Chicken flotation devices and map bending

This week, Barr sponsored a symposium at Massart that explored whether the arts could be used to raise awareness about climate change – awareness that would lead to action. It was great to spend a day with artists, scientists, and activists thinking about how we might enrich and fertilize each other’s endeavors.

One of my favorite moments came during a five minute presentation by Pablo Suarez. Pablo consults with the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, developing games and other activities that help communities at risk of flood, famine or other disaster better plan for and foresee the future. Red Cross/Red Crescent has realized that, with climate change, there will be so many more natural disasters – too many to respond to – that they have to change the way they work.

Pablo told us about a project that trained residents of flood-prone villages to film interviews with each other to document the best ways to minimize damage during inevitable floods. One of the best tips that emerged was “one we never would have thought of – get rid of your chickens and get ducks.” Chickens, of course drown in floods, while ducks…float.

“We would have spent years developing chicken flotation devices,” said Suarez, whose sunny enthusiasm for actually looking for solutions among the people affected by the problem  (as opposed to expert theories) is contagious. I can’t wait to learn more about his work.

For some reason, this put me in mind of something Laurence Gonzales says in Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, an engaging and scary examination of people who’ve survived accidents and natural disasters.  Despite its focus on men and women getting lost, jumping with faulty parachutes, falling down mountains and many other things I have no interest or inclination to do, this book is full of wonderful nuggets about handling extreme stress and surviving llife’s more mundane problems.

In a chapter about the disorientation of getting lost, Gonzales quotes Edward Cornell:

Whenever you start looking at your map and saying something like ‘well, that lake could have dried up,’ or ‘ that boulder could have moved,” a red light should go off. You’re trying to make reality conform to your expectations rather than seeing what’s there. In the sport of orienteering, they call that ‘bending the map.’

Gonzales  warns that “everyone who dies out there dies of confusion,” and goes on to say:

Being lost, then, is not a location, it is a transformation. It is a failure of the mind. It can happen in the woods or it can happen in life.

Another nugget:

There is a tendency to make a plan and then to worship the plan, that ‘memory of the possible future.’ But there is also a tendency to think that simply by putting forth more and more effort, we can overcome friction.

That resonated in an almost painful way. How often in social change work do we design chicken flotation devices instead of switching to ducks?  Expanding a homeless shelter system instead of providing rent subsidies comes to mind. I’m sure you can think of other examples.  And how often, when things don’t go as I’d expected, do I fail to admit I’m lost? I’ve wasted a lot of time bending the map, holding on to plans that don’t redflect the present landscape instead of taking a clear-eyed view of what is there. My vow for the year is to try to do less of that.



Ver. 1.3

4 thoughts on “Chicken flotation devices and map bending

  1. Pingback: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why | Survival Aids

  2. What is most striking to me about the ‘get rid of your chickens and get ducks’ example from the story above is that those with resources to implement solutions had the foresight to ensure that people closest to the problem could substantively engage in the conversation….interviewing each other and documenting their insights. Many of us (all of us on this blog thus far…for sure) have put lots of energy into finding ways for families most affected by economic hardship and housing instability to weigh in on the solutions. But, I wonder to what extent families’ ideas have really mattered in the homelessness solution development in MA (I fear not much) and, on a practical level, what forms of substantive and ongoing input might be possible……so that we avoid continuing to waste time bending the map.

    Thank you for the invite to this conversation, Melinda….

  3. I love the chicken flotation devices instead of switching to ducks analogy. It resonants with so many social, political and religious issues. I also think it is at the heart of the definition of insanity when we think by doing the same thing over and over we will get a different outcome. Your example on homelessness is very real. It is caught in the chicken floatation design where often times emotions trump facts. Keep your musings coming, they offer perspective for those of us seeking to give air to a few ducks. Time for some new “safety net” that are riddled with holes!

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