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Rebecca Solnit on How Disasters Can Move Us From a Sense of Self-Interest to a Sense of Community

(Image: Penguin Books)

In a post-literate age, Rebecca Solnit is a masterful essayist and author who writes with a style that is seductively brilliant. She can create a compelling commentary or book out of a wisp of an idea that others would summarily dismiss. Solnit, however, takes that sometimes contrarian thought and weaves together seemingly disparate evidence to make a persuasive, often lyrical, argument on its behalf.

Except it is not really an argument – her writing is the opposite of shrill. Solnit is not a naïve optimist by any stretch of the imagination; she understands the dark side of the human species. But to be passive in the face of adversity is to hinder positive change. As Solnit wrote in an essay on (where she periodically posts): “To be hopeful means to be uncertain about the future, to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.”

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Mark Karlin: What drew you to writing a book that shows how “extraordinary communities” can “arise in disaster?”

Rebecca Solnit: A disaster. In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake hit the Bay Area, and I was amazed by my own response – to never think again about the person who was making my life difficult and think instead about the people and place I loved – and everyone else’s. For years after, I noticed how many people looked happy when they told their earthquake stories (and during the big California drought in my teens I’d noticed that people seemed to derive more pleasure from not using than using water in ordinary times). Then an invitation: I was invited to give the Raymond Williams memorial lecture at Cambridge University, and I wanted to start something new to do honor to that great Welsh radical cultural thinker. I began to read about disaster and be amazed by some of what I found, and the talk became a Harper’s essay that went to press on August 29, 2005. That was the day Katrina hit, and I saw everything go terribly, horribly wrong not because a hurricane had hit the Gulf, but because the authorities believed every standard lie about disaster and human nature and acted on them. Later, the term “elite panic” became key to the book. (It was coined by Caryn Chess and Lee Clarke at Rutgers.)

Mark Karlin: Is what happened in Red Hook Brooklyn, when an offshoot of Occupy and other grassroots groups came together to provide tangible and logistical support to residents devastated by Hurricane Sandy, a mini-example of the five large-scale disasters you explore in A Paradise Built in Hell?

Rebecca Solnit: I wouldn’t even call it mini. The disaster was major. The Occupy people responded magnificently, marshalling some major aid, and they were fast, flexible and able to adapt to specifics in ways that the billion-dollar Red Cross was not. There was a moment in November when Occupy Sandy was collaborating with UPS and essentially feeding FEMA and directing the National Guard. What’s really interesting to me is how Occupy encampments looked as though a disaster had already taken place – they looked like earthquake camps to me – and how they functioned with the resourcefulness, changed roles, strong solidarity and empathy of some such camps and disasters. You can say the economic crash or economic injustice is a disaster the thousands of Occupy camps responded to with both a statement and the practical rescue – via tents, camp kitchens, medic clinics – of the needy.

Mark Karlin: In an essay published in Tom Dispatch last year, you wrote: “To be hopeful means to be tender toward possibilities, to be dedicated to change all the way down to the bottom of your heart.” Is this also a guiding light for those in the midst of catastrophic events?

Rebecca Solnit: Well, people in disasters live in an intensified present. One of the silliest things about calamity in disaster movies is that people are carrying all their personal baggage with them, and just as you don’t evacuate with the coffee table and the boxes of junk, so you shed some of that in your psyche in an emergency. If your city burns down, you might not be resolving your romantic issues so intently, and you might just not have those issues. The great disaster sociologist Charles Fritz wrote half a century ago: “Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and future because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs within the context of the present realities.” So on the one hand people sometimes find themselves in the circumstances they had yearned for – they are deeply connected to the time and place and people around them, they have a meaningful role, and the stuff (that is mostly located everywhere but the here and now) we fret about has been swept away. Sometimes civil society seems reborn and regnant, as though a revolution has taken place. Sometimes as the emergencies are resolved people seem to have a different sense of what is possible, for themselves personally, and for their society. But hope – hope is more for ordinary times.

Mark Karlin: What is it about disasters that, while resulting in large loss of life, can also be societally liberating? I am thinking of your epilogue: “Disaster reveals what else the world could be like – reveals the strength of that hope, that generosity and that solidarity. It reveals mutual aid as a default operating principle and civil society as something waiting in the wings when it’s absent from the stage.”

