The Challenges of Disaster Planning

We want to hear your thoughts on living under the threat of natural disaster.

Illustration of prep items for natural disaster
Joanne Imperio / The Atlantic; Getty

Updated at 4:56 pm ET on February 8, 2023

This is an edition of Up for Debate, a newsletter by Conor Friedersdorf. On Wednesdays, he rounds up timely conversations and solicits reader responses to one thought-provoking question. Later, he publishes some thoughtful replies. Sign up for the newsletter here.

Question of the Week

The aftermath of this week’s tragic earthquake in Turkey and Syria is a stark reminder of the devastating impact of severe natural disasters, and how so many of us live under their threat. You might be asking yourself in this moment, What have I done to prepare? We want to hear your thoughts on the matter; alternatively, feel free to share your stories of living through a natural disaster.

Send your responses to or simply reply to this email.

Conversations of Note

Shame on Disney

The Financial Times reports that the Disney corporation, the current owner of The Simpsons, has cut an episode of that show from its streaming platform in Hong Kong. Why? It referred to “forced-labor camps,” something China is sensitive about because of the ethnic-minority groups Beijing consigns to them (Disney declined to comment on this to the Financial Times).  An episode of the show that referred to Tiananmen Square reportedly met the same fate in 2021. If I had kids, caving to oppressive despots is not the example I would want set for them.

A Graceful Tribute

Until Tuesday, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar held the all-time career scoring record in the NBA. Many thought it would always stand. But LeBron James broke it. And Abdul-Jabbar insisted that he was thrilled, in a Substack essay where he argued that all of humanity benefits when old records fall:

Whenever a sports record is broken—including mine—it’s a time for celebration. It means someone has pushed the boundaries of what we thought was possible to a whole new level. And when one person climbs higher than the last person, we all feel like we are capable of being more.

For me, the inspirational power of sports is best explained in a scene in the 1985 film Vision Quest. In it, Elmo, an aging fry cook at a hotel, explains: “I was in the room here one day, watchin’ the Mexican channel on TV. I don’t know nothin’ about Pelé. I’m watchin’ what this guy can do with a ball on his feet. Next thing I know, he jumps in the air and flips into a somersault and kicks the ball in—upside down and backwards. The goddamn goalie never knew what the fuck hit him. Pelé gets excited. He rips off his jersey and starts running around the stadium wav­ing it around over his head. Everybody’s screaming in Spanish. I’m here, sitting alone in my room, and I start crying. [Pause.] Yeah, that’s right, I start crying. Because another human being, a species that I hap­pen to belong to, could kick a ball, and lift himself, and the rest of us sad-assed human beings up to a better place to be, if only for a minute … Let me tell ya, kid—it was pretty goddamned glorious.”

That is the magic of sports. To see something seemingly impossi­ble, reminding us that if one person can do it, then we all somehow share in that achievement. It is what sends children onto playgrounds to duplicate a LeBron layup or a Steph Curry three-pointer. Or Mia Hamm inspiring a whole generation of girls to come off the bleachers and onto the field. Millions of children across the country pushing themselves toward excellence because they saw an athlete do something spectacular and they want to do it too. Or at least try. That same kind of drive is behind many of humankind’s greatest achievements.

And it’s all exceptionally glorious.

Eggs Are a Bargain Even Now

Yes, prices have spiked recently. But if you take a historical perspective, Megan McArdle argues, we’re relatively well off today as consumers of eggs, though perhaps at a cost to chickens:

In 1901, the average family spent 42.5 percent of its budget on food, and, according to economist Deirdre McCloskey, a typical middle-class household devoted about 44 hours per week to preparing food. By 2021, U.S. consumers were spending about 10 percent of their household income on food, and less than 10 hours a week preparing it … even as our food consumption has shifted toward things that would have been luxuries back then. People eat berries out of season, fresh seafood even far inland … and the average person eats about six times as much chicken as they would have a century ago.

… Some food prices fell faster than others, and chicken and eggs were among those that saw the greatest improvements ... Raising chickens indoors helped protect them from disease and predators. Providing them with warmer conditions and artificial light helped extend a laying season which otherwise stops in winter. Farmers developed the raised cage system which has helped increase egg production, as have breeding programs. Modern hens have gone from laying about 150 eggs per hen per year in the 1930s, to 296 today.

… Modern farming techniques can raise serious concerns about animal welfare, and I make a point of buying cage free eggs ... But the benefits of this revolution have also been enormous. In 1905, an average male factory worker older than 16 took home $11.16 a week, enough to buy about 41 cartons of eggs. Today, the median man earns $1,176 a week, enough to buy more than 275 cartons of eggs, even at today’s elevated prices. If you can’t help cringing when you see the cashier ring up eggs that cost twice as much as they did a year ago, it might help to remember that however poor you feel, your ancestors would have taken one look at your grocery cart and declared you rich beyond their dreams.

