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Public Culture

An interdisciplinary journal of transnational cultural studies

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How Much Is Enough?

Howard S. Becker

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During the great heat waves of 1995 in Chicago and 2003 in Paris, many people, especially but not only elderly people living alone, died, and the news media in both cities were filled with discussions of what had happened, how and why it had happened, and especially whose fault it all was. The question was raised repeatedly and continues to be raised: could more have been done to prevent these deaths, by taking greater pains, by being better prepared, by having systems in place to monitor the conditions of life for older people living alone? Most simply and practically, couldn’t air-conditioning units have been distributed to those who needed them? In Sweden, as French television viewers learned, social workers visit elderly people living alone several times each day, checking on their well-being. Each social worker has about four people to care for in this way. Why hadn’t city governments in Chicago and Paris undertaken such simple protective measures?

In another direction, why had the news media covered the story as they did, laying the blame on some city departments that failed to meet the challenges of old age in an urban setting? Later social science analyses asked why the media so quickly blamed, for instance, the culture of various ethnic groups in Chicago. It had been said, for example, that black families did not look out for old people the way Mexicans did. (The Chicago event is described in Klinenberg 2002.)

Heat waves and their attendant pathologies exemplify a larger problem: how much is enough? How much should people, organizations, cities, and nations prepare to deal with the physical, social, and human consequences of recurring (and therefore expectable) natural troubles? Thinking about a wide variety of these situations, we can use the tools of comparative analysis to study their dynamics. Their variations add to our knowledge of underlying dimensions and processes.

Consider snowstorms. Large cities in the appropriate weather zones can anticipate periodically being buried in snow, which then remains on the ground, possibly disrupting ordinary life for a long time. How prepared should a large city be for a major snowfall? Every city has some stuff on hand—snowplows and people trained to use them, emergency plans—to deal with an expectable level of trouble. That is, there’s an amount of snow that has happened often enough in the past to be considered “normal” (“normal trouble,” in other words, a concept that pops up everywhere in the analysis of disasters of all kinds). Anything beyond that is an “abnormal” amount that occurs only once every five, ten, fifty, one hundred years (in other words, this is a variable). Of course, the preparations in place for the normal snowfall can’t handle the abnormal amount. That’s what happened to poor Michael Bilandic (who had succeeded the legendary Boss Richard Daley as mayor of Chicago) during the monumental storms of January 1979, for which the city was totally unprepared, didn’t know what to do, didn’t have the equipment that might have made something doable—all of which led to the city, its people, and its commerce being tied up for most of six weeks and to Jane Byrne replacing Bilandic in the next election for mayor of the city. (This event is described in Granger and Granger 1980: 209–16, and Mergen 1997: 69–79 recounts other such meteorological and political problems.)

The normal amount of snow varies from place to place, from city to city. When I lived in Kansas City, where it snowed three or four times during the winter—but, as people always said, “it never sticks”—a three-inch snowfall that stayed on the ground for three days was a major disaster. The city’s substantial hills got slippery. Drivers unused to driving in snow easily lost control of their cars and had accidents. It wasn’t very cold, so people didn’t freeze to death as they might have in New York or Chicago. But a three-inch snowfall would not have been a major event in Chicago. After all, that’s what happens in winter. It might take twelve or eighteen inches of snow in a few hours before Chicago has serious problems, doesn’t have enough snowplows and trucks, and has its traffic and daily routines disrupted. I was once in Montreal when it started to snow, heavily, and (Chicagoan that I was) I feared that I would be stuck there for days before the airport could handle traffic again. Not at all. As soon as the snow began, fleets of plows appeared on the streets, taking the snow away as fast as it fell, so that the eighteen inches that might have paralyzed Chicago was handled as a routine event. Of course, larger snowfalls than that occur every once in a while, and they paralyze Montreal.

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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at Dukejournals.org.

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