Falling Together

In this exclusive extract from her new book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit provides an alternative to the dominant narrative of human responses to disaster. Far from unleashing a Hobbesian war of all against all, unwelcome catastrophe can allow a welcome return to community, altruism and solidarity.

Who are you? Who are we? In times of crisis, these are life and death questions. Thousands of people survived Hurricane Katrina because grandsons or aunts or neighbours or complete strangers reached out to those in need all through the Gulf Coast, and because an armada of boat owners from the surrounding communities and as far away as Texas went into New Orleans to pull stranded people to safety. Hundreds of people died in the aftermath of Katrina because others, including police, vigilantes, high government officials and the media, decided that the people of New Orleans were too dangerous to allow them to evacuate the septic, drowned city, or to rescue them, even from hospitals. Some who attempted to flee were turned back at gunpoint or shot down. Rumours proliferated about mass rapes, mass murders, and mayhem that turned out later to be untrue, though the national media and New Orleans’s police chief believed and perpetrated those rumours during the crucial days when people were dying on rooftops, elevated highways and in crowded shelters and hospitals in the unbearable heat without adequate water, without food, without medicine and medical attention. Those rumours led soldiers and others dispatched as rescuers to regard victims as enemies. Others were murdered as a result, but not by the people the media scrutinised. Beliefs matter – though more people act beautifully despite their beliefs than the reverse.

Katrina was an extreme version of what goes on in many disasters, where how you behave depends on whether you think your neighbours or fellow citizens are a greater threat than the havoc wrought by a disaster or a greater good than the property in houses and stores around you. (‘Citizen’, here, means members of a city or community, not people in possession of legal citizenship in a nation.) What you believe shapes how you act. How you act results in life or death, for yourself or others, like everyday life, only more so. Katrina was, like most disasters, also full of altruism: from young men who took it upon themselves to supply water, food, diapers, and protection to the strangers stranded with them, to people who sheltered neighbours, to the uncounted hundreds or thousands who set out in boats – armed, often, but also armed with compassion – to find those who were stranded in the stagnant waters and bring them to safety, to the two hundred thousand or more who volunteered to house complete strangers, mostly in their own homes, via the Internet site hurricanehousing.org in the weeks after, more persuaded by the pictures of suffering than the rumours of monstrosity, to the uncounted tens of thousands of volunteers who came to the Gulf Coast to rebuild and restore.

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, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behaviour in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and storms across the North American continent and around the world have demonstrated this. But belief lags behind, and often the worst behaviour in the wake of a calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism. From 1906 San Francisco to 2005 New Orleans, innocents have been killed by people who believed that their victims were the criminals and they themselves were the protectors of the shaken order. Belief matters.

‘Today Cain is still killing his brother’ proclaims a faded church mural on wood siding in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans that was so devastated by the failure of the government levees. In quick succession, the Book of Genesis gives us the creation of the universe, the illicit acquisition of knowledge, the expulsion from Paradise, and the slaying of Abel by Cain, a second fall from grace into jealousy, competition, alienation and violence. When God asks where his brother is, Cain asks back, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ He is refusing to say what God already knows: that the spilled blood of Abel cries out from the ground that has absorbed it. He is also raising one of the perennial social questions: are we beholden to each other, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself? Most traditional societies have deeply entrenched commitments and connections between people, families, and groups. The very concept of society rests on the idea of networks of affinity and affection, and the freestanding individual exists largely as an outcast or exile.

Mobile and individualistic modern societies shed some of these old bonds and vacillate about taking on others, particularly those expressed through economic arrangements – particularly provisions for the aged and vulnerable, the mitigation of poverty and desperation – the keeping of one’s brothers and sisters. The argument against such keeping is often framed as an argument about human nature: we are essentially selfish, and because you will not care for me, I cannot care for you. I will not feed you because I must hoard against starvation, since I too cannot count on others. Better yet, I will take your wealth and add it to mine – if I believe that my wellbeing is independent of yours or pitted against yours – and justify my conduct as natural law. 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. Sometimes disaster intensifies this; sometimes it provides a remarkable reprieve from it, a view into another world for our other selves. When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up – not all, but the great preponderance – to become their brothers’ keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness brings joy even amidst death, chaos, fear and loss. Were we to know and believe this, our sense of what is possible at any time might change. We speak of self-fullfilling prophesies, but any belief that is acted on makes the world in its image. Beliefs matter. And so do the facts behind them. When it comes to human behaviour in disaster, the gap between common beliefs and actualities limits the possibilities. Changing beliefs could fundamentally change much more. Horrible in itself, disaster is sometimes a door back into paradise, the realm in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire and are each our sisters’ and brothers’ keepers.

