a lot of that is coming out of disaster studies. If you've heard the words, you know—or heard talking about the concept of resilience as applied from the top down being a way of almost victim blaming—which certainly it can be, you know. Like, why aren't you—it's a repackaging sometimes of the idea of like, why aren't you self reliant? Why are you making us help you? Kind of thing. All of that is really coming out of a disaster studies. The problem is, unfortunately, that you almost have two separate silos of disaster studies, because disaster scholars are not the people who respond to disaster. They're not the people preparing for it. They're not the people deciding what mitigates it. Those people are part of what I would broadly call sort of the emergency management class, at least here in the United States, they are. And many of them are emergency managers, but that also includes things like crisis communications and information officers, or Public Information Officers, and fire chiefs and firefighters, and EMS first responders, and in many cases public health officials as well. And that is a professional class that has existed for a long time—and this is slowly starting to change—that has really stayed rooted in that military idea. So it's not directly connected to the military, although sometimes it is. But it's a militarized service. It's very about hierarchy—so I was a firefighter, I was a volunteer firefighter in Tennessee for about two years. So you have a commanding officer, you know, it's structured like the military, basically. In a lot of cases it works very closely with law enforcement and the military, like National Guard, for instance. Here in Arizona, I think it's very indicative that our agency is DEMA, which is the Department of Emergency and military affairs. And how you became an emergency manager, or fire chief, or someone who is really directly involved in the world of preparing for and responding to disasters, was you started as, like, a frontline law enforcement, frontline fireman, frontline-and I say men because they generally are, although starting to change too—and you worked for 20 years. And eventually you worked your way up the chain, much like the military, to becoming someone who was making all of these strategic decisions, etc. And so, disaster studies has a very hard time talking across the gap to practitioners. And it's a little disheartening sometimes how white and male disaster practitioners still tend to be, and how stuck in a particularly militaristic frame of mind. And that's something that's really been troubling me lately and something I've talked about colleagues with because—I don't know if I've said this publicly yet but I've certainly said it to colleagues—as a queer woman with a trans partner who is deeply interested in racial and social justice, even though my degree sets me up for it, I don't feel like at this point I can, in good conscience, take a standard Emergency Management job.
Liza It's too wrapped up with law enforcement and militaristic ideas of what disaster response means and who deserves what and why people do things and where aid goes. And it's just—and, you know, like, FEMA is still housed in the Department of Homeland Security, which is a whole other issue that we could talk about for another hour—which really no one who studies disasters is—or very few people—really support that model. It offers tremendous problems. And so you have this gap. And so that's part of the reason these things still exist is the practice of emergency management really looks pretty similar to the 1950s in some ways, and the study of disaster is much more radical, much more diverse thing.
Margaret Okay, so hear me out. If already in terms of disaster management you have the militaristic system, the official governmental system, and then you have these, like, incredibly complex and interesting disaster relief organizations—especially the, like, the nonhierarchical, the mutual aid focused ones, right. So you all should just get up with those peoplea nd basically, like, I don't know, I get really excited about this, like, okay, so like, create a counter structure, right? Like, and these—that already is starting to exist increasingly. And so I think we call if y'all got up with them, and maybe you all already do. Yeah, one of the—okay, so like thinking about the terrible ways that people manage disaster, like the government's managed disaster or whatever, I am curious if you know of this: I've been hearing this phrase from people I know who do disaster relief, especially coming from anarchist spaces, that there is a specific written thing that the priority of the government in disasters above all else, including the actual rule of law, like the application of laws, is COG—is continuance of governance. Basically, like, this is the justification for like shooting looters and things like that, because it's absolutely illegal to shoot looters, right. Like, by the existing right structure. But the reassertion of control as, like, the absolute baseline priority. Does that hold up with your understanding? I know it's now in a different silo than your silo but...
