A Very Human Response to Disaster

Cow PastureI was recently reading an article on debunking myths of human responses to disasters. Ruth Wraith and Rob Gordon from The Department of Child and Family Psychiatry at the Melbourne Royal Children’s Hospital explained:

“People do not panic, they behave rationally unless they have no information or no way to escape. People are not self centered, they care for each other helping those in need where they can. People behave more rationally if they have information and can verify it with people they trust.”

This week I attended a meeting of the Whatcom County Cattlemen where the Department of Ecology and the Department of Health introduced new employees and a new water monitoring program. The feeling in the room was that another government-made disaster could be closing in on them.
Livestock farming has become an ever more burdensome operation, with shrinking participation due to the layers of bureaucrats and paperwork that have interjected themselves into the process of livestock agriculture. They had come to meet the new agents and gather more information on water quality and help each other to be understood and to understand. Everyone attending was respectful, asking rational, concerned questions about how this program will affect their every day lives.

There was frustration on both sides. Everyone in the room Cattle Assoc Mtgknew what was being discussed would have negative impacts in the farming community. The questions were all directed at the extent of the negative impact and the ability to mitigate the impact. Those from the Department of Ecology attempted to instill trust that they would be reasonable, that they would behave properly and that individuals would be allowed to self implement easy changes in order to become compliant. They were only there to ensure clean water quality for everyone and would only target specific proven discharge sources rather than harassing everyone along a waterway.


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But in the reasoned answers, the word penalty and forced compliance crept in. The fact that this was a combined multi-agency effort was discussed: EPA, Washington State Department of Health, Washington State Department of Ecology, and Whatcom County agencies. Representatives of these agencies all had more financial wherewithal to force compliance to their programs than anyone else in the room had to resist or even to comply. When asked if the program being presented was being driven by the local Tribes, who are perceived to wield large political power, it was not denied. It was asked why, after years and years of testing and cleanup measures both on the farms and in the cities, combined with decreasing herd sizes the water was still not clean enough. They were asked if uncontrollable factors like birds and our neighbors to the north in Canada, would leave the farming community to make up the difference?

Would the water quality ever be good enough? Would there ever be a point when the monitors would go away? The largest gap in understanding between these two groups became apparent as the government agents tried to cope with the thought of not being there. The answer was twofold, while compliance will not be a moving target, they would never go away. “We get our instructions from higher up.” and “We are just doing our jobs.” were the comments that helped the session limp to an end.


After the governmental agents left, the casual conversation drifted among remaining family members:

“I want my children to have the same lifestyle I have been able to enjoy.”

“As they shrink small properties with large buffers, they shrink our ability to support ourselves.”

“If they force us into farm plans that stay with the land we lose the flexibility we need to adjust to changing markets or sell out.”

“I would move out right now, but my entire extended family is here.”

” Where can I go, we will be threatened by these agencies wherever we go.”

“People behave rationally unless they have no way to escape.”

~ Lorraine Newman

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