By Jill S. Schneiderman
Department of Earth Science and Geography, Vassar College
In an interview published about her recent book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (2009) in The Rumpus, a new online magazine focused on culture, Rebecca Solnit comments that “there are disasters that are entirely man-made, but none that are entirely natural.” In the book, Solnit examines five disasters and the behavior of regular people in the aftermath of the events: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fires, the Halifax munitions cargo ship explosion of 1917, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, the events of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. Solnit’s interview comment caught my eye because as self-proclaimed jubugeoscientist I recognize the truth of her important observation. I teach a course on Geohazards at Vassar College, so named to help students avoid the misperception that any modern-day disaster is completely ‘natural.’ The causes of so many of Earth’s disasters—not least among them climate-change augmented hurricanes—have roots in actions we humans undertake on the planet to satisfy our desires; the effects of our activities result in suffering among all living beings.
Even more remarkable to me than Solnit’s accurate observation about the agents of disasters is her assertion that while hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes are not to be wished for, they are among disastrous events that elicit our best responses and provide common purpose. Solnit maintains that “fleeting, purposeful joy fills human beings in the face of disasters. Everyday concerns and societal strictures vanish. A strange kind of liberation fills the air. People rise to the occasion. Social alienation seems to vanish.” Solnit’s affirmation causes my Buddhist heart to swell with joy because I see that she has unearthed evidence of metta (lovingkindness) and karuna (compassion) in unlikely events and places. It seems to me that Solnit shows us that in these moments of crisis, human beings become awake.
To describe the responses of ordinary people during these episodes, Solnit uses phrases such as: spontaneous caring, rational generosity, courage under duress, brave altruism. They illustrate Solnit’s main point that in these circumstances people are mostly kind, generous, brave, resourceful and creative. Rather than seeing civilians acting during times of crisis as, at best, a merely frightened and disoriented mass of humanity and at worst, a dumb, thieving, murderous mob, Solnit reveals invigorated and capable citizens. Solnit writes:
“Disaster requires an ability to embrace contradiction in both the minds of those undergoing it and those trying to understand it from afar. In each disaster, there is suffering, there are psychic scars that will be felt most when the emergency is over, there are deaths and losses. Satisfactions, newborn social bonds, and liberations are often also profound. Of course one factor in the gap between the usual accounts of disaster and actual experience is that those accounts focus on the small percentage of people who are wounded, killed, orphaned, and otherwise devastated, often at the epicenter of the disaster, along with the officials involved. Surrounding them, often in the same city or even neighborhood, is a periphery of many more who are largely undamaged but profoundly disrupted — and it is the disruptive power of disaster that matters here, the ability of disasters to topple old orders and open new possibilities. This broader effect is what disaster does to society. In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists and people improvise rescues, shelters, and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise.”
Solnit’s message echoes the three jewels of Buddhism: Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. In the aftermath of disaster, people wake up to the reality that suffering is inevitable and also recognize that the way we respond to the suffering in our communities dictates whether that suffering will be alleviated or exacerbated.
An August 2009 New York Times book review calls A Paradise in Hell, an optimistic book and The Rumpus recommends that one read it with Solnit’s earlier work, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities because together these books reassure us that our actions are important even when we don’t see—or can’t recognize—results in our lifetimes. I’ll be reading these books during the Copenhagen climate change meetings in the hope that negotiators will be able to wake up before the next wave of disasters roll in from the rising seas.
Jill S. Schneiderman is Professor of Earth Science at Vassar College. This year she received a Contemplative Practice Fellowship from the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. She is editor of and contributor to For the Rock Record: Geologists on Intelligent Design (University of California Press, 2009) and The Earth Around Us: Maintaining a Livable Planet (Westview Press, 2003).
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