Living in Disastrous Times

May 10, 2010
            There are two kinds of disasters. There are the fast, sudden disasters that are visible in real time and pile up bodies and rubble or flooded buildings in the blink of an eye, and that are captured in spectacular TV footage and heart-wrenching stories of heroic rescuers and personal loss. These are hurricanes, floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, or large-scale acts of terrorism like 9/11. 
            Then there are the slow, gradually accumulating disasters which unfold imperceptibly over many years or even many generations and which have to be represented in statistical tables and diagrams. The most familiar slow disaster today is climate change. Because it is slow, and because it can only be demonstrated with statistical evidence, it does not easily impress itself on our minds and emotions. It doesn’t produce immediate action the way a visible fast disaster does.   And its imperceptibility gives a slow disaster plausible deniability: those whose interests would be harmed by efforts to deal with a slow disaster can believe, and make others believe, that it’s not really happening. 
            There are other slow disasters underway besides climate change. The spread of nuclear weapons, for example. As Jonathan Schell argued in a recent issue of The Nation, the technical knowledge and the materials necessary for producing a nuclear bomb are increasingly available to nations and to groups not loyal to any nation. 
            A third slow disaster that is rarely identified as one is the increasing impoverishment of the majority of the earth’s increasing population, in contrast to the economic and political power of the very rich and the military and police machinery necessary to keep the poorer peoples and nations in their places. This is arguably the background condition of a great deal of the violence that takes place in the world – drug wars, wars over oil, water and other scarce resources, and the rage behind acts of terrorism. 
            All this is by way of introduction to a book about disasters: Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Solnit draws on accounts of what ordinary people do in disasters like the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, Hurricane Katrina, and the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York on 9/11 and several others, to demonstrate that human beings are not fundamentally self-centered and competitive, but under disastrous circumstances, are mostly caring and altruistic. In contrast with news stories about rampant looters taking advantage of the absence of authority and Hollywood disaster movies that show people going crazy with panic, Solnit paints a very different picture of how people act. Here’s what she says:
      In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. 
In a disaster,
people demonstrate resourcefulness, altruism, improvisational ability, and kindness, A disaster produces chaos immediately, but the people hit by that chaos usually improvise a fleeting order that is …like one of [the anarchist] Peter Kropotkin‘s mutual aid societies…   It liberates people to revert to a latent sense of self and principle, one more generous, braver, and more resourceful than what we ordinarily see. (95)
Solnit cites another study that concludes
that contrary to the longtime assumption about how human beings respond to danger, women in particular often gather together to share concerns and abilities.   [The study concludes] that ‘this tend and befriend’ pattern is a sharp contrast to the ‘flight-or-fight’ behavior pattern that has long been considered the principal responses to stress….(92)
In the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, one man recalled, “The strong helped the weak with their burdens, and when pause was made for refreshment, food was voluntarily divided…” And then he says, “Would that it could always be so!”   And here, says Solnit, “you get to the remarkable fact that people wish some aspects of disasters would last.” For the man goes on, “No one richer, none poorer than his fellow; no coveting the other’s goods; no envy; no greedy grasping for more than one’s fair share of that given for all. …What a difference those few days when there was no money, or when money had no value!” (30)   What comes through often in Solnit’s book and in the post-disaster memories she gathers from survivors, is the joy people felt in being in solidarity with each other, of losing their oppressive sense of isolation as they merged their desires with the common will. 
            But now the puzzle Solnit’s book raises is, why doesn’t this good feeling of fellowship and mutual aid last? Perhaps it’s a little like falling in love – which is easy, while the work of building a long term relationship is hard. To quote again,
A disaster is as far from falling in love as can be imagined, but disaster utopias are also a spell when engagement, improvisation, and empathy happen as if by themselves. Then comes the hard business of producing a good society by determination and dedication.(165)
Solnit suggests that
if life [in primitive, pre-historic times] was in some sense always a disaster, it must have been so in the sense in which peril came accompanied by solidarity and urgency.   When we left that existence behind, we left behind with it something essential, the force that bind us to each other, to the moment, and to an inherent sense of purpose. The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure is the great contemporary task of being human. Or perhaps the dawning era of economic and environmental disasters will solve the conundrum for us more harshly. (113, emphasis added)
            This brings us back nicely to something Solnit says on p. 3 of her book: If Hobbes is right and we are essentially selfish; if “I am not my brother’s keeper, then we have been expelled from paradise, a paradise of unbroken solidarities. Thus does everyday life become a social disaster.” (emphasis added)
            The problem is that everyday life is a slow disaster, so it doesn’t move people out of their possessive-defensive posture into the solidarity and urgency that not only avert the disaster, but make life intrinsically worth living.   This why it’s so important that we see climate change, nuclear proliferation, and economic inequality as accelerating disasters, We are riding a disastrous tidal wave of history that asks us to put aside bourgeois life, life as we know it, and act joyfully the way people do in conditions they know are disastrous.   



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