Often overlooked is the degree to which communities as a whole, rather than individuals demonstrate leadership in times of change and crisis. Charismatic individuals come to light in all areas of life and the struggle to overcome the climate emergency is no different, from young campaigners like Greta Thunberg to veteran broadcasters like David Attenborough. Some people can shift a whole agenda by what they say and do, and the idea that leaders, elected or otherwise, might save us can be appealing. But putting too much faith in what one person can do has downsides too. It’s a lot of pressure for an individual when the fate of an issue becomes connected to them, and it also distracts from the fact that whole communities can demonstrate charismatic leadership and illustrate how societies collectively might quickly respond and take a different path in the face of the climate emergency. Several have shown exactly that capacity for rapid change and carry lessons for others.
What can be learned for rapid transition from communities leadership that is charismatic in tackling their own issues or responding to new challenges?
Around the world, communities respond in collective and creative ways, with generosity, trust and bravery in the face of disasters and other challenges. In the midst of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, outbreak, supportive altruism broke out too, with examples of mutual aid support groups appearing from Seattle in the US to various places in the UK. Instead of reacting defensively, with selfishness, or by turning inwards simply to look after their own families, people frequently choose to cooperate on a community level, often with and for strangers. One community response to a sudden challenge even inspired a musical.
On September 11 2001, as the twin towers of the world trade centre blazed, the US closed its airspace to incoming flights for fear of further attacks. Canada accepted more than 200 planes forced to reroute and, of these, 38 commercial planes and four military aircraft landed at the tiny Gander International Airport in Newfoundland. This small town of just 10,000 people and its surrounding communities opened their arms and their homes to more than 6,500 passengers from nearly 100 countries, providing them with shelter, provisions and care.
Gander residents took passengers sightseeing, moose hunting, berry picking and barbecuing. They entertained with music, brought strangers into their homes for showers or as guests for a few nights, and they refused to accept money. The effect of this human kindness on the recipients was enormous and did much to turn the trauma of the experience into a feeling of being supported and comforted. One couple even married after meeting during the emergency in Gander. It was one example of humanitarian hospitality seen even more broadly in the rise of the migrant welcome movement.
In April 2010 air traffic across Europe and North America was brought to a halt by a massive eruption from the Icelandic ice-capped volcano Eyjafjallajökull. A vast plume of hot volcanic ash and gas, reaching a height of about 24,000 feet (7.3 km), caused the cancellation of 20,000 flights a day in Europe and thousands of people were trapped across the two continents. Again, countless stories of assistance and kindness from local people emerged. Passengers self organised using social media hashtags to get up to date information, they sofa-surfed and car shared, many hotels offered discounts to those stranded and local tourist attractions gave free entry to those trapped away from home with mounting costs. People collaborated, innovated and found solutions.
After Hurricane Katrina flooded and devastated parts of New Orleans in 2005, an armada of boats that comprised the volunteer-run “Cajun Navy” descended on waterlogged neighbourhoods to rescue stranded survivors. When the levees were breached and flood walls protecting the city gave way, 80% of the city flooded and half its population left. An estimated 1,200 people died as a direct result of the storm, which also cost an estimated $108 billion in property damage, making it the costliest storm on record. Katrina’s victims tended to be low-income and African American in disproportionate numbers, and many of those who lost their homes faced years of hardship. The government response was thought to be lacklustre, with thousands of people left to fend for themselves in sports halls and other civic spaces, where facilities were shockingly inadequate for a global superpower. But contrary to some early media reports of a community also turning on itself, the American writer and chronicler of life in New Orleans Rebecca Solnit, writing in A Paradise Built in Hell, reported how local people exposed inadequate state action with their own altruism:
‘Katrina was, like most disasters, also full of altruism: of young men who took it upon themselves to supply water, food, diapers, and protection to the strangers stranded with them, to people who sheltered neighbours, to the uncounted hundreds or thousands who set out in boats—armed, often, but also armed with compassion—to find those who were stranded in the stagnant waters and bring them to safety, to the two hundred thousand or more who volunteered to house complete strangers, mostly in their own homes, via the Internet site hurricanehousing.org in the weeks after, more persuaded by the pictures of suffering than the rumours of monstrosity, to the uncounted tens of thousands of volunteers who came to the Gulf Coast to rebuild and restore.’
