May 19, 2020

That holy [expletive] moment

That holy [expletive] moment

Who do you call when you suspect that life as we know it may have reached a point of no return? Kelley talks with Laurie Mazur, Resilience Editor at Island Press. Laurie has been writing and thinking about scary things since the 80s. She talks about what the pandemic has revealed about our world and how resilience thinking might come to the rescue. 

Check out some of Laurie’s most recent publications:

Find more about Laurie and her work here:


This episode was edited by Kelley


The theme music is Fragilistic by Ketsa 

licensed under CC BY NC ND 4.0


Cindy Sealls: 0:02The whole time?

Kelley Lynch: 0:02The whole time.

Cindy Sealls: 0:05Let's do it again.

Kelley Lynch: 0:06All right .

Cindy Sealls: 0:07The whole time?

Kelley Lynch: 0:08The whole fu*cking time. Uh, I thought I was, yeah,

Cindy Sealls: 0:14The thing is blinking.

: 0:17Now it is okay . You know , I just had this really weird experience. I was on my way to walk with somebody in rock Creek park. And on the way I went to turn on my music and up came the song and it was like the Doobie brothers or something, something that took me back to my childhood. I'm really dating myself there, but it also took me back to the last time I was driving a nd all that familiar music would come on and I don't know exactly how to explain it, but it was like it was from another lifetime. It was almost as if that was a whole other self that experienced all of that stuff, b ecause it was so different from what w e're experiencing today. I was trying to put my finger on exactly what it is. And I think it's kind of like this terrible knowledge that things can be so dramatically different t han what we thought they ever might be. I never, I mean, people have predicted pandemics for forever, right? For long time, I guess. I just never thought we'd be here.

Cindy Sealls: 1:35Yeah, I totally get it. I totally get that. But when it first started, I mean, I hate to even admit it. I remember being at work and I was telling people that I was so excited. So excited. And they were going, what is wrong with you? Like, you're , that's more of it. I was like, no, no. I just feel like, you know , I've always studied history and I love it. And , but I never felt like I lived through it where I was actually conscious of what was going on. Yes. I lived through Kennedy assassination and Malcolm X and King and the riots too, but I was too young to know what the heck was going on. It's like, now I can totally get my head around this and realize, Holy sh*t, what in world is going on? Which is what I've always thought about. God, what were people going through when the depression hit? What were they thinking about when the civil rights movement? God, remember all those kids g o t o Vietnam. I wonder what people thought about that. And they were going, Holy sh*t! Which i s a bout the only thing your brain can really process when you realize the magnitude of what the hell i s g oing o n.

: 3:03Hi, I'm Kelly Lynch. Welcome to a new normal, a podcast about how we're adapting to life during the pandemic and where we go from here. My guest today is.

Lauri Mazur: 3:24Lauri Mazur, Urban Resilience Editor at Island Press.

Kelley Lynch: 3:29Do you want to say anything about your background? Otherwise? Not really. Okay.

Lauri Mazur: 3:38I've been writing about scary and depressing things since the eighties.

Kelley Lynch: 3:44Can I quote you on that?

Lauri Mazur: 3:46Okay.

Kelley Lynch: 3:47Clearly Lori's the right person to help me make sense of this moment. Lauri Mazur, welcome to the podcast.

Lauri Mazur: 4:00Thank you for having me such a pleasure.

Kelley Lynch: 4:04I know you're just down the street in Takoma Park, but these days we all live inside our own little bubbles in our pandemic world. So tell me about life in your bubble.

Lauri Mazur: 4:17Life In my bubble. I can't complain. Life i s pretty good i n my bubble. There's still food and water and shelter and healthy family. So it's paychecks for now. Thank God. So I ca nnot c omplain about my bubble.

Kelley Lynch: 4:38So is there anything that's changed about your days?

