Thursday, 14 November 2013

Philippines response: We can do so much better than this.

So its been, what, a week now since the strongest storm ever recorded to hit land smashed into the Philippines? Yet the news is full of stories of communities and areas still utterly unreached by anyone. With so much devastation, a near complete lack of shelter and food has been joined in this time with infection of wounds, disease-ridden water, bloated, stinking bodies lining the streets. This is surely one of the closest approximations on the planet of hell on earth right now. It is also largely man-made.

I'm not talking about climate change, though the evidence is certainly there to at least forward the argument. No, I'm talking about the gap between what is theoretically possible to achieve regarding disaster relief, and what we are witnessing a repeat of now; the shambling, complicated, delayed mess of confused good intentions that traditionally follows such large-scale catastrophes.  That which is theoretically possible is a crucial and necessary component of judging actions. For example, if it were possible that someone could have saved a life, they would feel, and possibly be held, more responsible than if there were no chance to save it at all. Examining what is theoretically possible also helps to gauge to what extent a situation is entirely down to natures ferocity (with no realistic fault on us), and to what extent our own ineptitude is responsible.

In my considerable reading on the climate and development field, I have got a pretty good idea on where we are at regarding climate change adaptation. There are a lot of great ideas out there; the rate of innovation in the field is considerable, but constrained in realising anything like the kind of change required to help countries like the Philippines withstand the prospect of many more such storms to come.  The scale of the problem simply out-dwarfs the scale of the development and climate regimes within the wider system in which they operate. Whilst development continues to play second-fiddle, or even fiddley-fucking-dee, to the power and growth of the sectors actually in charge - oil, finance, banking, defense contractors - at both state and multi-national levels, we do not stand a chance in hell of making the necessary transition to avoid significant warming. Neither will we stand a chance in hell of getting anywhere near enough resources or political will to adequately adapt to that warming, raising the prospect of many more instance of watching a weeks worth of news stories covering a gradual descent into something that brings Dante to mind.

It does not have to be like this. Let me paint a picture of what could be theoretically possible right now, if states could act cooperatively in mutual, long-term governance for the good of their people. Since this is theoretical, I am going to assume that the worlds resources are my oyster, and that they could be used in such a way that takes into account only those limitations implied directly from the resource itself. I consider none of these outrageous. We put a fucking man on the moon for crying out loud.

Meteorology is sufficiently advanced to give a few days warning of such storms. This is a pretty decent window for preparation, so long as the preparation itself is sufficiently prepared for. It is possible to have climate-proof silos every ten miles of at-risk coastline and flood plain, that are stocked from permanent stockpiles of medicine, food, shelters, stoves etc upon notification of an incoming storm. The thing's storm-proof. Stick a team of engineers, medics, and police in there to ride it out. Have flares, a fog-horn, and a search-light ready to bring people in from miles around. Furthermore, storm-proof bunkers should house teams of engineers at at-risk airports, with runways and their obstructive paraphernalia cleared in advance.

Fleets of solar-powered unmanned drones, with a few bases positioned throughout at-risk regions, could have the entire affected area mapped, assessed, and prioritised within 24 hours, using a mix of visual-recognition algorithms and real-time human assessment over live-feeds. This data would then be made public, for all the aid agencies to work from. It would then make sense, since the data is the same for all, to use this as the basis for an open-source project that enables all aid agencies to coordinate on the same platform. Requirements for each area would already have been provisionally assessed, so it would be relatively simple to allocate larger areas to agencies with more capacity, or specific areas requiring the specific skills of other agencies.  All of this could be accomplished within a further 24 hours in my opinion. Meanwhile, with the airport hopefully secure, planes working on predetermined plans should already be en-route from neighbouring countries.

In terms of technology, I have already mentioned drones, but think what might have been available to us right now if governments and arms companies were funding and researching ways to help and save people, rather than kill them. What about a plane that lands on the sea by an affected coastline, gets onto the land at the nearest opportunity, and automatically reconfigures itself into a stocked health clinic? What about small automated drones that can locate trapped survivors and deliver water to them, sending their location to the nearest help and the central coordinating platform? What about fully automated pick-up and supply parachute drops using fleets of drones from a base at the airport where aid is flying into?

All of this is possible. Theoretically. What stands in its way is the combined effect of thousands of years of what we may now consider bullshit; separatism. I'm not talking about rebel groups. I'm talking about states, corporations, militaries, religions.. all the things that separate us as a species. The global outpouring of empathy and sadness after events such as this is testament to fact that there is far more that unites us than divides us, it's simply that we don't often get to see and realise that in the manufactured cultures in which we reside. Culture, resources, wealth, myths, identity; all are dominated by entities whose cultures prohibit the kind of cooperation, long-term thinking, and shift away from militarism that are necessary to make this vision a reality.

The factors that create this gap between what is theoretically possible and what is actually happening stem from much wider areas than simply within the development field. The fault lies in our entire political and economic system. It is ideological, yet it is the system in which the development and climate regimes find themselves. On the one hand, the largest ever peer-review process the world has ever seen has concluded that we are in trouble. On the other, politicians and CEOs continue to undermine what political will arises, extract ever-more quantities of fossil fuels, and cooperate in effectively bringing us to ruin. When it comes to the crunch, which way will the cookie crumble? Will the development regime have enough independence to effectively revolt? To be sure, the early adoption of complexity theory in the development field, particularly with regard to climate, throws something of a spanner in the works. Of all governing regimes, this area seems to be innovating and evolving quickest - certainly considerably faster than the cultures that grant their resources and further contribute to climate change. A choice may have to be made soon. The emotive speech by the head delegate from the Philippines recently at COP in support of direct action is only the start. Will the western development field stand with their southern counterparts in demanding the kind of wholescale reform that is really necessary, and stop with all the hot air?

Yet this need not be a conflict (though the possibility is certainly there, especially if cultures continues to separate through inequality). There is an urgent need for the kind of informatic, logistical, engineering, rapid response skills of the military and security services. There are, handily, already military bases all over the place that can the converted to development and disaster response use. There are also huge great fucking military budgets that could be put to far more constructive use. It would even be worth a shot in terms of satisfying current military and security objectives. You want to make people want to bomb you less? You don't wanna lose the feeling of being all manly and special? Try being more International Rescue than Team America. That said, the last thing I am suggesting is that we kit out a load of U.S. bases with solar-powered drones. I wouldn't give a handgun to a baby, and I wouldn't do that. All of this is predicated on an equitable, transparent, and inclusive international body headed by the development field, not generals. They are the ones innovating. They are the ones without a culture formed primarily around male violence. They have far more hope of coordinating, monitoring, and progressing such strategies, but only with the help of a political economic system that has corrected it's destructive short-termism and divisive dynamics. The private sector has to be onboard at some point - when may determine whether this thing goes to a fight.