Frederick Douglass for Open Borders

To commemorate Black History Month, Ilya Somin resurfaces a largely forgotten bit of oratory from a civil-rights hero. Circa 1869, Frederick Douglass said:

I submit that this question of Chinese immigration should be settled upon higher principles than those of a cold and selfish expediency.

There are such things in the world as human rights. They rest upon no conventional foundation, but are external, universal, and indestructible. Among these, is the right of locomotion; the right of migration; the right which belongs to no particular race, but belongs alike to all and to all alike. It is the right you assert by staying here, and your fathers asserted by coming here. It is this great right that I assert for the Chinese and Japanese, and for all other varieties of men equally with yourselves, now and forever. I know of no rights of race superior to the rights of humanity, and when there is a supposed conflict between human and national rights, it is safe to go to the side of humanity.

La Démocratie en France

In The Atlantic’s March issue, Thomas Chatterton Williams offers a characteristically subtle argument about what the United States and its oldest ally in Europe can learn from one another:

I remain convinced that an authentically color-blind society—one that recognizes histories of difference but refuses to fetishize or reproduce them—is the destination we must aim for. Either we achieve genuine universalism or we destroy ourselves as a consequence of our mutual resentment and suspicion.

Attempting this will be painful and, at times, feel counterintuitive. Woke impulses are irrepressible today, and they will likely remain so as the grand global project of building multicultural democracies continues. The question, then, is not how to stamp out these impulses, but how to channel them responsibly, while refusing to succumb to the myopia of group identity. A riff on the apocryphal Winston Churchill quip about liberal ideology describes the challenge aptly: You have no head if you wholly embrace it, but if you categorically reject it, you have no heart.

In principle, it is hard to deny the superiority of the French model of universal citizenship—liberté, égalité, fraternité. Yet in practice, the exhausting and sometimes disingenuous American reflex to interpret social life through imperfect notions of identity nonetheless manages to perceive real experiences that otherwise get dismissed and, when suppressed long enough, put us all in peril. It would be a mistake for either culture to remake itself entirely in the image of the other. The future belongs to the multiethnic society that finds a way to synthesize them.

Don’t Conflate Race and Culture

Amid a defense of abolishing race, Greg Thomas writes:

From my perspective, race is a categorization and hierarchical sorting of human beings into subspecies based on skin color and phenotypic differences. The express purpose of such selecting and sorting—and, as we shall soon see, of attribution, essentializing, and acting in a racist manner—was to enable the oppression and exploitation of darker-skinned people by situating them within a caste-like structure whereby those classified as white had more ready access to the social, economic, and political benefits and opportunities of a modern system of free enterprise.

Culture, in contrast, is human meaning and values expressed in forms of creative production (art and technology), rituals, patterns of behavior, and ways of seeing and being in the world—lifestyles. One can also view culture as shared agreements, practices, and symbolic communication among groups of people. Another approach to culture is more developmental, as in the use of education to cultivate and improve the human capacity to elevate and refine, thereby producing more “cultured” individuals.

In How Culture Works, anthropologist Paul Bohannan used a simile to describe how culture helps humans expand beyond our biological inheritance: “Culture is like a prosthesis—it allows the creature to extend its capacities and to do things that its specialized body cannot otherwise do.”

By definition and intent, race separates and divides. Conflating race and culture twists and tightens this division. Separating or bracketing culture from race tends toward appreciating human commonalities and differences in a more nuanced manner than judging and stereotyping groups of people based on skin color will allow.

Provocation of the Week

In Persuasion, Talia Barnes takes on the smartphone:

I traded my smartphone for a dumbphone to simplify my life. Then I revived my iPod. Then I bought a GPS. Then I bought a point-and-shoot camera.

You might wonder whether life is really simpler this way. Wouldn’t it be far more convenient to use a single device to accomplish all of these tasks?

Technically, yes. Psychologically, no.

While there’s an undeniable ease-of-use factor to housing a phone, internet browser, entertainment center, camera, and GPS in a lightweight rectangle that fits inside my pocket, the proximity of each of these tasks to one another leads, inevitably, to constant distraction. If you’ve ever tried to find the perfect angle for a photo while your Instagram post is blowing up, or answer a work email while your mom is calling you, you know what I mean.

On the surface, it makes sense that smartphones are designed for multitasking: They’re good at it. The humans who use them, however, are not.

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