(It’s a Season of Presentations apparently, Dear Readers; and here’s one I gave on Thursday evening at the first public meeting for a Community Response to Extreme Weather (CREW) group and project in one of our lower-income communities. It ties in nicely with the bit on Building Communities I wrote here recently, so I thought I’d post it. Hope you enjoy, and would love to hear your thoughts!
There’s a bunch of links to studies I referenced at the bottom, and I’ve posted the slides I used too if you’re interested)
Today I’m going to talk to you about how building social capital improves health and increases resilience to extreme weather events caused by climate change.
Which begs the question: what the heck is social capital?
As it turns out, nobody knows. There is no one definition.
But it does sound very impressive. Building social capital to improve health and increase resilience to extreme weather events caused by climate change! Lots of words with lots of syllables, exactly the kind of phrase that impresses donors and the public. It’s reassuringly technical. It even uses the word “capital,” which in a capitalist society, tends to be equated with “good stuff.”
But, like a lot of phrases that have lots of syllables, impress donors and the public, sound reassuringly technical, and make us think about money, it’s incredibly abstract. You probably don’t get a picture in your head of a person doing an actual thing.
Sometimes it helps to start with a thing’s opposite, so let’s try that. What is the opposite of social capital? Social isolation, right? Social poverty. That’s a phrase that probably brings a concrete picture to mind of a person doing an actual thing—but in their home, by themselves.
And we know it’s dangerous. It’s deadly even in the absence of compounding factors. Social isolation has the same mortality impacts as smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. That’s incredible. A socially isolated person is 29% more likely to die from any cause. Loneliness is even contagious: a single lonely person can destabilize an entire social network, causing isolation to spread like a virus, according to one longtitudinal study. Loneliness causes people to be pricklier, to withdraw from potential connections faster, which increases their isolation and according to some studies leads to them being shunned in social settings. It doubles your chance of dying from heart disease. That person doing a thing, in their house by themselves, is dying from it— and the people around them are at higher risk of dying too.
Add in extraordinary circumstances like an extreme heat event, an ice storm, a power outage, and that person in their house by themselves is even more likely to die.
When I was brainstorming ideas for this presentation, I found three key rules for avoiding serious health or mortality impacts from an extreme weather event:
Don’t be old
Don’t be sick
Don’t be alone
What a soul-crushing list.
They meant it tongue-in-cheek, but that is not going to help if you are old and sick, and you come across this list while you’re trying to prepare for an emergency—in your house–alone.
Public Health Units like the one I work in are highly, singularly motivated to help as many people as possible reach old age, where eventually, we’re all going to get sick. And then it gets pretty hard to leave your home and make new friends. And what about other isolating factors? Unpredictable work schedules, not speaking English, culture shock, disabilities—all are going to be barriers to getting out of the house and meeting people.
And if you’re already lonely, and if that loneliness is compounded by things such as poverty or illness, when an emergency comes to your neighbourhood, you may desperately need help and have no one to ask for it.
Which is why people who are old and socially isolated are the most likely to die in the wake of an emergency.
So how do we solve this?
As we said—build social capital to increase resilience in the face of emergencies such as extreme weather events brought about by climate change.
Great! What does that mean? What the heck is social capital?
OK, so it’s hard to define—but we know it when we see it.
It means friendship, yes? It means rebuilding trust in our communities, so we know we can ask for, give and receive help when we need to. It means connections and reciprocity. It means care. It means: who we know, who knows us, and who we can rely on.
And now it starts to sound like something you can picture someone doing—public meetings, the PTA, neighbourhood associations, the one kid who offers to shovel everyone’s driveway, tea with a neighbour, going to the playground.
If the research says that loneliness is destabilizing, painful, and deadly, what does it say about social connections? Here’s an abstract from a recent meta-analysis:
Social connection is a pillar of lifestyle medicine. Humans are wired to connect, and this connection affects our health. From psychological theories to recent research, there is significant evidence that social support and feeling connected can help people maintain a healthy body mass index, control blood sugars, improve cancer survival, decrease cardiovascular mortality, decrease depressive symptoms, mitigate posttraumatic stress disorder symptoms, and improve overall mental health.
What about in the context of extreme weather events and other climate impacts?
Post-Katrina studies in New Orleans found that, when you compare neighbourhoods with similar income levels and demographics, those with more social capital—more civic engagement, more relationships, more connections—recovered faster and stronger than those without. Research conducted in communities recovering from Cyclone Alia in Bangladesh also concluded that social capital is crucial. Similar results were found in post-earthquake recovery in Kobe, Japan and Gujarat, India. Communities and neighbourhoods recover faster when the people in them have strong social ties.
As with a lot of climate solutions, rebuilding social capital has a funny way of making life better at the same time. Regardless of when or if an extreme weather event hits close to home, if we can rebuild those networks, we’ll be healthier, happier, stronger, and live longer—and unlike eating kale or jogging or flossing, it promises to be a lot of fun.