Chat With Us

Preparedness and the Myth of Knowledge

Steven Eberlein | JUL 18, 2019

Steven Eberlein and his wife, Lydia lived in Sri Lanka when a 9.1M earthquake struck off the coast of Indonesia, creating the Boxing Day Tsunami, which took 230,000 lives.

After serving in the relief effort, Steve and Lydia returned to the Pacific Northwest, which is grappling with the scientific certainty of its own future earthquake/tsunami event. He is now a professional speaker who specializes in crowd persuasion and the social dynamics that drive and deter earthquake preparedness through his company, Tipping Point Resilience.

See Steve's TEDx talk  HERE

Preparedness and the Myth of Knowledge

Have you ever met someone who’s never ridden a bike, heard a song on the radio, received a piece of mail, pet a cat, eaten an apple, caught a cold or seen an ice cube? That’s because you’ve never been to North Sentinel Island, nor should you go – ever. A Mormon missionary recently learned, as others had before him, that the Sentinelese welcome visitors with spear tips. As one of the most isolated people in the world, the Sentinelese have honed an unyielding reflex for self-preservation, which is buttressed by the Indian government’s effort to benevolently quarantine the tiny island from the invasive cultures and diseases that traditionally drive traditional cultures to extinction.

Image from ED times

But there are forces against which Sentinelese spears and Indian ships offer no protection. On December 26th, 2004 at 7:58am, a 9.1M earthquake off the coast of Banda Aceh, Indonesia triggered a tsunami that took 230,000 lives in countries throughout the Indian Ocean. The first massive wave would have struck North Sentinel Island at approximately 8:33am. As a fishing population numbering in the dozens on an island that peeks at 400 feet, the Sentinelese’ survival seemed impossible in a disaster where casualties were rounded to the nearest thousand. Yet on one of humanity’s darkest days, this endangered tribe emerged unscathed, and with vigor enough to fire arrows at the Indian helicopter checking on them. The Great Andamanese, Onge, Jarawa and Shompen tribes similarly thrived where “civilizations” buckled.

Image from Getty Images

As one of the few feel good stories to emerge from the Boxing Day tragedy, the triumph of these tribes over nature’s wrath made headlines: “Traditional knowledge saved ancient tribes from tsunami.” Headlines like that, which we typically swallow without hesitation, reflect what I call the Knowledge Myth. The Knowledge Myth goes something like this: If we have knowledge, we will act in our best interests based on that knowledge. Therefore, the distribution of knowledge will save us. What saved the Sentinelese? Knowledge. This myth is especially pervasive in the arena of public safety. Let’s take the Knowledge Myth for a quick test drive to see its cracks.

The first Model T was manufactured in 1908, the summer of which saw 30 auto fatalities in Detroit alone. I’d argue that we had a working knowledge of auto hazards almost from day one. Even so, seatbelts only became standard in 1958, and only in 1998 did the actual usage of seatbelts by people like you and me become practice amongst 70% of Americans, heralding a precipitous and overdue drop in needless fatalities. Knowledge myth: busted. Why did it take 90 years to address an undisputed and universally acknowledged risk?

I’m guessing you said stupidity. They were stupid and I am not stupid, therefor past mistakes do not apply to me. The Stupidity Myth is a convenient culprit when the Knowledge Myth fails. I get that the Stupidity Myth is comforting. I hear it often and call upon it myself when I’m feeling pissy and disappointed in our collective failings. But it’s a BS answer. Stupidity is not what kept us from buckling our seatbelts in the 70s and knowledge is not what saved the Sentinelese in 2004. Culture is the answer in both cases. And culture, simply put, is the product of what we expect of one another. I concern myself with one type of culture in particular: preparedness culture.

One year ago, I spoke to a packed auditorium in Portland, where I provided a well-resourced and educated audience a vivid and irrefutable picture of the massive earthquake that will one day visit the Pacific Northwest. When asked if we should individually prepare for the event of a Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake, 3,000 hands shot up. When asked if they expected one another to prepare, four hands timidly rose. When there’s incongruity between individual common sense and actual societal behavior, culture is the most likely culprit. History has proven countless times that culture determines which ideas, knowledge and practices become discarded and which become reality. As FEMA has confessed, you can shower the public with resources, slogans and warnings over two decades without yielding results. If the soil isn’t there, the seeds won’t grow.

What can we learn from the Sentinelese – an isolated, spear-wielding, pre-industrial tribe whose way of life is utterly divorced from our own experience?

  1. The messenger of knowledge is at least as important as the knowledge itself. Everything the Sentinelese knew about tsunamis they learned from someone they knew intimately and trusted implicitly. Like the Sentinelese, you are influenced most by those whom you know, love and trust, and you have the most influence over those who know, love and trust you.
  2. Culture isn’t about what you know, it’s about what’s expected of you. The Sentinelese clearly expected one another to run for high ground when they saw signs that the tsunami’s approach. This is particularly remarkable as none of them would have personally witnessed those signs before 8:30am on that fateful morning.
  3. Culture is a means of survival. “Preparedness” is too small a word for the Sentinelese – they are living in a state of adaptation, like gills to a fish. Their adherence to their culture and its transmission from generation to generation – even through the generations that never saw a tsunami – has allowed them to continuously inhabit this tiny island for 60,000 years.

Like the Sentinelese before the Boxing Day Tsunami, we are waiting for an event that we have never personally experienced. Unlike the Sentinelese, we have not taken ownership of the cultural practices that might save us. Fortunately, our culture is not locked and isolated in time. Culture can, and does, change quickly when regular people make a conscious and courageous choice to stand as counter-cultural agents of commonsense. When they do, they influence those that know, love and trust them best, and so forth, and so forth, and so forth. Preparedness is too small a word for us. This is about adaptation. It’s time for us to grow our own set of gills.

See Steve's TEDx talk HERE