Carry On, But Don't Keep Too Calm
Juliette Kayyem on an approach to disasters that's neither complacent nor despondent
In her new book on disaster management, Juliette Kayyem notes that, for good reason, the vintage “Keep Calm and Carry On” posters that became trendy in the mid-aughts were never actually distributed by Britain’s wartime government. She writes of the poster’s message:
It was a lie. It was too passive. “Keep Calm and Carry On” is not what Churchill needed from the citizens during the literal boom. It was not an honest thing for citizens to hear.
Juliette — a former Homeland Security official now at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government — is fond of a visualization of disaster response that has a timescale with a “boom” at the middle. To the left of the boom are the things you do to try to stop the disaster from happening. To the right are the things you do once disaster strikes: immediate response, rebuilding, and efforts at resiliency so we can weather the next disaster better.
Indeed, the posters would have been quite a dissonant message from a government led by a man who declared upon taking office in 1940 that “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”
Juliette was my guest on this week’s Very Serious podcast to talk about her book and what she sees as the dysfunctions in our society’s approach to disaster. She warns against the twin problems of fatalism and complacency.
Juliette compares the mothballed-for-good-reason Keep Calm poster to some of the catastrophizing commentary on the UN’s 2021 climate change report, which “sent much of the world who care about its future, and climate change activists, into a spiral of doom.” Prophesies of doom and blasé calls to stay calm have opposite emotional valences, but they imply the same appropriate course of action: nothing. And that’s not productive.
Instead of complacency or despondency, Juliette wants people to find the in-between: concerned enough about the disasters that loom over our society not to stay calm, but with a sufficient feeling of agency to face down disaster and make it a lot less disastrous. But she argues that, across a wide variety of domains and in the public and private sectors, we’re not developing that agency because we are under-investing in the areas on and immediately to the right of the boom. We think a lot about how to stop disasters and how to build more resiliently for future ones, but not enough about how to excel in the very moment of disaster response to save lives, reduce damage, and minimize costs.
This critique obviously has a lot of implications for COVID — and Juliette and I talked about the troubled testing and vaccine rollouts and what might be done better in the right-of-boom phase of future waves and future pandemics — but it also applies across a wide variety of risks, and even in thinking about our own personal preparedness for disaster.
By the way, we used several of the questions you sent in (and thank you for doing so!) but we did not talk at length about one issue several of you asked about: what people should do to prepare their own households for disaster.1 For example, here was Alex:
It seems a lot of disaster prep is misguided (maybe we need fewer bunkers, more chain saws?) but admittedly I’m not sure and also pretty curious.
So Sara and I asked Juliette to weigh in by email on what household-prep guidance is actually useful and feasible. Here are her thoughts on what to keep on hand to be prepared:
Water (3 gallons per household member), non-perishable food, flashlights and batteries, candles and matches, a first-aid kit, special medications or glasses, infant formula and diapers, pet food. A manageable list and you’ll be done shopping in under an hour. Plus, keep a couple hundred dollars in the house should you need it if connectivity or electricity fall apart.
Of course, people with particular exposure to specific disasters may need specific supplies beyond that list, but it’s one that’s manageable even if you live in a small apartment.
I hope you enjoy the episode.
As you’ll note when you hear the episode, I didn’t get a chance to ask Juliette about this because she ended up having to manage a little boom of her own.