Liza Yeah, so I would be surprised if that is specifically written down anywhere in that way. Certainly Continuity of Operations as it's called—COOP plans—and Continuity of Governance—COG plans—exist. And they play a very important role in how, on paper, we prepare for disaster as, like, large government institutions prepare for disaster. It is certainly not supposed to be held above rule of law. Now, is it? Probably quite a bit. And things like shooting looters is really hard to unpack because you have things operating on so many different levels. So first off, people who—like you have the personal prejudice level of the people doing the shooting, right? Like that particular person or police officer or resident might be especially racist, as you saw in Katrina. And it might be, like, if a Black person comes through this neighborhood, I'm going to shoot them. Certainly that happened a lot. You also have policy that structures itself in ways that we know is not necessarily reflective of reality. So you may have contingency plans that place law enforcement officers to prevent looting, for instance, when actually law enforcement officers need to, like, exacerbate the situation, right? And so you end up creating these situations which lead to other bad situations. So really, there's so many operational—and then you have the storytelling mythology level where, like, because even among people who do this professionally, you will still find the myth that mass panic is going to happen. You have the drive of, like, well I'm expecting it and therefore I overreact when I see something that might be it. And that's even leaving aside the category of who is a looter and who is resourcefully scavenging resources. There's been a lot of studies done—again, mostly Katrina, but in other contexts as well—about how media presents people taking survival requirements like water and food from stores and how the economic status and skin color of those people really determines the headline they get. Which is, you know, perhaps not a surprise, but it's good to have that data. So you have all these things building on each other to create—if you'll pardon the disaster-related upon—sort of a perfect storm situation where everything works to prop up the system. But whether there's a single origin point of policy pushing for that in writing, I don't know. And I would be surprised if there is. I think it's more complex than that.
Margaret Okay. Yeah, that—it makes sense to me if, like, basically, like, a COG or continuous governance or whatever was like part of this larger framework, and then just gets exaggerated. One of the things that gives me hope is all of the, like, the weird human element parts of it when it actually hits the ground of, like, you know, I remember hearing from a friend who worked with the Common Ground Collective in Katrina in New Orleans basically talking about how, like, National Guardsmen would, like, give the anarchists supplies. Because they would be like, well, if I take this where I'm supposed to take it, it's gonna sit in a warehouse for two weeks, and it's needed right now. And it's just like, I don't know, I get—the things I've talked about before on the show—the stuff that makes me like the most hopeful is when certain unbridgeable chasms are bridged between different types of people. And—
Margaret But then on the other—you have the exact opposite of the, like, yeah, the people who seem to go wild. The people who seemed to go the wildest in Katrina seemed to be the white racists. But, yeah.
Liza Yeah, I think there is... Man. And it's hard to talk about and frustrating to talk about incremental progress, because I think there has been some recognition in the system that things are not working, and that you need to rely on local expertise and local knowledge and local abilities to get things done—which is sort of the bigger scale version of the guardsmen giving supplies to anarchists because they know they're going to sit in a warehouse and anarchists can get them into the hands of people who need them right away. The problem there is, it's a little bit like being, I don't know, like a mouse trying to steer an elephant. Like we have built this system of disaster response that is so large and so cumbersome, that it's really beyond any single person's ability to fundamentally change. And so there's a lot of attention being paid—or more attention than there has been previously anyway, I don't know, but a lo— to the idea that we need to be supporting communities at, like, the higher level institutions—that macroscale institutions need to be supporting communities and the work that they're already doing. We just need to enable the anarchists to have more stuff to go out and distribute that kind of thing. Now, whether or not that's going to make a significant difference in the long run definitely remains to be seen. But certainly there seems to be more interest in that. Now I personally have some mixed feelings about that because in a lot of cases here in Phoenix when we're talking about especially like heat relief, or disaster relief, or who's going to help you pay your power bill if you can't, there's been a significant—I think we all know that since the 80s, there's been a significant replacement of state services with more localized things. And there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But a lot of the localized assistance now is through churches. And to me that raises some troubling questions about, like, who gets helped? Who gets left out? What are the conditions of help reliant upon? And so we've sort of replaced this ineffective state aid with this may be more effective but differently discriminatory aid that's at the local level. And so I think you really have to pay close attention to the idea of localism as a panacea as the remedy for all injustice because sometimes localism just means enacting injustice on a smaller scale. Like handmade artisan home grown fuck you instead of like a fuck you from the state.
