Yesterday was the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire in London. Green is the colour that has been adopted by survivors to show courage and strength through this awful, awful disaster. I followed this disaster from afar, attempting to learn from it, as it is my job to bring an understanding of how we best manage the worst of events. Like many, I was outraged by what happened, the callous disrespect for the fundamentals of human life by elected officials, who prioritise saving money and reputations over decency.
As I have written previously, when I was in London two months after, and I visited the Grenfell Tower area with the express purpose to learn. It profoundly affected me. The first view of the tower from the Metropolitan line tube, was a jolt. This was a tomb, plain for all to see. People were still in there. I felt like an intruder, a rubbernecker. I didn’t belong there, and I left and deleted my photos of the tower.
I am still angry about those events, even though they do not directly affect me. It is the symbolism, that in a supposedly advanced society, we can still something so horribly wrong. Anger is an interesting emotion. Through our work in the Beyond Bushfires research project, we have found two sides of anger, one the most predictable, the fuelling of rage that can be harmful to self and others. The other, not so predictable, the motivator to get out of bed and right the wrongs, to drive change. This anger, the desire for justice, brought Disaster Action about in the United Kingdom after indifference, and sometimes downright corrupt behaviour, to the plight of families affected by a range of disasters. It also fuels Justice for Grenfell.
In my case, it fuels what I do. Part of it is naturally compassion, but part of it is a low subsonic anger. It’s not an explosive, uncontrolled anger. I’m not an angry person (although my colleagues do call me Angry from Elwood, as I always seem to have a terrier like persistence in not giving up on causes…they say that owners take after their dogs). It’s just there, stoking the fires. My psychologist asked me once, what drives me to do the work that I do. I had to think about it for a little, then said “it’s the right thing to do”. I come from a strong social justice family. People who got locked up for their beliefs. My generation is the first of the family that has enjoyed the benefits of fighting for improvements in living standards. University. Free health. Safety. Things that are being eroded away, compounded by an impending climate crisis.
There is no such thing as a natural disaster. As I have written earlier in the year. We create the disasters by putting people knowingly or unknowingly in harms way. The residents, those that made their homes in Grenfell Tower, expected to and had a right to live in safety. We contract that out as a society. It’s why we pay tax, and have governments (however bad they are). It’s part of the social contract.
We have made so many improvements over the last 150 years; people rarely die in childbirth, of childhood illnesses, in industrial accidents, on the road, in public (although the events in Princes Park in Melbourne this week are just so awful). This has been through sustained effort, by campaigners, by scientists, by reformers. These things can be derided as “Do Gooding” or “Political Correctness” or “Nanny state”. Dunno about you, if it means that I go to bed at night and not die in a fire because someone has cut corners with building materials etc, I’m ok with that. I wear the title Do Gooder, with pride.
But we ignore the big one. The hazard that has the potential to affect us all. Partly this is the sector creating a black art out of disaster management, stand aside madam, we are here to help, or press the big red button and “they will come”. But equally, the impacts can be dismissed “Oh, disasters, that’s the least of their worries” Yes, I get that; on a day to day basis, maybe, but once they hit, they will setback any gains, anyone has had in improving their lives, for years, maybe decades.
This is what drives me. As part of dealing with my challenges, I made a conscious effort to reassess my work goals? Is this still for me? And I thought, yes. The impacts of disasters are shit, we wouldn’t want to wish them on anyone, and because I’ve seen what the other side looks like so many times, it’s incumbent on us to equip people with this knowledge, so they can make truly informed decisions. We have to invest more than a paltry amount of time and effort in reducing risk, and not push everything on to an individual. These are outsized problems we face, and we need to face them together.
My favourite band, THE The has reformed (and if there was ever an angry young man…)