succumbing to peer pressure

Monday, November 26, 2007

A Half-Baked Theory
(wherein Megan ceases to behave like a statistician and makes sweeping generalizations based on anecdotes)

During one of many long and enjoyable conversations with the parents this past week (I know, all the family-getting-along-ness is almost sickening) I latched on to two seemingly contradictory features of their generation (or perhaps more accurately, their parents' generation) that seem to be lacking in this generation.

Feature 1 - the personal responsibility side.
Dad and I were lamenting how frustrating many local emergency response plans are because a) they frequently overlook critical infrastructure problems (i.e., how will first responders communicate with each other when the phone lines and electricity are out?) and b) we seem to waste a lot of time and energy on very specific emergency response plans (a la the pandemic flu plan) instead of a few reasonable plans that might be applicable for a variety of crises (plan A for when we have to evacuate the city, plan B for when we have to keep everyone put, etc.). We eventually worked around to the sort of personal planning tools and knowledge that used to be around in the 50s and 60s, when we thought everyone might get nuked. Now, I'm not advocating paranoia-level preparation, but it sort of astounds me that the general population (at least, as screened through my parents' stories) in the 50s and 60s was quite prepared to hunker down for a bit without extensive assistance from the government. Households kept their pantries stocked, and local stores supplied things like protein biscuits and personal radiation detectors. Given the level of hysteria I've witnessed in local grocery stores when the weather forecast calls for snow, I'm not convinced many modern households are prepared for a few days of isolation, much less weeks. And yet crisis after crisis shows us that that's what's going to happen - we're going to be on our own, indefinitely. So the current state of government pairs its own horrible inadequacy with a total lack of empowerment of individuals to prepare for weathering crises on their own. Oh sure, there are people out there making valiant efforts to educate the public, but you have to dig pretty far into to find them. And too many press releases are botched so thoroughly that most advice from the government ends up sounding laughable.

Feature 2 - the socialism side
On the other end of the spectrum is how everyone pitched in financially during World War II, with rationing of goods and collecting supplies to send overseas with troops. It seems these days that unless you are or know a soldier, individuals aren't really sacrificing for this war, and no one seems ready to ask us to.

So there was this sort of odd marriage of personal and community responsibility, both of which seem to be lacking today. And both of which seem like pretty good responses to stressful times. I hate to sound cynical, but are we, as a society, really getting dumber? Because sometimes it feels that way.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've wrestled with similar thoughts. My take is that we have become more individual on all levels, and that it is not as contradictory as it seems at first glance. On your former point, think about how selling protein biscuits, building a bomb shelter, and the stop-drop-and-roll were all established by social pressure. They are really only individualistic in final practice - and even that minimalistically so. The truth of it, though, is that the social structure and pressures weren't in place because people were kinder, but rather because they had to establish these rituals to survive. It was easier to envision a situation that would require planning canned goods a year in advance when your daily non-emergency survival was also pinned on careful planning. Without cell phones, Internet, and such efficient preservation and distribution networks, rationing and planning was a more daily occurance. It was also fiercely inefficient and a sign of sociological immaturity. The benefits of today's early warning and event-prediction systems wash out our disinclination (a word?) to prepare, and the other efficiencies we enjoy bear net superiority for our times. Add the flooded bomb shelter and stored goods in the room that is on fire and I feel omniscience, speed, and agility are better preparations than stockpiling.

3:01 PM  

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