The Emancipatory Potential of Disasters?

I’m currently reading the book „A Paradise Built in Hell. The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster“ by Rebecca Solnit. The main thesis of the author, a journalist and writer based in California is simple but surprising. Contrary to what disaster movies teach us the reaction of people who face disasters and catastrophes is mainly pro-social. To prove this claim Solnit draws on various examples from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to such recent events as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina.

The stories she tells us about the men and women living through these disasters and catastrophe share a common trait of altruism and solidarity. People help each other, rescue and support injured family members but also total strangers, build up basic infrastructure such as soup kitchens and share their left belongings which fellow survivors. In doing so they do not rely on official structures such as police, military or firefighters but are capable to improvise and build their own adhoc structures and institutions.

What’s most interesting about the book then is the fact that it has an explicit political agenda. Put in its most simple form Solnit basically states that Hobbes got it wrong and anarchists (her main example is Kropotkin but interestingly enough pragmatist founding father William James also plays a prominent role – although Solnit doesn’t consider him to be an anarchist) are right. If even under the circumstances of total catastrophe the thin vail of civilization doesn’t break to reveal the underlying mayhem of the state of nature then the „poor worm“ from England obviously erred.

If that’s the case then maybe anarchists such as David Graeber (who mentions Solnit’s findings in his book on democracy) are right after all. People are social beings and help and support each other without any need for a government, army or police to interfere.

Ok, so far this sounds just like another silly utopia made up by yet another Berkeley-educated commie? Well, the interesting fact is that this Berkeley-educated commie has science on her side.

Enter EnricoQuarantelli and his colleagues from the Disaster Research Centre at the University of Delaware. They are among the leading scholars in the field of disaster research (Quarantelli basically founded the field) and their findings support Solnit’s claims.

For Hurricane Katrina they have found for example that contrary to the view in the media the behavior people showed was essential pro-social:

„[..] emergent activities in the impacted region showed a different and opposite pattern to those suggested by the imagery employed by the media outlets mentioned above. Throughout this article we argue, and provide data to show, that a great variety of new, nontraditional or emergent behavior surfaced in this catastrophic occasion. Not being able to act in traditional ways, most ofthe citizens and groups in New Orleans as well as the rest of Louisiana rose to the challenge by engaging in primarily new but relevant coping behavior.“ (p. 84)

Of course this doesn’t mean that there was no looting or anti-social behavior after all (a fact Solnit of course takes into account too). But the point Solnit and the disaster researchers stress is that this is only a small part of the human reactions, whereas the vast amount of them is fueled by a sense of altruism, solidarity and community.

The political thesis Solnit derives from these scientific findings is bold but it definitively should be considered when we think about a better society.

Martin Bartenberger, University of Vienna