Alone, Together

“The existence of an other resolves the problem of loneliness but brings with it anxieties for the individual, for inherent in any relationship is, inevitably, some form of power struggle… Human history abounds with cases of the individual being induced by force or ideological persuasion to submit to the power of the collective…this phenomenon is not unique to any one culture.” -Gao Xingjian, Soul Mountain

Collective action is broadly defined as the coordinated efforts of individuals to achieve a common goal, or public good.  Because individuals cannot attain public goods by themselves, it is imperative to employ collective resources.  According to David Grewal in his seminal work, Network Power, for individuals to acquire collective efforts, a standard “must be shared among members of the network to a sufficient degree” (Grewal, 21).  Achieving this kind of standardization is paramount to the cooperation that is needed for communication and engagement across borders—economic, geographic, political, and culture.

Characterizing the problem of collective action, how do individuals collectively act in response to unique, catastrophic events?  Disasters confound the status quo and can lead to detrimental effects on individuals.  However, they can also be used as opportunities to create new standards as traditional political and physical infrastructures crumble.

Residents in lower-income areas of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where resources are scarce, may have been able to mobilize in the immediate aftermath of disaster.  But what about long-term, sustainable rebuilding of physical infrastructure?  In contrast to local, informal groups directly responding to necessity, coalitions such as the Make It Right Foundation coalesced with a network of well-connected actors to create new standards of rebuilding, shifting the protocol of disaster relief from temporary support to sustainable reconstruction.

In the case of New Orleanians, particularly less-advantaged residents in the Lower Ninth Ward, collective action decreased largely due to an inability “to tap translocal ties in times of mass displacement” (Elliott, Haney, and Sams-Abiodun, 643-645).  An examination of personal networks shows that a strong civil society is not always beneficial for all equally, but that context is also a factor in collective mobilization out of catastrophe.  The point is that some people have no vehicle for mobilization, sometimes quite literally as was the case for many that lacked the modes of transportation to evacuate New Orleans before the hurricane.

The Lower Ninth Ward was faced with insufficiencies in not only physically mobilizing out of the area, but in brokering for itself after destruction.  Though there have been advances in innovative alternative options, the standards of reconstruction are difficult to combat.  Elizabeth English, a professor of architecture at the University of Waterloo and founder of The Buoyant Foundation Project, was faced with this obstacle in vying for building permits from FEMA for her concept of floating houses, or ‘amphibious houses’—a design that would enable homes with the technology for detecting and responding to flooding (“buoyant foundation”).

By inviting groups of “high-profile and influential New Orleans, national and international architects to develop affordable, green, storm resistant housing for the community” (“Make It Right Nola”) the Foundation was able to obtain building permits for a style of floating house similar to the one Elizabeth English sought to build.  The foundation has transformed the neighborhood “into an ecological and cultural model of a community embedded in a big-river delta floodplain—which in turn set an example for a great many other towns the world over” (“Make It Right Nola”).  Their network power enabled them the ability to develop emergent norms that run counter to the traditional way of building temporary structure, such as those put in place by FEMA in the Lower Ninth Ward.   By implementing standards for environmentally innovative homes, utilizing various technical innovations for sustainable flood-proof housing such as floating houses and solar panels, the foundation is able to appeal to a broader audience, receiving support not only from renowned architects, but also from news media and donors interested in supporting the cause (Tonnelat and Rosencrantz).

One question this case leaves us with is if it is necessary to have resource before one can acquire resource.  Examples of local responses to disaster were successful, but the resources acquired were minimal at best.  Whereas, people such as Brad Pitt and Tom Darden had the resources such that they could make claims on changing norms and standards.  In future disaster response, it will prove paramount to pair local institutions with international coalitions.

 –All Photographs compliments of Chris Givens–

Sarah Inman

Sarah is a former Georgetown CCT student and assistant managing editor for gnovis. She comes from Louisiana where she studied Political Science, wrote for a local newspaper, and ran from hurricanes. She is interested in exploring the invisible and forgotten--from infrastructures to human beings. Her writings aspire to raise questions about technology's role in politics, identity, and international development. When she's not studying, writing or talking to all of you, she likes to brew beer, laugh at improv comedy, dream about living in the Wind River Mountain Ranges, and go to live shows.