In the aftermath of the 2018 Fuego Volcano eruption in Guatemala, ordinary people came together to take care of each other’s needs in the face of a government response that failed to do so. An official total of 110 people died and 197 remain missing – many think actual figures may have been in the thousands – when some 60 square miles of mountainous central Guatemala was covered in deadly 400-degree ash. Families having Sunday lunch in the communities of San Miguel Los Lotes and el Rodeo were buried under 10 feet of ash and volcanic rock. But, despite the poverty of the region, neighbouring communities came to the rescue with materials, food and clothes, and other necessities. Local volunteer firefighters and emergency workers entered the disaster zone to rescue victims from the hot ash and shuttle survivors to shelter, and civil society organisations coordinated local aid activities – unloading trucks and shipping provisions to those in need.
When a firestorm blazed through the northern Californian city of Santa Rosa in October 2017, the community came together to form a fund designed specifically for the undocumented community. Undocufund, as it became known, stood in direct opposition to the divide-and-conquer rhetoric that had been a staple of the political climate. They raised $6 million from ordinary people who sympathised with those who might otherwise be forgotten.
Sometimes grassroots disaster relief can lead to larger, more long term initiatives. In Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria devastated the region in 2017 with the loss of nearly 3,000 lives. A volunteer-run community kitchen in the town of Caguas soon transformed into an island-wide network of community centres, known as Mutual Aid Centers. Today, these centres provide more than just meals — they offer all sorts of services related to art, education, and therapy. All services are provided for free.
In the aftermath of the 2007-2008 financial crisis the Greek economy experienced a dramatic downturn, all but collapsing. In order to allow communities and local economies to still function, at the local level people came together with innovative barter schemes and local currencies in order to keep going and ensure people could eat. Similar community ingenuity during a time of crisis supported many people in the wake of Argentina’s financial crisis of 2001 – 2002.
These examples show that people are astoundingly resilient, collaborative and generous in times of upheaval. Of course, such charismatic leadership by communities, sometimes referred to as ‘disaster collectivism‘ is most effective when it occurs in conjunction with government support, at the local, state, and national levels – for the small and large-scale interventions that are essential in relief and reconstruction. There is what has been termed an optimal ecology of disaster recovery.
But, too often the resources available to communities seem to be provided in line with their social and financial status, which leaves poor communities disproportionately at the mercy of natural disasters. Yet hope lies in the way that communities take care of each other and often form new connections. Recovery hubs emerge spontaneously. Religious institutions step in to help. Improvised kitchens emerge, preparing not just meals, but a new vision of public life that is necessary if we are to make the rapid transitions required.
Emergencies illustrate how – even for busy people with no room in their lives normally – volunteers perform miraculous tasks in short time-frames with little or no financial support. In Gander, Newfoundland, volunteers readied makeshift shelters in any space that might fit a planeload of people – every school, gym, community centre, church and camp was utilised. Bus drivers in the middle of a strike laid down picket signs (they restarted once the emergency was over) and donations of toiletries, clothes, toys, towels, toothbrushes, pillows, blankets and bedding piled up and the local hockey rink transformed into the world’s largest refrigerator. Beyond the basics of food and water, some passengers on board needed medicine. Many left prescriptions in checked, inaccessible luggage and so pharmacists in town worked around the clock, calling dozens of countries to fill prescriptions.
Such responses to disasters reveal an alternative vision of how society might be organised: with ordinary people banding together to help rescue each other and rebuild their communities. Social connections are more than a pleasant experience; they can be life-saving. When disasters strike, people with greater numbers of formal and informal connections fare better than those who are more isolated. This is true – and perhaps unsurprising – on an individual and familial level; people who can rely on friends and relatives for shelter and support will recover faster and more completely. But it is also true for communities. The American sociologist Eric Klinenberg, writing about a heat wave in 1995, showed that old and isolated residents of a Chicago neighbourhood with bustling streets, shops, and restaurants survived at a greater rate than similarly aged and isolated residents of an adjacent neighbourhood whose streets were empty and looked ‘bombed out.’ Although the individuals were equally isolated, the social connections and institutions within their neighbourhood protected them. This is something identified in Robert Putnam’s classic work, Bowling Alone. Disasters serve as reminders that everyone is dependent on their friends and neighbours, and that those relationships need not be mediated by the state. While they can be allowed or enabled, they are often better left unstructured by the state.
Government policy remains important, because it makes the rules and creates the framework and infrastructure within which communities can flourish. Daniel Aldrich, a US political scientist, presented data from a number of recent disasters across southeast and east Asia to show that villages with stronger and more participatory local government rebuilt themselves faster and more effectively. Building infrastructure for tighter and more successful communities can be pursued through policies ranging from zoning to education, from labour relations to transportation. Governments could consider building strong communities that foster and encourage connection and solidarity specifically in order to be prepared for climate change. There is much talk of climate resilience, but more attention is paid to equipment or activities than to strengthening our social bonds.
