While I was spared from the full wrath of Sandy last month, many of my friends, especially those in New York, were not so fortunate. My deepest sympathy goes out to those on the East Coast who lost their homes. In the DC area, we were counting our lucky stars – the worst outcome of Sandy for me was a bit of stir-craziness, which actually prompted me to pick up a book I read a while back. Disasters provide us with an interesting set of circumstances to reflect on human nature.
The book was A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit, in which she investigates communities that have been subject to terrible disasters. In her book she examines five disasters – the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax explosion of 1917, the Mexico City earthquake, Hurricane Katrina, and the September 11th attack. In less detail she addresses the London Blitz, earthquakes in China and Argentina, the Chernobyl nuclear accident, the Chicago heat wave, the smallpox epidemic in New York, and a volcanic eruption in Iceland. Her conclusions about human nature and our capacity for resilience, generosity, and selflessness are overwhelmingly positive.
What can we learn from the studying the collective experiences that emerge during disasters? If we think about our own personal experiences, no doubt we have each gone through something “disastrous” in a communal setting. In those situations, there is always something that compels us to rise to the occasion and to do things we wouldn’t otherwise do. We begin to feel our common humanity a little bit more.
Solnit has studied this enigmatic human quality for decades. She asks:
“What is this feeling that crops up during so many disasters? After the Loma Prieta quake, I began to wonder about it. After 9/11, I began to see how strange a phenomenon 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 peculiar 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. This book is about that emotion, as important as it is surprising, and the circumstances that arouse it and those that it generates. These things count 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 social possibilities and human nature arise again, as they often have in turbulent times.”
Disasters produce situations in which the rule of law and society’s social norms are temporarily suspended. They can allow us to extract ideas about how we might behave in the absence of societal structure, fully exhibiting our human nature. Solnit very much demonizes society as something that perverts our most positive characteristics, which have the opportunity to reemerge in disaster periods:
“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 and the conventional wisdom disseminated by the media, from news hours to disaster movies.”
She makes a quasi-anarchist argument, and as a result, invites lots of criticism. But regardless of her politics, she successfully identifies something uniquely interesting about how and why people behave the way they do in disasters. As the frequency and intensity of disasters (both human and natural) increases, an understanding of our behavior in disaster periods becomes more and more important.
Is Solnit right – did you notice yourself or anyone else doing something extraordinary, something that showed our true human nature, as Sandy struck?
Photo via Sean Eldridge