Thursday, 3 February 2011

A Paradise Built in Hell

With the flooding and the cyclone currently ravaging parts of Australia, a timely reminder is due of Rebecca Solnit's work. It's disappointing-- although certainly not entirely unexpected-- that the media haven't taken any time out from their feeding frenzy to place events in a larger context, by referring to Solnit's study. The way the communities have pulled together, with complete strangers volunteering to help each other, bears out her general point. Namely, natural and man-made disasters can be utopias that showcase human solidarity and point the way to a freer society.  Solnit (River of Shadows) reproves civil defense planners, media alarmists and Hollywood directors who insist that disasters produce terrified mobs prone to looting, murder and cannibalism unless controlled by armed force and government expertise. Surveying disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she shows that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other. Indeed, the main problem in such emergencies, she contends, is the elite panic of officials who clamp down with National Guardsmen and stifling regulations.

Why is it that in the aftermath of a disaster- whether manmade or natural-people suddenly become altruistic, resourceful, and brave? What makes the newfound communities and purpose many find in the ruins and crises after disaster so joyous? And what does this joy reveal about ordinarily unmet social desires and possibilities?

Solnit explores major calamities from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco through the 1917 explosion that tore up Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She examines how disaster throws people into a temporary utopia of changed states of mind and social possibilities, as well as looking at the cost of the widespread myths and rarer real cases of social deterioration during crisis. This is a timely and important book from an acclaimed author whose work consistently locates unseen patterns and meanings in broad cultural histories (thanks derridata). 

Interview with the author here.

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