Rebecca Solnit: How to Survive a Disaster
On Building a Paradise in Hell: Improvised, Collaborative, Cooperative, Local
It’s a myth that our reactions to danger are fight or flight. There’s a third option often pursued: to gather for reassurance, protection, strength, and insight.
As election results poured in Tuesday night, I saw people reaching out to ask for support and solidarity or to offer it. I saw those of us who will probably not be targeted pledge to stand with those who are already being assaulted and insulted and menaced and beaten. I saw people preparing for something that as a kid who grew up fearfully devouring Jewish holocaust literature I’ve been anxiously imagining all my life: what it might look like to provide a secret annex—and beyond that one history of oppression, what it might look like to be part of an underground railroad, a White Rose resistance movement, an anti-Apartheid movement.
I’ve written about hope, and this is a tough time to hope. I’ve also written about survival, and we survive by coming together. This election was a referendum on coming together and coming apart, but I know that most of us in the face of earthquakes, hurricanes, bombing raids do come together, and I thought it might be useful to offer up a little of that from my book on the subject, A Paradise Built in Hell.
This past week, we’ve been given hell; survival for some of us is going to depend on how well we build the paradises of active love, sanctuary, refuge, and generosity. Love and empathy are acts of imagination, imagination is an act of courage, of risk; heroic love is what is going to get us through as much as we can. Here’s a little bit about what that has looked like before.
From Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell
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 neighbors 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. Rumors 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 rumors 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 rumors 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 scrutinized. 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 neighbors 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: of young men who took it upon themselves to supply water, food, diapers, and protection to the strangers stranded with them, to people who sheltered neighbors, 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 rumors 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 them, strangers and neighbors 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 behavior in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes and storms across the continent and around the world, have demonstrated this. But belief lags behind, and often the worst behavior 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.
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“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 bring 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-fulfilling 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 behavior 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 neighbors. He spoke of the few days when everything was disrupted and lit up with happiness as he did so. In his neighborhood 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 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 marvelous 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 neighborhood 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 centers. Another friend recently remembered with unextinguished amazement that when he traveled the several miles from the World Series 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 centralized organization, 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 realize 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. I cannot welcome disaster, but I can value the responses, both practical and psychological.
For weeks after the big earthquake of 1989, friendship and love counted for a lot, longterm 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 approaches, I started to see how often it 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 disaster utopias. A Paradise 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, hear about 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 who had died long before, or lived far away, that joy was in their words. 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. That joy matters as a measure of otherwise neglected desires, desires for public life and civil society, for membership, purpose and power.
It is important to acknowledge at the outset that disasters are, most basically, terrible, tragic, grievous; they are not to be desired—but by the same measure, those effects should not be ignored because they arise amid devastation. And the point is not to welcome disasters; they do not create these wonders, but they are one avenue through which the gifts arrive. The point is that 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. The desires and possibilities awakened are so powerful they shine even from wreckage, carnage and ashes.
A number of books in recent years have investigated community and its lack in the United States and made the case for more social connection, more interdependence, from Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone to Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy, which argues for community on ecological grounds. The books assert that we do better when we are rooted in a place, a neighborhood, a community, in many ways that go above and beyond the usual monetary measures. This book travels into related territory to propose that we already know how to do it, and that the desire is not narrowly ideological. 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 neighbors, no matter how we vote or what we do for a living.
The positive emotions that arises in those unpromising circumstances demonstrate that social ties and meaningful work are deeply desired, readily improvised, and intensely rewarding. What prevents these things from arising most of the time is the very structure of our economy and society. It’s 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, social darwinism, have appeared in the philosophy of Thomas Hobbes and Thomas Malthus, but also in the work of most conventional 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 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 over and over again in accounts of disaster. These accounts of disaster demonstrate that the citizens any paradise requires—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 most often arises in hell, that’s because the chaos of that hell suspends the ordinary rules and routines; it is not its hellishness but its disruptiveness that cracks open possibility.
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 fastness. 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 as well 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 recognize it when they run into it, and that discovery shines out even through the namelessness of their experience. Others recognize it, grasp it, and make something of it, and longterm 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.”
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In some of the disasters of the 20th 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.
From A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit, published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright 2009 by © Rebecca Solnit.