America Needs to Learn From Past Crises, Klinenberg Says

Eric Klinenberg
Eric Klinenberg
New York University Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies Eric Klinenberg presented a lecture on the “New Urban Crises” Wednesday evening in the Fillius Events Barn. His talk was the second in the Arthur Levitt Public Affairs 2009-10 lecture series on “Crisis: Danger and Opportunity.” Klinenberg’s lecture addressed recently developing issues facing urban America. A historically unprecedented number of America’s population now lives in or around major metropolitan areas. Klinenberg asserted that this new phenomenon creates new problems that require imminent solutions in the near future. Ignoring these issues will, and has by historical precedent, generated catastrophic results. 

“Crises are present everywhere in history textbooks,” said Klinenberg. “When are we not in crisis?” He maintained that society constantly faces a crisis in some form or another, though the magnitude and thus the infamy of each varies. The 1960s presented America with a decade of poverty, protest and general social unrest. The 1970s offered new crises as federal funding for housing projects began to collapse. In the 1980s, the government began its war on drugs as what Klinenberg labeled the “underclass” began making themselves more prominently known in America’s poorer neighborhoods. The 1990s found America facing riots after the Rodney King incident, and the battle for “who could control the streets” ensued. 

More recently, the 2000s have presented not only America, but also the world, with what Klinenberg referred to as “spectacular catastrophes.” Hurricane Katrina ravaged southern coastal states, foreign terrorists struck New York City in a devastating display of hatred, and the world economy collapsed as financial and housing markets plummeted. 

Though these events were overwhelming, Klinenberg believes the world needs to look to the future, stating that new action is needed in the arenas of both climate change and pandemic disease. Recent years have also presented metropolitan America with unbearable heat waves and, more pressing, the H1N1 virus. Klinenberg argued that America currently holds the “Formula for Disaster: the will not to know and the failure to learn.” What has society learned from experience, and what does it mean for it to be prepared? he asked. History has presented precedents for each crisis, yet even now the world is not truly prepared to face a heat wave of the catastrophic magnitude that overcame Chicago in 1995, or a lethal outbreak of H1N1 in pandemic proportions. 

“If your school offered the H1N1 vaccine, how many of you would take it?” Klinenberg asked those in attendance. Approximately 50 percent of the audience raised their hands. Klinenberg contributes this behavior to a resistance to change, asserting that even a crisis of cataclysmic scope cannot seem to impart he message that a response to these issues is needed.  

In 1995 Chicago found itself facing blackouts, shortages of water, temperatures in excess of 100 degrees, and death tolls topping 700 people per week gross of the average. With utilities unable to meet the energy demand, and the city’s water supply quickly diminishing, city officials found themselves involved in a war to preserve what precious little water, a vital resource, was left within the city. Public Health officials were reduced to soaking children in water to prevent heat related illness. 

Similarly, H1N1 has ravaged its way through modern society, Klinenberg noted. Society neither was, nor is ready for a truly lethal outbreak of the virus. The speed at which it initially spread provides evidence of this. Klinenberg pointed out a grim turn of events in which the head of the Center of Disease Control initially ignored the White House report on H1N1. The capacity and magnitude of government response varies to a degree that is ultimately detrimental to any sort of progress, said Klinenberg. 

“Why aren’t these issues (climate change and pandemic influenza) greater priorities in our Homeland Security programs?” asked Klinenberg. “Is a truly cataclysmic crisis necessary to open the eyes of society, and begin the resolution of these issues?” Klinenberg admits he does not know the answer. He does, however, acknowledge that society has a habit of ignoring historical precedent, even when in its own interest. Klinenberg stated that perhaps society should look to first learn from its past; how valuable is the lesson if we do not learn from it?

Student author Richard Maass '12 is a graduate of Proctor (VT) Junior-Senior High School.
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