Lauri Mazur: 4:41Well , I've been working at home since 1987 , sheltering in place. So my day to day life hasn't changed all that much, except that they're now more people around while I'm working at home. My husband and 19 year old son. Many years ago, I don't know, 2010, something like that, I was working on something called the millennium ecosystem report and I was doing some work around that. And it was this huge catalog of all the world's ecosystems and the state they were in. And the state they were in was really, really alarmingly bad. And, so at the time I had two young children.I still have those children, but they're no longer, very young. And I was working on this report and I think I j ust became sort of clinically depressed looking at the state of these systems and the world that my children going to inherit. And at the time I was doing some work for Island press and I was in the office and I saw some books on a shelf about resilience and I thought, well, that sounds good. So I kin d of pl u cked th em off the shelf and read them. And I became obsessed with this idea of resilience because it just made so much sense, thinking about what makes a system resilient and that that's sort of inherent in natural systems. But we have changed that. We've undermined the resilience of all the systems that we live within. And I just became sort of obsessed with resilience and thinking that this became my theory of everything. And it changed how I think about everything from parenting to shopping, to living, to you name it. But the big insight that I had from this was sort of looking around at the social and economic systems that we live in and they were and are profoundly not resilient. You know, I looked around at o ur systems and just thought "This is a house of cards." And so I became really interested in efforts to sort of build resilience back into those systems, restore them.

Kelley Lynch: 7:38So, because I wanted to talk to you about this current crisis that we're in and I know you think a lot about resilience. I mean, what does the current crisis reveal about our resilience?

Lauri Mazur: 7:55Well, the , the current crisis has just drawn back the curtain, I think, on our lack of resilience at every level. I mean, so here we are in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world. We've got 4% of the world's population. We have a quarter, 25% of the deaths from COVID 19. What's up with that? And there are so many reasons for this. Of course there's this spectacular failure of federal leadership. The Trump administrations denial and just stunning ineptitude. But the things that it reveals about our lack of resilience, I think teaches us a lot about what would make us more resilient in the future. For one thing, inequity, inequitable systems are very fragile and we are more inequitable in terms of economic and racial inequity than most other developed countries. You know, you have this incredible concentration of wealth at the very top and 40% of Americans don't have $400 on hand to deal with an emergency. And then racial inequity, which is really i t's sort of a rt. Our country's original sin still shapes the lives and health of African Americans in this country. So African Americans are much more likely to live near air polluting facilities like the bus Depot or the c oal-fired power p lants. So they're much higher rates of asthma and other respiratory disease in African American communities. And that makes people much more vulnerable to COVID-19. So in New York city, people of color dying at twice, the rate of COVID-19 than others. So our systems are so fragile. The Trump administration dismantled the pandemic task force. All of these things that sort of collectively protect us and support people have been bankrupted essentially. But also I think it reveals a lot of things about capitalism and a hallmark of capitalism is efficiency and efficiency is the enemy of resilience. The more efficient the system is the more brittle and fragile it is. So you look at like supply chains, we have these supply chains all over the world because, the capitalists want the lowest prices, the lowest price labor and the lowest price materials. So we get all these things. We need drugs, machine parts, et cetera, from all over the world. But those supply chains, as we have learned are incredibly fragile. They snap, and we're in big trouble. Or you look at like the efficiency of a for profit healthcare system, which is insane. We're the only developed country that has this. So when profit and efficiency are the most important thing in your healthcare system, you can't have empty beds. You can't have excess capacity because that's just money out the door. So it means that our healthcare system has no surge capacity, which is disastrous at a moment like this.

Kelley Lynch: 11:41So what would a more resilient system look like?

