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Bettmann/Corbis

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.

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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.

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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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A candlelight ceremony for the victims and survivors of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, August 28, 2006

In June, he wrote an essay on the aftermath of the quake, focusing on his two “most emphatic” impressions, both “reassuring as to human nature. The first was the rapidity of the improvisation of order out of chaos,” and the second was

the universal equanimity. We soon got letters from the East, ringing with anxiety and pathos; but I now know fully what I have always believed, that the pathetic way of feeling great disasters belongs rather to the point of view of people at a distance than to the immediate victims.

His brother Henry had sent one of those missives from the East: “I feel that I have collapsed, simply, with the tension of all these dismal days,” he wrote. William, though, made the essential point in his essay that it was easier to deal with tragedy when all around you were in the same boat:

The cheerfulness, or, at any rate, the steadfastness of tone, was universal. Not a single whine or plaintive word did I hear from the hundred losers whom I spoke to. Instead of that there was a temper of helpfulness beyond the counting…. I like to think that what I write of is a normal and universal trait of human nature.

Solnit proves, to my satisfaction at any rate, that it is normal, if not universal. Besides the San Francisco quake she offers four other major case studies: the huge arms explosion that leveled Halifax in 1917, the Mexico City quake of 1985, the collapse of the World Trade Center in Manhattan on September 11, and the Hurricane Katrina saga of 2005. In between, she includes minor accounts of the London Blitz, earthquakes in Asia and Argentina, the Chernobyl reactor accident, the Chicago heat wave of 1995, volcanic eruptions, and many, many more.

Again, note that these are all out-of-the-blue events. They’re not like the partition of India, or the battle for Sarajevo, in which there were deep divisions between different groups of people. Natural disaster and its human analogues, by contrast to those horrors, seem to produce remarkably similar behavior, and unfortunately not only on the part of the victims. In too many cases, disasters are made worse by the response of authorities, who often turn out to be far more prone to panic and blunder than the citizens actually affected by these upheavals.

In Solnit’s telling, it turns out that the fumbling of various government entities in the wake of Katrina was more rule than exception. This is not entirely their fault, of course—a fire department has to be sized to fight the number of fires that occur normally, not the number you get once a century in a major quake. But instead of letting citizens handle the job themselves, governments often insist on getting in the way: in the San Francisco quake, soldiers literally prevented people from fighting fires, just as in New Orleans would-be rescuers often had to outmaneuver police simply to get their boats into flooded areas. Such situations proved a laboratory-bench opportunity to watch people operate without a real government. Instead of the “‘law of the jungle’ chaos” that Hollywood movies (and Thomas Hobbes) would lead us to expect,

what in fact takes place is another kind of anarchy, where the citizenry by and large organize and care for themselves. In the immediate aftermath of disaster, government fails as if it had been overthrown and civil society succeeds as though it has revolted.

This failure is not universal, of course. Governments and their ancillary institutions like the Red Cross are well equipped to handle small disasters, and can be effective in larger ones too—the Asian tsunami of 2004 was one example, and Solnit describes Icelanders evacuating volcano-threatened villages, and the much-larger-scale example of Cuba, which has weathered an endless string of hurricanes (Katrina included) with minimal loss of life because of well-conducted evacuations.

But in many cases, the powerful do seem to come slightly unhinged. The existing order is “being tested at what it does least well,” while community groups are suddenly emerging to fill the vacuum. This leads to what a number of sociologists have called “elite panic,” which Solnit compares to the fear of Chinese emperors that they would lose the “mandate of heaven.” Think of the scorn with which the victims of Katrina greeted President Bush when he finally made his way to New Orleans. Think of the way his approval ratings slumped, never to recover. It is no accident that governments usually describe what they are doing in the wake of disasters as “reestablishing order.”

One of Solnit’s great services in this book is a close examination of those events in Louisiana and Mississippi. The television script, written from a distance, read like this: in the wake of the hurricane, all hell broke loose. Here’s CNN: “On the dark streets, rampaging gangs take full advantage of the unguarded city. Anyone venturing outside is in danger of being robbed or even shot. It is a state of siege.” To quote Maureen Dowd, in a column written in the immediate aftermath, New Orleans was “a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting, raping, marauding thugs, suffering innocents, a shattered infrastructure, a gutted police force, [and] insufficient troop levels.”