I landed in Halifax, Nova Scotia, shortly after a big hurricane tore up the city in October of 2003. The man in charge of taking me around told me about the hurricane – not the winds at more than a hundred miles an hour that tore up trees, roofs, telephone poles, not the seas that rose nearly ten feet, but the neighbours. He spoke of the few days when everything was disrupted and lit up with happiness as he did so. In his neighbourhood all the people had come out of their houses to speak with each other, aid each other, to improvise a community kitchen, make sure the elders were okay, and spend time together, no longer strangers. ‘Everybody woke up the next morning and everything was different,’ he mused. ‘There was no electricity, all the stores were closed, no one had access to media. The consequence was that everyone poured out into the street to bear witness. Not quite a street party, but everyone out at once – it was a sense of happiness to see everybody even though we didn’t know each other.’ His joy struck me powerfully.

A friend told me of being trapped in a terrible fog, one of the dense tule fogs that overtakes California’s Central Valley periodically. On this occasion the fog mixed with dust from the cotton fields and created a shroud so perilous that the highway patrol stopped all traffic on the highway. For two days she was stranded with many others in a small diner. She and her husband slept upright, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, in the banquettes of the diner’s booths, food and water began to run short, and they began to have a marvellous time. The people gathered there had little in common, but they all opened up, began to tell each other the stories of their lives, and by the time the road was safe, they were reluctant to go, but they went onward, home to New Mexico for the holidays. There everyone looked at them perplexedly as they told the story of their stranding with such ebullience. That time in the diner was the first time ever her partner, a Native American, had felt a sense of belonging in society at large. Such redemption amid disruption is common.

It reminded me of how many of us in the San Francisco Bay Area had loved the Loma Prieta earthquake that took place three weeks before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Or loved not the earthquake, but the way communities had responded to it. It was alarming for most of us as well, devastating for some, and fatal for sixty people (a very low death count for a major earthquake in an area inhabited by millions). When the subject of the quake came up with a new acquaintance the other day, she too glowed with recollection about how her San Francisco neighbourhood had, during the days the power was off, cooked up all its thawing frozen food, held barbeques on the street, how gregarious everyone had been, how people from all walks of life had mixed in candlelit bars that became community centres. Another friend recently remembered with unextinguished amazement that when he traveled the several miles from the World Series baseball game at Candlestick Park in the city’s southeast to his home in the central city, someone was at every blacked-out intersection, directing traffic. Without orders or centralised organisation, people had stepped up to meet the needs of the moment, suddenly in charge of their communities and streets.

When that earthquake shook the central California coast on October 17, 1989, I was surprised to find that the person I was angry at no longer mattered. The anger had evaporated along with everything else abstract and remote, and I was thrown into an intensely absorbing present. I was more surprised to realise that most of the people I knew and met in the Bay Area were also enjoying immensely the disaster that shut down much of the region for several days, the Bay Bridge for months, and certain unloved elevated freeways forever – if enjoyment is the right word for that sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive. We don’t even have a language for the emotion of disaster, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. Not for everyone – this is not a simple or straightforward phenomenon, but it happens, and it matters. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.

For weeks after the big earthquake of 1989, friendship and love counted for a lot, long-term plans and old anxieties for very little. Life was in the here and now, and many inessentials had been pared away. The earthquake was unnerving, as were the aftershocks that continued for months. Most of us were at least a little on edge, but many of us were enriched, rather than impoverished overall, at least emotionally. A more somber version of that strange pleasure in disaster emerged after September 11, 2001, when many Americans seemed stirred, moved, and motivated by the newfound sense of urgency, purpose, solidarity and danger they had encountered. They abhorred what had happened, but they clearly relished who they briefly became.

What is this feeling that crops up in so many disasters? After the Loma Prieta quake, I began to wonder about it. After 9/11, I began to see how strange it was and how deeply it mattered. After I met the man in Halifax who lit up with joy when he talked about the great hurricane there, I began to study it. After I began to write about the 1906 earthquake as its centennial approached, I started to see how often this particular feeling arose and how much it remade the world of disaster. After Hurricane Katrina tore up the Gulf Coast, I began to understand the limits and possibilities of disasters. My book, A Paradise Built in Hell, is about that emotion, as important as it is surprising, and the circumstances that arouse it and those that it generates. These things count immensely as we enter an era of increasing and intensifying disaster. And more than that, they matter as we enter an era when questions about everyday life outside disaster, about social possibilities and human natures every day, arise again, as they often have in turbulent times.