Lauri Mazur: 11:45Well , for one, it would be more equitable. You wouldn't have this huge yawning gap between rich and poor and why that matters. It matters that people have reserves. All those people who don't have $400 for an emergency, they're in serious trouble right now when employment has dried up and people can't work. And that matters obviously for them, for their families, for their kids. It matters for everybody. It matters if people are so impoverished that they can't hunker down at home with some reserves. It means that they are going out into the world and getting sick and infecting others. So, you know, in a pandemic we are only as safe as the least safe among us. So , we would deal with inequity. We would have systems that had other values besides just maximizing profits and efficiency systems; that were more robust and redundant; that sourced supplies locally, which would have the dual benefit of supporting the local economy. Even if you have to pay people a little bit more in the United States, you have safer supply chains. So that's an important value to protect. We would have a more robust public sphere. We would invest in the human and social infrastructure too , to care for people in times of crisis and other times as well.

Kelley Lynch: 13:36So is there anything else you would say that this crisis has revealed about our world?

Lauri Mazur: 13:43Yeah. I think it's revealed a lot about what is essential. What is really important without all the distractions. I think in our society, we're just, we're so disconnected from the sources of sustenance, from sort of where we get our food and water and other essentials. We just take a lot of stuff for granted and I think people are taking fewer things for granted. I think this crisis is a reminder of what's essential and also of who is essential. You know , the health care workers, the caregivers, the teachers, the people who grow and, and provide our food. Those are the essential workers in our society right now. And I think it's interesting that many of those workers are among the least paid and least appreciated people in our society. So, I hope that this crisis gives us a new appreciation for caregiving and caring and supporting people, providing for people that are so under appreciated. I mean, there's nobody out there clapping for the investment bankers at 7:00 PM. You know, I think that tells you something.

Kelley Lynch: 15:25So one of the reasons I really wanted to call you is because I know you spend a lot of time thinking and writing about climate change and about what our future holds. And you already mentioned that that gave you great pause to say the least. How does this, I mean, is this just a dress rehearsal for what's coming this kind of new world that we're going to step into? Or how does this current crisis intersect? Does it intersect with climate change?

Lauri Mazur: 16:10You bet. And yeah, I don't even know if you can call it a dress rehearsal since, remember, climate change is here. All of those disasters we've been seeing in recent years, the devastating fires in California, the Epic, unprecedented floods in the Midwest and Gulf, the monster hurricanes. Our regular lives may be on hold, but climate change is not on hold. Climate change is still happening. For example, the forecast for the Atlantic hurricane season, it's expected to be considerably stronger than usual. So that's going to happen. That's going to happen in the context of a pandemic where our tool for dealing with disasters like this is to evacuate people, to shelters. You can't socially isolate in a shelter. So no one is really doing the hard work of thinking about how we deal with multiple disasters. How we deal with climate related disasters in the context of a pandemic. And that needs to happen immediately. BuI do think that in the world I would like to live in, we will apply the lessons learned from this crisis to dealing with the bigger longer-term crisis of climate change, because many of the lessons apply. I mean, when you think about the world we need, when you think about being resilient to a pandemic, a lot of the principles of resilience apply across disasters. We would be a more resilient society if we were more equitable. We would be a more resilient society if we had healthcare for everyone. We would be a more resilient society if there was more diversity and redundancy in our systems . So that if part of the system goes down, the whole thing doesn't go out. I mean, that's true of say our power grid, which right now our nation's power grid is spectacularly vulnerable. So, a squirrel can take out power for 150 million people. That's happened. It's crazy. And that will affect us no matter what the disaster is. So we need systems that are robust and redundant and diverse. So instead of having this mega grid that is powered by fossil fuels, we need tons of local grids, community energy powered by a range of sources, solar, and wind and geothermal. So, that world, that more resilient world would help us in this crisis. And it would also help us in the ongoing crisis of climate change.

Kelley Lynch: 19:23I wanted to ask you, I wanted to go into the Ebola thing and that idea of trust.