Margaret Okay, well, so that ties into something you were talking about earlier at the very beginning when you're talking about the history of disaster studies, was kind of to create a culture of prepping—as in, to get people away—to take the power—take pressure off of the elites who, like, ostensibly should be providing our needs, by having us provide for ourselves, but in a way that doesn't actually fundamentally free us. It's kind of an interesting trap around—it's something that I've seen mutual aid groups struggle with for years is like, well, we always say, we're mutual aid not to charity, right? And like Food Not Bombs, you know, with it's, like, free food program that's been going on for decades. And now, I think that, like, there are just ways to do that local level stuff without like—like Food Not Bombs, like, unlike a, most church feeds that, you know, I'm aware of—most church feeds it's like, take a number, stand in line, like, you know, it's very—it replicates a lot of disempowerment, right. And, you know, like Food Not Bombs is ostensibly more like, it's a picnic in the park and you're invited, because you exist. And of course it's gonna have its own informal problems, right? I'm not trying to claim it's perfect. But there's always this worry about how much do activists make—like, how much do we empower oppression just by solving the problems that oppression creates? You know, like, if we're feeding—
Liza Oh, boy.
Margaret Yeah. And if we're feeding people without fundamentally challenging the system that has left people without food... I don't know. For me it's just, like, you just—I think that the answer is that the problem with this bespoke oppression that you're talking about, the localist oppression, is it just needs to be tied into challenging things at a larger scale. Wh I say just, it's easy. Everyone could just do this, it would fix everything. No problem. No one will have any.
Liza This is a problem I'm intimately familiar with on a personal level because when I graduated from undergrad and suddenly the stress of college was no longer upon me, I discovered that I am a stress junkie and I needed something to do because I was going out of my mind. And so I joined the local volunteer fire service thinking, like, oh, this will be, like, I'll learn skills, I'll be able to help people, and I'll be stressed out enough to be happy. It turned out even that was not enough and I had to go to graduate school, but that's a story for another time. And this is like the fundamental tension of a volunteer fire service. I mean, think about what that means, right? So the city I was in had a professional fire service because it was considered a population density sufficient enough. But the county, which is a very large and populated county, was all volunteer-run. And it's sort of the same problem, like, you don't want people's houses to burn down, so someone needs to go put them out. But at the same time, if you're rural, you are fundamentally getting a worse class of service than the professionals. And the volunteer fire department enabled its own perpetuation by the fact that eventually most people's houses got put out. And I always used to joke, like, don't have a house fire between the hours of 8am and 5pm when we're all at work. Because it was one of those things where, if people's houses had just burned down, there probably would have been significant push to have a professional fire service. But at the same time, then you have a bunch of people's houses burning down, and maybe they die in the fire too and that's awful. But because there is sort of an ad hoc fire service, there wasn't the push to have a professional one. Even though—andI don't think people knew this, right. But we were using equipment that was out of date, that hadn't been tested. I think our jaws of life for rescuing people out of car wrecks were like some of the first models ever made from the 80s because we didn't have funding. And it's like, you know, we were saving lives but also perpetuating the system that was probably really harming people. So what's the trade off between, like, that long term harm and the short term, everybody's house burns down, but people get a professional fire service in the end? And I don't know what the solution is besides, as you said, sort of making sure we're plugging into troubling the larger structure and advocating for larger structure. The fire service is a particularly tricky one because people's lives depend on it so immediately. For something like Food Not Bombs I would say it's possible they're already doing some of that work by having people show up and having that picnic in the park feeling and just letting people know that receiving assistance doesn't have to be total drudgery and shame. And so maybe for things like that, where there can be joy and comradeship and true connections on social scale, maybe the next person that—the next time that person needs to go to a church handout line or an unemployment office, there is that seed of like, well, why isn't this like that? I think sometimes you can really—you can plant the revolutionary seed in people by showing them joy just as much as by showing them tragedy.
Margaret Yeah, that's a really good note I think maybe to kind of wind down on—to think about. What—I guess the questions I want to ask to kind of close this out. One, I kind of want to ask, what do you worry about personally? What do you prepare for? What is—how is working with disaster studies—how has it influenced your own life?
