From the Publishers

Crisis? What crisis?

Man is not imprisoned by habit. Great changes in him can be wrought by crisis - once that crisis can be recognized and understood. -- Norman Cousins

by Chris Klein
've been thinking a lot about crisis situations. Crises often seem to bring out the best in us: unprecedented creativity, boundless energy, selfless labor and sacrifices for the common good. They can focus a group of individuals on a common purpose as nothing else can.
Our entire country was united and mobilized by World War II, after Pearl Harbor, in a way that we may never see again. In a few short years, we went from a depression economy, poorly armed and nearly isolationist, to the greatest industrial and military power the world had seen.
We've gotten pretty good at managing smaller, local crises, too. Floods, fires and earthquakes bring rescue workers who put their own lives in peril. The medical establishment has become so adept at handling crises that they can arguably go beyond what is prudent to preserve life.
So, what is it about a crisis that generates this level of action? There seem to be several necessary elements.
First, the crisis must be perceived. If you don't know there's cholera in the well, a shortage of safe drinking water is not a crisis.
Second, the crisis must be imminent. If it's not breathing down our neck, it's not a crisis: a crisis tomorrow is not a crisis today. The closer it is, the more ready we are for action. Our very best manifests when it's almost too late.
Third, the crisis must be personal. Direct threats to our own well-being are primary, followed to some lesser degree by situations with which we can personally identify. If we can't identify, it's not a crisis. Case in point: every day, approximately 35,000 infants and children worldwide die of preventable disease and chronic malnutrition. This is largely ignored. Yet, the peril of a single child in our own community often generates an immense outpouring of support.
Lastly, the crisis must effect a group of sufficient size - and political/financial clout - to generate action. Barrio Logan residents' concerns about potential methyl bromide poisoning by the Port District only received increased attention when it seemed that the toxin may be making its way onto the beaches of Coronado.
These explain, I think, why it is so hard to get decisive action on many critical environmental problems: it's not preceived as a crisis. Unfortunately, due to the scale of some problems and the timeframes involved, once the problem becomes a crisis it may, in fact, be too late to do anything about it. So, effective action may call for is a crisis response to a non-crisis situation.
Consider the ozone hole. It's there and it's growing. Skin cancer, rarely a concern in my youth, is an increasing danger. Sheep in Australia are going blind from UV-spawned cataracts. Effects on the photoplankton in the sea - which generate the bulk of our oxygen - are a concern. Who it effects is ... everyone.
So, the conditions for a crisis were finally met, a decade after the problem was first recognized. We've taken action by banning many ozone destroying chemicals, like CFC's. But guess what? It takes 10 to 20 years for these chemicals to get into the upper stratosphere where they do their dirty work. So, for the next decade or two, the problems will get worse. How bad will it get? No one knows, but lay in a supply of SPF 1000 sunblock.
Another example: acid rain. Researchers have been monitoring the health of a small forest in an isolated section of Vermont. Over decades, they watched the health of the forest decline due to acid rain. Over the last few years, the pollution has largely abated, yet the forest's health has not improved. It seems that the acid has washed certain important mineral nutrients - like calcium and magnesium - from the soil. When will the forest recover? No one knows, but it may be many decades more, if ever.
So, if you have see a problem, and you know it will become an crisis, and action is needed right now, and that makes it a crisis for you right now (because you care), what can you do? You can try and make it a crisis for everyone else, right now. First, you make a lot of noise - demonstrations, lawsuits, civil disobedience, etc. - because that's the only way you have a ghost of a chance of getting enough media attention to make sure the problem is perceived. You make the problem imminent and personal - in short, you have to scare people. And, you have to scare the right people with the right thing - health concerns, financial loss, etc. If you're good enough, you might get some action.
This is what the radical fringe of the environmental movement has been doing for years. It hasn't made them popular. Sometimes, however, it has worked.
Personally, I don't like this. I prefer offering individuals opportunities to take positive actions for the future. I don't find fear very enrolling. This issue on toxic alternatives has some scary stuff - but we will always try to give you positive alternatives. Yet, it is hard to deny that, sometimes, fear may be the only thing that will make a difference.
What do you think? Write and let me know.