Lauri Mazur: 19:31I've been thinking about that a lot. At the time I wrote that article, healthcare workers were being murdered in West Africa and in communities where they came in to treat people and bury the dead safely. And I think that was a reflection of decades and centuries of exploitation and resulting distrust. I think that the people in West Africa had really good reason to distrust authorities of various kinds, and that's how it played out. But I thought about that when I saw the photographs of the protestors here, who were protesting the lockdowns at state capitals around the country. Obviously we are not Liberia. We are, in many ways, a more functional state. But, I think some of the lessons apply because in a crisis like this in a pandemic, especially where it's a matter of life and death, whether people heed the advice of authorities and medical professionals, people have to trust those in authority. And I think that has really been eroded for many reasons. You think of c ommunities from Baltimore to St. Louis where A frican-Americans have long history of being targeted and mistreated by the police. Are they going to listen to the police when the police roll through and institute a major lockdown?

Kelley Lynch: 21:18A lot of those protests are not necessarily, African-Americans at least from what I've seen on the television.

Lauri Mazur: 21:27From what I saw of the protesters , they were more white conservatives and they have been told by the president and other leaders not to trust the media. And in this case, to an extent that could cost them their lives. And I think we're learning that a lot of those protests were actually ginned up by conservative interests, the Devoss family, and ALEC. Conservative groups that support wealthy industrialists who have a great personal and financial interest in getting the economic gears rolling again. But the larger point is that this is a society that's profoundly divided politically and demographically. And that people inhabit completely separate information ecosystems and that some of those ecosystems are in denial about both COVID and climate change. So there's not a unified response to this crisis at a time when we really need a unified response.

Kelley Lynch: 22:38Yeah, exactly. So I've had this thought that's a little bit hard to come to terms with that maybe we've lost that world we knew just a few months ago. Maybe in some ways for better, maybe in some ways for w orse. I know sometimes it feels pretty scary. I 'm trying to figure out where we go from here? What do you think?

Lauri Mazur: 23:13Well, I think we may have lost that world and that's potentially okay. That world, as I said before, was a house of cards. It was a profoundly unsustainable non resilient system that was not working for vast swaths of the population. You know, we have an economy that is premised on plunder. Plunder of people and resources in a way that is destroying the very foundations of life. I don't want that world back. There are things I will miss about it. I like raspberries in February, but I also like having a habitable planet for myself and my kids and their kids, hopefully. So yeah, this is our big chance to learn the lessons of this moment and build a more sustainable and resilient world for future generations.

Kelley Lynch: 24:29And yet, some of the people that I talked to say, there is no hope. The system is kind of baked in. The system is too powerful. What do you think? What do you say to them? Is that true?

Lauri Mazur: 24:47Nah, that's BS? There's always hope. And one thing you learned from systems thinking is that nothing is forever. For better and for worse, all systems have life cycles. All systems come crashing down at some point and they are replaced with something else. So, our job is to figure out what we're going to replace it with. There's plenty of hope. You know, the image that keeps coming into my head about the moment we're at is when you're standing on the beach and the water draws way out and you know a giant wave is coming. That's where I feel like we are. We're standing there and the water is washing way out. And the big wave is coming and we don't know how big we don't know what it will sweep away and what it will leave behind, but it's coming.

Kelley Lynch: 25:45Does that scare you?

Lauri Mazur: 25:45Sure. But the status quo scares me more. It's simply unsustainable. I mean we know literally it , if it's unsustainable and we know that our economy, the way we live on this planet is unsustainable. You can't keep doing it. You just can't keep it up. You can't keep over fishing the ocean and expect that there will be fish. You can't keep putting greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and heating up the planet and expecting anything other than disaster. This is not a longterm plan, the way we are living. Now, it's just, plunders short term plunder with longterm consequences.

Kelley Lynch: 26:32But I think several months ago, maybe a couple months ago, it felt more like we might just be able to ride into that scary climate change future in a slow way. I don't have any statistics or anything to back this up necessarily, but it really feels kind of like the way that this thing hit was so unexpected for me. I know people have said this is going to happen for years, but people talk all the time about American exceptionalism. I saw somebody talking about covert exceptionalism and this person thought that this would not happen to me. There's some magical, I' m t hinking part of my brain that has thought, well, maybe climate change won't happen to me. Not really.

