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In the Face of Catastrophe: A Surprise

Displaced people preparing food outdoors after the San Francisco earthquake, 1906

I am writing this review from the city of Malé, the capital of the Maldives. The highest point of land on this entire archipelago of 1,190 islands is maybe twenty feet above sea level, and that is the trash dump in the center of town; most of the nation is only a meter or two above the sea. Earlier this year its president announced that the Maldives would be setting aside a portion of its tourist income each year so that in the future, as sea level rose, it could buy a new homeland somewhere else.

It is, I think, a very safe bet that the number and variety of disasters will rise dramatically in the years to come, as the planet warms. Indeed, a large number of well-informed people are making those bets already. They work for insurance companies and they are increasingly dumping coastal policyholders as bad risks, or raising their premiums sky high. The number of both devastating droughts and floods increases steadily and ominously. And that’s with barely a degree Celsius of global warming; the computer models make it clear that we can expect at least two or three more degrees unless we get to work right away.

There is nothing new about such forecasts, of course, except that their specificity rises with each new study, each new data point. If you want to read the latest, and one of the most streamlined yet comprehensive accounts of our predicament, I’d recommend Down to the Wire by David Orr,* an Oberlin College professor who has long been one of the country’s leading environmental thinkers. He lays out the dangers, and he lays out the plans that would be needed to counteract those dangers; it’s all there in simple and unavoidable prose.

If you’d prefer watching the story, then keep an eye open for The Age of Stupid, which had its worldwide premiere in late September. A documentary framed inside a feature film, it casts the admirable actor Pete Postlethwaite as a latter-day prophet—a character called the Archivist, who in 2055 puts together an archive showing how indifference to climate change in our time hastened the catastrophes he now documents from his arctic bunker. The film manages to be both accurate and watch- able, even funny, and only once tips over into mild unfairness, when it makes one of its villains an Indian businessman starting a budget airline. (In view of the relative blame for global warming, a film, to be fair, should indict several dozen Americans before going after an Indian.) This is necessary work; the warnings have not been heeded, and so they must be given again, ever plainer, ever louder. It is time to call us stupid; maybe it will rouse some shame.

But it’s also time to ask another question, which is what the future will actually feel like once we don’t prevent global warming. That is, what will it be like to live not on the relatively stable planet that civilization has known throughout the ten thousand years of the Holocene, but on the amped-up and careening planet we’re quickly creating? With her remarkable and singular book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit has thought harder about the answer to that question than anyone else. And she’s done it almost entirely with history—she’s searched out the analogues to our future in our past, examining the human dynamics of natural disasters from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 up through Hurricane Katrina. What happens? How do people react to chaos?

Her answer is strangely and powerfully hopeful. She doesn’t long for disasters—they are, she writes, “most basically terrible, tragic, grievous.” But they are not just that. As she proves with inspired historiography, disasters often produce remarkable temporary communities—paradises of a sort amid the rubble, where people, acting on their own and without direction from the authorities, manage to provide for each other. “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.”

Let me say first what this book is not. Though it’s heavily documented, it’s not the work of an academic historian. Solnit is an independent intellectual who has written well-received books on subjects ranging from the photographer Eadweard Muybridge to the history of walking. Because we taught a weeklong journalism course together, I think of her as a reporter (and this book, especially in its New Orleans section, contains some first-rate reporting), but more people will know her from art criticism. She’s a regular contributor to the remarkable Web site Tomdispatch.com, and anything but dispassionate: she’s been involved in the anti–nuclear testing movement in the American West and a host of causes in her native California. So this book is provocative in the best sense of the word, not definitive; it suggests rather than settles.