The only problem is, much of this was not true. There was some looting, though much more of what Solnit calls “requisitioning” of the supplies needed to get people through the days of waiting for government to respond—she describes young men organizing themselves at the convention center to go get diapers and juice from abandoned stores. One policeman describes the scene at the center—army helicopters dropping occasional crates of food from fifty feet up, “high enough to bust the boxes,” and “Good Samaritans,” mostly young, bringing food back from stores. “The people got together as a group and disseminated it amongst themselves, without any riots, any fights, anything.” Exactly the same thing happened in the other disasters Solnit documents: in San Francisco a hundred years earlier, one improvised hospital was outfitted with mattresses that volunteers took from abandoned hotels, and “volunteers, including some from the Salvation Army, broke the windows of drugstores on Market Street to get medical supplies.”

Too often, though, the arriving authorities took one look at such action and decided they didn’t like it. A grocer had invited residents to take what they needed from his store: a soldier bayoneted one of the people who left the store laden with supplies. “The cashier of a bank was shot as a looter while he was trying to open his company’s vault two days after the quake.” But the army general who led the soldiers confidently reported that as soldiers arrived their “presence had an instantly reassuring effect on all awe-inspired persons.”

Over the weeks that followed Katrina, news organizations quietly retracted their unverifiable reports that people had been shooting at helicopters or sniping at policemen. But the savagery so confidently described on national TV had all kinds of grim consequences, including heightening fears that gangs would come pouring out of the city bent on destruction. Many people have by now told the story of the Gretna, Louisiana, police force blocking refugees from crossing the bridge to the safety of that suburb; in the course of her reporting for this book, Solnit added a new chapter by helping spur investigation of the armed assault by vigilantes on young black men trying to escape to the nearby community of Algiers, which apparently resulted in several murders. (One victim had spent days rescuing people from New Orleans before being gunned down in those suburban streets.)

Happily, far more people ignored the wild-eyed headlines and streamed south to help. I can testify that the most effective rebuilding I saw underway in the weeks that followed came from church groups and the like, not FEMA. Even now the Army Corps has failed to rebuild the levees to a level that could ward off a hurricane the size and strength of Katrina at its peak. That’s something only government can do, of course—people living their normal lives lack the capital, the equipment, the know-how, and the organization to build huge levees, or do much of the other work we need. Government is not to be scorned—Katrina shows what happens when it fails, and one answer is to make it work much better. One hopes and assumes that that process is underway at the federal, state, and local levels.

But Solnit’s argument, at bottom, is that human nature is not necessarily what we imagine it to be, and that even in very extreme cases, people are cooperative—that “tend and befriend” is more likely than “fight or flight.” To use Hollywood terms of reference, the normal human reaction to an emergency—being stranded on a desert island, say—is to pull together in the manner of Gilligan’s Island, not to compete à la Survivor. Wall Street bond traders, those paragons of alpha male dominance, behaved with amazing grace as they helped evacuate the towers on September 11.

This hypothesis about human nature can’t be carried simply with examples from emergencies, of course. It’s possible that something released by fear produces solidarity where normally there would be none. But it’s also quite possible that solidarity is our default setting, and that only the relentless privatization and consumerization of our lives in recent decades has convinced us otherwise. Surely these crises demonstrate both our talent and our hunger for connection, at least in times of stress.

Solnit implies that we might want to reconsider anthropology in this light —she posits that for a very long time before modern development made life more secure, we basically lived in a condition of “continuous disaster,” always on the edge of running out of food. “Hunter gathers and others who live close to the bone daily experience risk and daily remake the circumstances of their survival. They are bound together by an urgent necessity that is also a satisfaction.” As I say, it will take more than this book to prove that case, but A Paradise Built in Hell is an 8.5 on the intellectual Richter scale. It opens a breach in the walls of received wisdom that one hopes many other thinkers will rush through.

That intellectual work is especially pressing now, because as I said at the beginning we seem to be entering a period that will once again be marked by recurrent disaster (though given the mechanics of global warming, it’s no longer fair to call it “natural”). The author James Howard Kunstler has referred to the period ahead as “the long emergency,” and as storms and heatwaves and other calamities pile up, they’re likely to outrun the ability of even the best-motivated governments to keep “order.” It’s a very comforting idea that we may be at least a little up to that task ourselves.

This Issue

November 5, 2009

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    Oxford University Press, 2009.