Lauri Mazur: 27:41Yeah. Humans are good at that. And that is another connection to climate change. There are a lot of victims of climate change. These disasters are having real human economic costs. And they are hitting poor communities and communities of color first and worst . It's like now we all live in the lower ninth ward. This has come for everyone. I think this is made a lot of us feel more vulnerable. Of course, those more vulnerable communities feel, and are infinitely more vulnerable. But yeah, this is, this is coming for everyone. And I think it's shaking people's core sense of security and vulnerability.

Kelley Lynch: 28:46So, last question. If somebody gave you a magic wand and they said, right, you can change one, two , three things coming out of this time. What would those things be and why?

Lauri Mazur: 29:07I'd like to come out of this with universal health coverage for Americans. A single payer system, which is really the only way you can make it affordable. I think this crisis reveals just the criminal inadequacy of a for profit healthcare system that is based on employment at a time when we have unemployment rates rivaling the great depression, people need healthcare . They need healthcare during a pandemic more than ever, but they're going to need healthcare after this is over. So, that would be a good outcome of this. I'd like us to rethink our relationship with fossil fuels. I think the COVID related shutdown has given us a glimpse of cleaner air, clearer skies. We can have that. We can have a robust economy that is powered by less polluting fuels. We need that. And maybe this glimpse of a less polluted world will motivate us to fight for it. I'd like us to come out of this with a greater commitment to economic and racial equity. I'd like this to show us the ways in which we are all connected and that we are all as vulnerable as the least of us and commit to reducing that vulnerability for everyone. I mean, nothing like a pandemic to show you how profoundly we are all connected.

Kelley Lynch: 30:56Well, Laurie , thank you so much.

Lauri Mazur: 31:01My pleasure. It's always great to talk with you, Kelly .

Kelley Lynch: 31:17Do you still feel that like, whoo , I'm living through history now?

Cindy Sealls: 31:23I mean, I do. I hate to say i t? That's so selfish of me. I do, but I wouldn't mind if i t went away because we've had about six weeks of it and, u m, it's o kay. I've written a lot in my journal about it. So, I've documented it, how I'm moving through it. But, u h , I mean, it h a s g o tta b e exciting to say that, Oh my God, you know, I lived in this. I mean, I guess it's like those people with the dumb, t-shirts say, you know, Mount st He len's I lived through the Mount st . He len's e ruption and all I got was this stupid t-shirt or something like, you know how these people have this dumb t-shirts, you know, I mean, I wouldn't wear a te e s hirt like that. I survived COVID-19 I'm not even go nna a dmit that I was like, excited,

Kelley Lynch & Cindy Sealls: 32:20wait, wait, wait, wait, before you go, before you go, just one more thing. Oh, what am I supposed to say? You say whatever you want to say, you say, Hey, I'm thanking the people for listening. Right? Okay. Got it. Okay. Wait, wait, before you go anywhere. Hold on a minute. We just want to thank you for listening to the show. Like us on Facebook. I don't know if we're, I guess we haven't got a Facebook page. Oh , that's right. If you have a Facebook page say, Hey, I heard this great podcast. You'll love it and tell all your friends. We're on Instagram. Oh , we are?Yeah. All right . So like , what do you do on Instagram? You know , uh , people on Instagram, you give them a , you give them a heart. You give them all of your , my heart heart us , hardest, hardest. Oh, that sounds terrible. You know? Yeah. Like us on Instagram. Yeah. You can do that. You can do that. So, and you can also subscribe. I think that would be the really key thing. Cause I'm not quite sure how this thing works yet, but I think if you subscribe and then if people review, it moves your podcast up. So why do we want that ? We want to move up in the world. We want to help in the world of podcasting. If this is going to be our new normal, we better do something decent, man.