Nature's Way of Teaching Us about Change: Learning from Hurricanes, Tsunamis, Earthquakes and Other Natural Disasters

Article excerpt


Our field of Organization Development is challenged to respond to human needs at not only the individual and organizational level but at the societal level as well. In this challenge is the potential to renew our field and expand its positive impact. Discussed in this paper is the recent set of natural and manmade disasters and what the field of O.D. can bring to these in terms of help and understanding. The case to be made is very personal to the author in that much of the changes he has had to deal with were forced on him by the recent Gulf Coast hurricanes. What is offered here is a perspective on change work where external influences were near total and the response in terms of O.D. was only possible from a position of vulnerability and not from any senior consulting or leadership position.

For the many millions of us living on the Gulf Coast of the United States, the question on our mind nearly everyday is how much more of this can we take. How many more visitors with names like Ivan, Dennis, Katrina and Wilma are out there waiting to come calling? Then, since we for the first time in 2005, we ran out of human named storms so now how many more Alphas and Betas are out there, and at this time what do we do now that Zeta has been spotted lying in waiting? Then what do we do to prepare ourselves for next season and the season after that, these are not the promised seasons of a man's life but instead the seasons that are starting to control many of our lives. Seasons of change where we are giving little if any choice, seasons many of us in this work we call O.D. are not that experienced in; we facilitate change not run and hide from it.

The answer obviously from history is that in terms of natural disasters we have to take it all, welcome all of our named visitors. We, meaning in this case our human community at risk, and around the world this human community is being subjected to one disaster after another and many that make New Orleans and the trauma experienced there in 2005 quite small in comparison. Both the earthquakes in Pakistan and the tsunamis in Sri Lanka and Indonesia make the news for only a few weeks but the after effects will likely still be with those millions of unfortunate souls for decades. The same is true for Europe and its record floods, Asia and it's chance of a pandemic bird flu, and we should never forget Africa and the world wide crises of AIDS. Humanity must be able to not just survive these "changes." Natural catastrophes have always been with us but it is possible to learn from each something that helps us deal with this unique type of change. Change where the conditions make it simply impossible to ignore, change where we have absolutely no choice and little if any chance to influence and change that makes it so abundantly clear we do not know how to manage or even to adequately prepare for the post-traumatic stress that follows.

To better position this situation of change at a massive scale, we can add the non-natural or what are termed the human disasters of political and economic catastrophes in particular. It may even seem to some of us that this new century, where a few of us actually began the new millennium with hope, is throwing far more at us than we ever anticipated. Our U.S. man made shock came with the now infamous September of 2001 terrorist strikes, something many around the world have had much more experience with. For example, in the Middle East for many living there similar terrorist acts are a near daily occurrence. At the current time, we also have the many smaller wars, eternal conflicts and military incursions that make the planet one very frightening place for so many of us who have no way in which to understand or accept the political events which wreck havoc on us. Not anyone of us is immune from these forced changes and yet we have no general theory or change strategy that takes this type change into consideration.

To add to all of this we then have all the bombshells and shelling of the economic changes that a wider and freer trade world is creating in terms of job displacement and general instability. …