When I ask people about the disasters they have lived through, I find on many faces that retrospective basking, as they recount tales of Canadian ice storms, midwestern snow days, New York blackouts, about heat in southern India, fire in New Mexico, earlier hurricanes in Louisiana, an economic collapse in Argentina, earthquakes in California and Mexico, and a strange pleasure overall. It was the joy on their faces that surprised me. And with those whom I have read rather than spoke to, it was the joy of their words that surprised me. It should not be so, is not so, in the familiar version of what disaster brings, and yet it is there, rising from rubble, coming out of ice, of fire, of storms and floods. The joy matters as a measure of otherwise neglected desires, desires for public life and civil society, for inclusion, purpose, and power.

Disasters are, most basically, terrible, tragic and grievous, and no matter what positive side effects and possibilities they produce, they are not to be desired. But by the same measure, those side effects should not be ignored because they arise amid devastation. The desires and possibilities awakened are so powerful they shine even from wreckage, carnage and ashes. And the point is not to welcome disasters. They do not create these gifts, but they are one avenue through which the gifts arrive. Disasters provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility, and what is seen there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times, and in other extraordinary times.

Most social change is chosen – you want to belong to a co-op, you believe in social safety nets or community-supported agriculture. But disaster doesn’t sort us out by preferences; it drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative to survive ourselves or save the neighbours, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living. The positive emotions that arise in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding. The very structure of our economy and society prevents these goals from being achieved. The structure is also ideological, a philosophy that best serves the wealthy and powerful but shapes all of our lives, reinforced as the conventional wisdom disseminated by the media, from news hours to disaster movies. The facets of that ideology have been called individualism, capitalism and Social Darwinism, and have appeared in the political philosophies of Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Malthus, as well as the work of most conventional contemporary economists, who presume we seek personal gain for rational reasons and refrain from looking at the ways a system skewed to that end damages much else we need for our survival and desire for our well-being. Disaster demonstrates this, since among the factors determining whether you will live or die are the health of your immediate community and the justness of your society. We need ties to survive, but they, along with purposefulness, immediacy and agency, also give us joy – the startling, sharp joy I found in accounts of disaster survivors. These accounts demonstrate that the citizens any paradise would need – the people who are brave enough, resourceful enough, and generous enough – already exist. The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being, so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise nowadays arises in hell, it’s because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.

My exploration of disaster has led me from an investigation of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco to the hurricane and flood in New Orleans ninety-nine years later. In between came the Halifax explosion of 1917, the extraordinary Mexico City earthquake that killed so many and changed so much, and the neglected tale of how ordinary New Yorkers responded to the calamity that struck their city on September 11, 2001. In and around these cases, I’ve encountered stories of the London Blitz, of earthquakes in China, Japan, and Argentina, of the Chernobyl meltdown, the Chicago heat wave of 1995, the Managua earthquake that helped topple a regime, smallpox in New York and a volcano in Iceland. Though the worst disasters in recent years have been in Asia – the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, the 2008 earthquake in China and typhoon in Burma – they have not been my main focus. They matter immensely, but language and distance as well as culture kept these disasters out of reach for me. What I am after is what arises from the shattering of the status quo and routine of industrialised parts of the world where philosophies of competition and individualism prevail, a certain degree of everyday alienation is ordinary, and natural and political rather than religious explanations for disaster form the basis for response (though fundamentalist Christians in the United States remain fond of claiming divine causes for selected calamities).

Since postmodernism reshaped the intellectual landscape, it has been problematic to even use the term human nature, with its implication of a stable and universal human essence. The study of disasters makes it clear that there are plural and contingent natures – but the prevalent human nature in disaster is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic and brave. The language of therapy speaks almost exclusively of the consequence of disaster as trauma, suggesting a humanity that is unbearably fragile, a self that does not act but is acted upon, the most basic recipe of the victim. Disaster movies and the media continue to portray ordinary people as hysterical or vicious in the face of calamity. We believe these sources telling us we are victims or brutes more than our own experience. Most people know this other human nature from experience, though almost nothing official or mainstream confirms it.

