Monday, March 14, 2011

Rebecca Solnit and disaster recovery

It's hard not to think about the Japan disaster, so I'll post some thoughts about disaster recovery and hope for human nature.

The Twitter search results for #jpquake and #honyaquake are full of grim news, but at the same time they're amazingly consistently constructive. There's no obvious trolling. Even merely self-serving or self-congratulating posts are rare. I remember a similar experience on an otherwise backbitey Usenet group in the very first few days after 9/11: a strangely kind interlude of are-you-OK and hang-in-there, and then the acrimony resumed.

It brings to mind Rebecca Solnit's book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Inspired partly by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, her book argues there is a human tendency toward emergency outbreaks of decency. Online interviews here and here describe her themes pretty well. Among much else, she suggests that, quite often, unofficial people organize things like soup kitchens or tent cities, but officials have a vested interest in viewing the public as potential looters or rioters who need to be restrained. So just when some neighbors begin to knit their own damaged corner of town back together, men in uniform show up to "restore order" by clearing the street.

Solnit thinks maybe a little too sunnily of human behavior in the absence of formal authority. Sometimes the protection of the laws is valuable and its absence enables village and household cruelties. Also, while Solnit's view of authoritarian officialdom was sadly often fair in the Katrina aftermath, the Japan news from this distance seems pretty low on reports of "looting", "rioting" or official heavy-handedness. (So far, and touch wood.)

Still, the hope in Solnit's writing is valuable. Also, her book is a good reminder that, when we read or write disaster coverage, nuggets of community are worth seeking out alongside tallies of the dead.

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