Rebecca Solnit: It’s important to note that disasters affect us each differently. In 1906, some people – about 3,000 – were killed, and of course a much larger number widowed, orphaned or otherwise bereaved; some were injured; some people were separated from their families; some lost their homes; wealthy out-of-town people seemed to be the most frightened. Yet there’s a very high level of positive emotion in the accounts written at the time – along with fury at the government, particularly the military. Disasters affect different people differently, and the large percentage of people who are disrupted without being so devastated are who I focused on: In their accounts comes a remarkable picture of what happens, and maybe what we crave without naming the rest of the time. For the individual, some of the distraction, pettiness, worry about future or brooding about past is swept away. People feel they have something in common with the people around them when the physical disaster isn’t overlaid by racism or other imposed social disasters; they feel urgency and immediacy; and they feel satisfaction in resolving immediate and clear needs. Meaningful roles, work and social connections are all possible – when things go well, which means that in the aftermath people are free to improvise the best conditions of survival. So there’s both a psychological transformation and a broad social one – sometimes, as in Mexico City in 1985, people feel that civil society has been reborn. This is not to say that disasters are wonderful. They are terrible. Sometimes the way we respond is wonderful, and some disaster responses resemble revolutions: The status quo is gone and all bets are off, much seems possible and most feel profound solidarity. This is why disasters are terrifying to the elites – that shattered status quo served them well and they are often frantic to reestablish it, while others hope for change.

Mark Karlin: In New Orleans, Katrina offered the opportunity for the decaying residential areas of the city to reinvent themselves, you argue. But you spend a significant portion investigating the homicides committed against blacks by white vigilantes. What are the implications of this literally murderous racial divide to the concept of hope amidst ruins?

Rebecca Solnit: Actually I don’t write about urban decay or reinvention, though some very good green rebuilding has taken place (and too many homes are still empty and need that renovation). People in New Orleans mostly wanted to return to what had been; they loved their city and its rites and spaces. “Elite panic” is a good way to understand the vigilantes, the white men who attacked, threatened, shot, and probably killed black men on the other side of the Mississippi from the central city. They seemed to believe that black people were a revolution or a storm that had been kept bottled up when institutional authority was in charge and now that force was loose and a terrible threat. It was both a standard set of disaster beliefs – that some of us turn into rabid mobs in disaster, as in the movies, augmented by the mainstream media actually reporting on these things happening although they did not – and racism’s underbelly of fear.

Behind such disaster response is an assumption about human nature: that we are selfish, chaotic, greedy, brutal animals. The evidence is mostly to the contrary – the great majority of us behave with grace and generosity and, often, great courage and calm. Those who behave otherwise are in part infected by the belief that others are like that (and sometimes I think those officials who do worst know that they themselves are deeply self-serving and ruthless and can’t comprehend that most of us are less so).

Mark Karlin: You write of the era of “sudden and slow disaster” caused by climate change. What lessons are there in short-term disasters for coping with the natural environmental payback that is sweeping over us?

Rebecca Solnit: One really important message of my friend Bill McKibben’s books, Deep Economy and Earth, is that to adapt to climate change we need to become more local, food and energy-independent, involved in our communities. One message of this book of mine is that we really crave that engagement, connection, immediacy, and that actually we are sometimes quite good at improvising and collaborating, and we derive deep joy from doing so. This is really useful, I think, for the adaptation Bill talks about – and we really do need to talk more about all the ways our current extravagant economies make us poor, not rich, and adaptation could make us rich, not poor, in these less quantifiable ways. But also, climate change is already bringing a host of urgent, fast-moving disasters: floods, heat waves, droughts, wildfires, storms – so we also need to be prepared for these. Living in San Francisco, I hear all the time about packing an earthquake kit, but I believe that being well-informed about how people behave is crucial equipment.

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Mark Karlin: On page 62 of A Paradise Built in Hell, you state, “Popular culture feeds on this privatized sense of self.” Must we depend on cataclysms to create islands of vital, mutually supportive community?