Disaster can strike anywhere and affect people from all cultures and socio-economic backgrounds. Those best placed to respond are those with the strongest ties and sense of shared community. In Gander, the city was – and still is – a place where people do not fear one another. Many Ganderites do not lock the doors to their homes or cars, everyone says hello to everyone and people generally know their neighbours. This welcome extends beyond locals to those visiting and to those coming from “outside”. It is worth noting that the crossing in front of Gander’s town hall is painted in rainbow colours and churches raised thousands of Canadian dollars to welcome four Syrian refugee families into the community, with a fifth scheduled to arrive next year.
In many of the other examples, communities are already interdependent, often through poverty. This is not a rose-tinted view of poor communities; it’s simply the case that poorer people are more accustomed to sharing resources, frequently live in larger families and are used to “making do”. Puerto Rico is a self-governing organised island territory of the United States of America. This means that Puerto Ricans are US citizens although 45% of them live below the poverty line. The population is approximately 3.3 million people live on the island but emigration is high. Puerto Ricans have a higher risk of cancer, diabetes, alcohol consumption and asthma, and higher infant mortality rates. Unemployment is over 10%, infrastructure is poor, and the economy struggles under a crippling amount of debt. However, family is important and relatives are expected to support each other materially and emotionally. Elders are respected and kinship is bilateral, with people commonly using both their father’s and mother’s family name as surnames.
Guatemala is a diverse nation, once home to the great Mayan culture, but today poverty is widespread and the country’s indigenous population is disproportionately affected. The gap between rich and poor is among the highest in Latin America. Guatemala also suffers from high malnutrition and infant mortality rates, plus one of the highest crime rates in Latin America. Surrounded by two oceans and prone to earthquakes, droughts, hurricanes, landslides, and floods, Guatemala is one of the top ten countries most affected by weather extremes, according to the Global Climate Risk Index. However, the flora and fauna are some of the most varied on our planet and communities there have a history of gathering together to preserve their environment from pollution and indiscriminate mining.
Although few people had heard of Gander before 9/11, the city’s strategic location on the east coast of Canada marks the closest point between Europe and the U.S. and is a preferred emergency landing spot for medical and other emergencies. Its airport played a key role during World War II, when more than 20,000 Allied fighter planes and bombers took off from its runway, destined for battles across the Atlantic. By the 1950s, Gander was operating one of the busiest international airports in the world, though few passengers ventured beyond the terminal. The airport was basically a refuelling station for flights heading across the Atlantic ocean. Locals would hitchhike up to the airport to buy ice cream and search for famous faces waiting to re-board, such as Elvis Presley; Frank Sinatra and Johnny Cash. Gander airport’s international terminal, which opened in 1959, is home to the province’s first escalator.
One of the main industries is still aviation, although the advent of long-haul jets put an end to Gander’s golden aviation age. A few planes continued to arrive – mainly from communist countries – and some left with empty seats, when defectors claimed political asylum in Canada. Concorde also used the airport to test its supersonic technology. As a thank you, the company famously treated the airport staff to lunch in England; they arrived back in Gander half an hour before their departure time in London. Perhaps the city is particularly welcoming to people arriving by plane and misses its glory days when Gander was pivotal on a more international stage.
Social media played a role in several of these events, particularly in recent years, helping to get information through to stranded people and to keep them in touch with their own family and community networks. Research has shown that social media is increasingly used to warn of impending disaster, to coordinate relief efforts, to link up people with loved ones, to identify survivors and coordinate volunteers, to raise donations and to monitor recovery. Hurricane Katrina was prior to Twitter and in Facebook’s infancy and warnings were too little, too late; Superstorm Sandy in 2012 showed how quickly things had changed in a relatively short time. According to analytics firm Topsy, over 3.2 million Tweets with the hashtag #sandy were sent in 24 hours. [During the week of Sandy], 11 million Tweets were sent, spreading news, warnings and information.
The internet did play a significant role in assisting with the relief efforts after Katrina. The craigslist.org housing section was one of the first sites that people flocked to in order to offer free housing to displaced victims of the hurricane, and the site promptly created a general resource section for the affected and those wishing to volunteer. Others orchestrated meetup points to distribute aid in person. Katrina Help Wiki, a collaborative, open source website, was designed to serve as a centralized repository of all aid information related to the hurricane relief efforts. The “Katrina Aftermath” blog served as a clearinghouse for Katrina-related writing, photographs, video and podcasts. Users were able to email and phone-in their contributions, many using a system of Flikr photo tags to share their images with the world.