BOOK | AfterNow, by Bob Stilger

By Bob Stilger, Excerpts from the Introduction

At 2:46 in the afternoon Japan Time, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck in the Pacific Ocean just off of the northeast coast of Japan. Forty-five minutes later, a 50-foot high tsunami wave traveling at more than 50 miles an hour hit the shoreline, laying waste to all in its path. The next day, the Fukushima nuclear reactors began to explode.

…The morning before the disasters struck, most people in the area were leading full lives. Connected, interdependent and reasonably content, spending their days nestled in a familiar normalcy. That afternoon, everything changed. The Triple Disasters — earthquake, tsunami and nuclear explosions — would be the greatest environmental catastrophe to hit a country in living memory.

By the time the waters receded, nearly 20,000 people had lost their lives and another 500,000 lost their homes, jobs or both. Businesses, hospitals, schools and homes — destroyed. Gas lines ruptured, train tracks gone, roadways missing. Everywhere they looked, their world was in ruins. In Fukushima, the disaster from the exploding reactors was largely imperceptible, yet harder to comprehend with a devastating impact that will last for lifetimes. Strong, self-reliant people now found themselves sleeping on school floors with hundreds and sometimes thousands of strangers, depending on others to bring them rice-balls three times a day for meals. Days turned into weeks and months with almost all sense of purpose in life destroyed. For those in the disaster area, it was being in a nightmare that would not end. Those outside the disaster zones felt a sense of helplessness. They did not know how to support the people of Tohoku but knew everything had changed. Beyond the personal loss, the physical devastation and the disturbing uncertainties about the nuclear explosions, the disasters struck at a deep psychological level. Such tragedies not only obliterate the present, they also destroy any pretense of a knowable future. Japan faced a tremendous challenge to not only clean up from the Triple Disasters — but to find a new future.

What was possible?
Where to begin?
How to make a new path forward?

These were the questions facing Japan. Over the coming years, as I worked with the people of Japan, they became my own.

…Disasters in many forms are taking place around the world: cascading wars in the Middle East; millions of migrants desperately seeking safety; host countries being overwhelmed by the influx of people; economies collapsing in Greece, Zimbabwe and elsewhere around the world; random mass killings happening on our streets and in our schools and factories, and natural disasters destroying lives and property across the globe. Add to this list the systemic consequences of climate change, in- come inequality, brittle infrastructures, hate mongering and numerous other issues. Some might object if I called the election of Donald Trump a disaster, so I’ll settle for calling it a precursor of unpredictable disruptive change, which, of course, is what disaster is. And let’s not forget the more immediate personal disasters that come when a loved one dies, when a partner says “I want a divorce” or we arrive at work and are told to clean out our desk and go home.

We live in a time that signals unimaginable shifts in our lives. Scientists say these are moments of “punctuated equilibrium”2, when systems shift suddenly and unpredictably. Popular language sometimes refers to this as the transition from old to new paradigms. In his book, The Collapse of Complex Societies, Joseph Tainter offers a compelling analysis of how the very complexity that societies generate as part of their growth contains the seeds of their collapse. Meg Wheatley’s new book Who Do We Choose To Be offers vivid insight to patterns of social disintegration.

We have done enough damage to our global ecology that we can depend on more and more hurricanes, forest fires, floods, tsunamis, tornadoes, crippling snow and ice storms and the like. In addition, many of our structures and systems in areas ranging from health care to education, from transportation infrastructure to sanitation, are overloaded, overwhelmed, brittle and collapsing. We will continue to have disasters: natural and man-made, structural and physical, sys- temic a d psychological, smaller and larger.

Whatever the cause, our lives and world are steeping in disaster.


Disasters end the lives of some and cause trauma and grief for many. They turn cities and countries upside down. They smack us on the side of the head, making us open our eyes and see the world and stories we are living in.

Disasters demolish our carefully constructed lives and dreams. They dissolve the ways in which we find meaning and make sense in our lives. They reveal how our lives are sometimes like a house of cards held together by stress and inertia. In disasters, the cards collapse, our present falls apart, and our future — the one we envisioned, the one we counted on — is gone.

Disasters wake us up. We live in times of both trauma and pos- sibility. Even after great tragedy and pain, we have a deep human ca- pacity to create something new. Disasters are also a huge wake-up call that release us from the trance of our old normal and the future that was laid out in front of us. Disasters can be the springboard to create the lives we actually want. In these times, we are invited to look closely at how we want to live our lives. Important questions become visible:

  • What happens after now, today? What do we do when we can’t see the future anymore?
  • How do we proceed when our normal vanishes overnight? How do we open our eyes, see our world as it is, find those we need to be with and ask what is possible now?
  • How do we live well in this breath-taking moment, between the old and the new, surrounded by what’s dying and what’s being born? How do we keep from closing down, turning from chaos to fear and control?
  • How can we respond to these disasters so that we can discover and unleash our creativity? How can we see take advantage of these times to turn to each other to build something new?

When the future is unknowable, we bring our attention to now, to the present moment. We bring our attention to ourselves and to each other as we welcome in the unseen and create together that which brings us joy. And we join together to build a new future.


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About the Author

Bob Stilger, PhD, wrote AfterNow because we’re the ones who must step forward to create the lives and communities we want, now. Over the last seven years, Bob has worked and learned in Japan where people are creating a “new normal” after the devastating Triple Disasters – earthquake, tsunami and nuclear explosions – of March 11, 2011. We don’t have to wait for disasters to begin. Bob has spent his life learning with people all over the world about how we can create the lives we want, together. A student of social change, leadership and community building, Bob listens for the patterns, practices and actions that give birth to a life-affirming future.