But to understand both the rising from the ruins that is the ordinary human response to disaster, and what hinders and hides it, there are two other important subjects to consider. One is the behaviour of the minority in power, who often act savagely in a disaster. The other is the beliefs and representations of the media, the people who hold up a distorting mirror to us in which it is almost impossible to recognise these paradises and our possibilities. Beliefs matter, and the overlapping beliefs of the media and the elites can become a second wave of disaster – as they did most dramatically in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. These three subjects are woven together in almost every disaster, and finding the one that matters most – this glimpse of paradise – means understanding the other forces that obscure, oppose and sometimes rub out that possibility.

This social desire and social possibility go against the grain of the dominant stories of recent decades. You can read recent history as a history of privatisation, not just of the economy, but of society, as marketing and media shove imagination more and more toward private life and private satisfaction, as citizens are redefined as consumers, as public participation falters and with it any sense of collective or individual political power, as even the language for public emotions and satisfactions withers. There is no money in what is aptly called free association: we are instead encouraged by media and advertising to fear each other and regard public life as a danger and a nuisance, to live in secured spaces, communicate by electronic means, and acquire our information from media rather than each other. But in disaster people come together, and though some fear this as a mob, many cherish it as a taste of a civil society that is close enough to paradise. In contemporary terms, privatisation is largely an economic term, for the consignment of jurisdictions, goods, services and powers – railways, water, policing, education – to the private sector and the vagaries of the marketplace. But this economic privatisation is impossible without the other privatisation of desire and imagination that tells us we are not each other’s keeper. Disasters, in returning their sufferers to public and collective life, undo some of this privatisation that is a slower, subtler disaster all its own. In a society in which participation, agency, purposefulness and freedom are all adequately present, a disaster would be only a disaster.

Few speak of paradise now, except as something remote enough to be impossible. The ideal societies we hear of are mostly far away or long ago or both, situated in some primordial society before the Fall or a spiritual kingdom in a remote Himalayan vastness. The implication is that we here and now are far from capable of living such ideals. But what if paradise flashed up among us from time to time – at the worst of times? What if we glimpsed it in the jaws of hell? These flashes give us, as the long ago and far away do not, a glimpse of who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become. This is a paradise of rising to the occasion that points out by contrast how the rest of the time most of us fall down from the heights of possibility, down into diminished selves and dismal societies. Many now do not even hope for a better society, but they recognise it when they run into it, and that discovery shines out even through the namelessness of their experience. Others recognise it, grasp it, and make something of it, and long-term social and political transformations, both good and bad, arise from the wreckage. The door to this era’s potential paradises is in hell.

The word emergency comes from emerge, to rise out of, the opposite of merge, which comes from mergere, to be within or under a liquid, immersed, submerged. An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion. Catastrophe comes from the Greek kata, or down, and streiphen, or turning over. It means an upset of what is expected and was originally used to mean a plot twist. To emerge into the unexpected is not always terrible, though these words have evolved to imply ill fortune. The word disaster comes from the Latin compound of dis-, or away, without, and astro, star or planet; literally without a star. It originally suggested misfortune due to astrologically generated trouble, as in the blues musician Albert King’s classic ‘Born Under a Bad Sign’.

In some of the disasters of the twentieth century – the big northeastern blackouts in 1965 and 2003, the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, 2005’s Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast – the loss of electrical power meant that the light pollution blotting out the night sky vanished. In these disaster-struck cities, people suddenly found themselves under the canopy of stars still visible in small and remote places. On the warm night of August 15, 2003, the Milky Way could be seen in New York City, a heavenly realm long lost to view until the blackout that hit the northeast late that afternoon. You can think of the current social order as something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster. In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society. However beautiful the stars of a suddenly visible night sky, few nowadays could find their way by them. But the constellations of solidarity, altruism and improvisation are within most of us and reappear at these times. People know what to do in a disaster. The loss of power, the disaster in the modern sense, is an affliction, but the reappearance of these old heavens is its opposite. This is the paradise entered through hell.

Excerpted from A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise is Disaster by Rebecca Solnit, published with permission of Viking, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., copyright 2009 Rebecca Solnit.

Rebecca Solnit is a writer, historian, and activist who lives in San Francisco. She is the author of twelve books, including Hope in the Dark, a 2004 book rethinking how history and popular power work, Wanderlust: A History of Walking from 2000, and Savage Dreams, a 1994 book investigating the nuclear and Indian wars of the American west and the reasons for their invisibility. A regular contributor to the site Tomdispatch.com, she writes about the ways culture and politics shape each other, the interior life of public events, and public consequences of beliefs and desires, as well as about landscape and the environment.

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