Rebecca Solnit: Perhaps the most important thing I learned from this work is that some of the altruism and generosity is with us all the time. If you ask someone what kind of a society we live in they might say capitalist, but in the relations between parents and children, between friends and lovers, in the plethora of volunteer, activist and charitable organizations in this country in particular, you can see a profound anti-capitalism. Many of us are capitalists or at least workers in the economy because we must and anti-capitalists because that’s how we act on our deepest beliefs and desires. A school teacher works for a salary, but she does her job with heart and soul and maybe buys her poorest student a coat and art supplies for the whole class because she’s not just for hire, she’s much more. Really, I think capitalism is a failure propped up by this anti-capitalism: Look at how much groups like the homeless are helped by this compassion in action, and think of how many more people would suffer and die without it. We need to take stock of the many ways in which we ourselves are above and beyond market forces and the power of this counter-force in our society now. If we could assess its breadth and depth, we could build on it.

And most of us have had the experience of a personal calamity – a major illness or disruption or loss – and had people show up for us in moving ways, seeing the depth of our connections in ways we might not have otherwise. These are the mini-disasters, and they can change your life a little too.

Mark Karlin: How did you pick the five catastrophes you focused on and why?

Rebecca Solnit: Another source of the book was work I did on another project with Mark Klett and Philip Fradkin about the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco for the centennial of that disaster – the largest urban disaster in this country’s history until Katrina. I found a lot of glowing accounts of people’s experiences there, as well as institutional misconduct on the scale of Katrina. So those two were my bookends. The Halifax Explosion of 1917 let me go to Canada and see the birth of disaster studies – that section moves on to look at the Blitz and the intellectual discourses around the subject. Mexico City was the great example of a disaster where the reborn civil society did not disperse and forget, but hung onto and built on some of what emerged in the first hours and days of calamity. And 9/11 – it is still astonishing how little people knew and talked about what really happened, including the spontaneous assembly of an armada of watercraft that evacuated perhaps half a million people from the southern tip of Manhattan. Too, you can anticipate earthquakes in my town and hurricanes in New Orleans, but that attack was unprecedented and unforeseen for the people in the Twin Towers that day and they still behaved with impeccable grace and calm. No one was trampled, no one was shoved, many were assisted by strangers in evacuating the most terrifying and unimaginable catastrophe. So it was a good place to look again at the basics of disasters: the questions about human nature – and elite panic.

Mark Karlin: What do you say to cynics who cite the 9/11 attacks as an example of communities emerging “flexible and improvisational, more egalitarian and more hierarchical,” only to be politically hijacked by the likes of George W. Bush and Rudy Giuliani?

Rebecca Solnit: I would say that that’s not cynicism – it’s history. Yet if we had better journalism and better frameworks for what always happens in a disaster, it all might’ve been different. In that catastrophe the mainstream media failed us perhaps even more profoundly than they did in hyping hysterical rumors and slanders about the people of New Orleans the first week of Katrina. They turned an event in which, as a policeman I quoted put it, everyone was a hero into one in which only men in uniform were; they didn’t say much about the remarkable self-evacuation and beautiful moments of mutual aid – the commissary that was created spontaneously by horizontal organizing among strangers, for example; they didn’t note that the US military utterly failed that day, while the unarmed passengers of the flight that crashed succeeded in stopping a terrorist attack. But elites panic and in times of disaster the media can be just another elite.

And yet it’s also worth noting that numberless people’s lives were changed in ways we also haven’t taken stock of much. For me, of course, the most important is that the book editor Tom Engelhardt was so appalled by the coverage of 9/11 he began circulating to a list news he collected from other sources, often foreign, and this grew into, the small site that serves as a wire service to the world, publishing a long, carefully edited political essay three times a week, each essay circulating around the world. TomDispatch changed my life by giving me a platform – and the most perfect collaborator possible – to become a political writer, to speak to the moment, and to have it circulate in wild ways. The most recent piece I published, on violence against women, is being translated into Turkish today and is circulating in India and South Africa.

Mark Karlin: Is passivity in the face of a world that disappoints a form of societal depression, of being dismayed to the point of losing the will to be an agent of change? Do disasters offer the opportunity of breaking the bonds of submission?

Rebecca Solnit: Yes they do. I did not expect disasters to carry forward the thinking in my book Hope in the Dark (which grew out of the first TomDispatch I wrote, almost a decade ago), but the window they gave onto human nature, social possibility and our deep desires for meaningful work, agency and voice, community and participation was ultimately profoundly hopeful. After all, anyone who believes in direct democracy believes we can govern ourselves; in disasters we do, beautifully, for a time.

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