It also makes no attempt to cover every kind of disaster. Solnit’s main examples are earthquakes and storms, things that are either completely natural or, before global warming, seemed that way. She also talks about a couple of human-caused catastrophes—the explosion of an ammunition ship in the harbor at Halifax during World War I, and the September 11 terrors in New York. These had almost the character of natural disasters, coming from the blue. The World Trade Center attacks were obviously political, but Manhattan was unanimous in its opinion of those politics. In other words, they weren’t like the kind of tragedies that dissolve human bonds—the European Holocaust and its various horrid reprises of the last century, such as the slaughter in Srebrenica or Darfur, for instance, or the looting that followed the American capture of Baghdad. Those grew out of, and produced (with noble exceptions), the opposite of human solidarity.

Solnit, instead, is interested in a distinct class of events that we imagine should result in chaos and anarchy. Her point is that people acting on their own were often able to deal with the immediate chaos—that there was a kind of anarchy because governments couldn’t react fast enough. The anarchy, however, was not necessarily the desperate and selfish thing we imagine, but often its mirror image. She is not afraid to describe that conclusion in strong terms, terms she knows will be shocking to many readers. She writes, for instance, that her first inkling of her thesis came after the Loma Prieta earthquake shook her native northern California in October 1989:

I was…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…if enjoyment is the right word of that sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused buy the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive.

She begins her account with the first great earthquake that struck San Francisco, in April 1906. The temblor and subsequent fires left three thousand dead and at least half the city homeless. Those who survived, however, fought the fires, protected each other, and set up a remarkably sturdy little society in the parks and vacant lots of the wrecked city: “The people were for the most part calm and cheerful, and many survived the earthquake with gratitude and generosity.” She recounts one story after another of ordinary people who built soup kitchens that served hundreds daily, of five hundred union plumbers who volunteered without pay and worked around the clock “for over a week repairing all broken pipes and stopping waste of water in the unburned district,” of groceries and slaughterhouses that gave away every bit of their stock to anyone who asked.

Obviously this isn’t always true—every disaster comes with someone trying to gouge his customers. But if you’ve been in these situations you know how true it is—in the aftermath of the ice storms that derail my home region every decade or so, for every hardware store profiteering on generators, there are a dozen guys wandering around with chainsaws trying to clear their neighbors’ driveways.

Solnit uses this detailed and meticulous history to begin making very large claims. The society that took shape in the days and weeks after the quake was “utopia itself for many people,” she writes. Utopia is not a popular word at the moment, as she knows. “Many no longer believe that a better world, as opposed to a better life, is possible, and the rhetoric of private well-being trumps public good.” But any accurate map of utopias would include not only the more obvious social experiments from the Shakers to the communes, but also what she calls

disaster communities. These remarkable societies suggest that, just as many machines reset themselves to their original settings after a power outage, so human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful, and imaginative after a disaster, that we revert to something we already know how to do. The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.

In view of the size of these claims, it is reassuring that Solnit can call on some important contemporary witnesses who share her view. One, Dorothy Day, was only eight years old when the quake shook her life. Looking back, she wrote:

What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days refugees poured out of burning San Francisco and camped in Idora Park and the racetrack in Oakland…. Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals. They gave away every extra garment they possessed. They stripped themselves to the bone in giving, forgetful of the morrow. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.

Day would go on, of course, to found the network of Catholic Worker houses, and the depth of that memory is perhaps best plumbed by the life she built on it, a life that managed to capture that same spirit of spontaneous generosity even while dealing with the grinding, undramatic daily crises of poor people across America and across the century.

Meanwhile, down the road in Palo Alto, William James had just arrived on the Stanford campus. In late February he had delivered as his public address for the term an early version of his great manifesto, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” arguing that war could be eliminated only if there were causes, hardships, struggles to fill the human desire for engagement, for meaning. He proposed, Solnit writes, “something akin to the Peace Corps or the War on Poverty,” insisting that, in his words, “the martial type of character can be bred without war” and that “the only thing needed henceforward is to inflame the civic temper as past history has inflamed the military temper.” When the earthquake struck, demolishing some campus buildings, James set out with a colleague to search for her sister in San Francisco. He made other trips to the city in coming days, and quizzed great numbers of people on their psychological response to the disaster.

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    Oxford University Press, 2009.

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