Liza Sure, yeah. Well, I will say I worry much more about long term trends than I do about any particular single incident. So for Phoenix, I'm worried about what the temperature profile of the city looks like in the next 50 years, because I might—I might be like one of the few people on record ever saying this—but I really love Phoenix. I think it's got a really cool art scene and there's wonderful people here. And it has a surprisingly revolutionary spirit and a fighting spirit for being a blue town and a very red state. And also, it's nice to be in Arizona, because in many ways, we're at this political tipping point. So if you're here and you're willing to get engaged, you can really make a difference. So I don't want to see Phoenix fail. She like there's a lot of people who do to sort of make a point about climate arrogance, but I'm not one of them. And so for me, I worry about these really boring things that unless you're in the weeds, you probably don't think of. So I worry about what are our overnight temperatures going to be in the next 50 years, because we know that overnight temperatures have a significant effect on human health, they're a really good indicator of the urban heat island. And one of the things that's hopeful is that thus far the science shows that if we really buckled down and redesigned the way we did the city of Phoenix, we would be able to offset most of the regional and global climate warming in the region through localized efforts. So Phoenix in 50 years could be cooler than it is today. There's nothing that's stopping us from doing that. But we have to raise the political will and reach out and seize that opportunity. I don't worry as much about our regional—or rather a city-wide blackout, even though that's what I talk to people about—partially because I know our utility companies and how they function and that is something they're thinking about. It's—I worry more about it in areas that don't think about extreme heat on their grid. Like, we have it so often, it's regular here, that I think we're better prepared than many other places. So in that sense, extreme heat could be worse in, say, like, the Northeast of the Northwest than it could be here because those grids are not regularly stress tested in the same way.
Liza And then I also worry about—and this kind of ties back with what we're talking to you about disaster panic—I worry about—its maybe—and this is—at the end of the interview is the wrong time to bring this up, but this is fun. It's not completely true that there's never violence and looting after disasters.
Liza It does happen, and primarily where you see it happen is after some blackouts. And it tends to be blackouts in cities that are already have a very wide divide between rich and poor and are undergoing a lot of racial tension. And you can really see, like, why. One is they aren't perceived in the same way as an act of God because blackouts—it's easier to see human culpability. Like, the electricity company that I pay to maintain my power has failed in their job and I am angry about it. And then also, they're perceived as an opportunity of, like, the system is failing us, we should go out and express that it is failing us and we are angry about it and take advantage where we can of the opportunity to gain more resources. So it's all extremely understandable. But I really—I worry about our next disaster—next major US disaster—acute disaster, I should say. Because COVID is a disaster, it's just a slower moving one. Our next acute disaster response, because of growing injustice, because of factionalization in society, because of this awakened beast of white rage in the nation—I worry that our next disaster response is going to look more like the cops at Black Lives Matter protests than mutual aid groups.
Margaret Yeah, I bet it'll be both.
Liza Probably. And yeah, of course mutual aid groups will be they're doing what they can, but I really worry that we're creating a perfect storm for disaster response to be hyper militarized because cries for justice are perceived as unrest.
Margaret Yeah. No, it's interesting. And yeah, there's a lot to dig into with you more some time. Okay, my final question is just, where can people engage more with your work? Or do you even want or have any kind of public profile around the work that you do?
Liza I do. I am on Twitter. I'm at semi humanist, S-E-M-I-humanist on Twitter. I love chatting with people about my work and things like that. Everyone's also free to email me and you can put this in the show notes if you like at [email protected] I do speak at academic conferences. But if anyone is listening and really wants me to come talk a little bit in a digestible way—hopefully about what disaster research says—to a mutual aid group or an anarchist book club or any of those fun venues where knowledge can be a little freer than stuffy academia sometimes, I'm really always happy to talk to those folks. I think probably the most important work I do is closer to things like this than academic publications, which circulate to other scientists, which is very personally satisfying to engage with other scientists, but not—probably not tremendously socially helpful. And it's also just a great check of, like, I think it's easy as an academic to get wrapped up in such a way that you can talk to other academics but not people in your field. And I try hard to avoid that at all costs.
Margaret Yeah. I found everything that I've—you know, from talking to you before we did the show—very approachable. So I highly recommend anyone who's listening to take Liza up on that. Alright, well, thank you so much for being on the show.
Liza Oh, yeah, no problem. Thank you so much for having me.
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