‘Paradise Built in Hell:’ How Disaster Brings Out the Best in People

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In her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell, author Rebecca Solnit describes how in the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters — such as the one unfolding in Japan — human beings tend to respond by banding together, not tearing apart.

Contrary to commonly held fears about crowd panic, chaos and looting, evidence from numerous catastrophes shows that disorder is the exception not the rule after such large-scale tragedies — not only in Japan, but around the world.  I spoke with Solnit about the surprising social upside of these upheavals and how intervention by authorities can be deadly when they expect people to resort to crime and fail to nurture their natural altruistic responses.

What is the typical response of people to catastrophe?

The great majority of people are calm, resourceful, altruistic or even beyond altruistic, as they risk themselves for others. We improvise the conditions of survival beautifully. People rescue each other. They build shelters and community kitchens and ways to deal with lost children and eventually rebuild one way or another.

The interesting thing with Japan is that [we have] positive stereotypes [about how they are expected to behave] unlike our negative stereotypes. So, people are saying “Oh, the Japanese are so wonderful, calmly standing in line” or “There’s no looting.” People are standing in line to buy things — when they’re for sale. In other disasters, when no stores are open and no one’s selling anything, you go into shattered stores and take what you need, and it gets called looting.

But it’s important to recognize that this is not just the Japanese. The Fukushima 50 [nuclear workers] are amazing, but we had all those firefighters running into burning buildings on 9/11. Other disasters provide other examples of selflessness.

You write about how after disasters, there’s often a feeling of connectedness and joy — not the panic and fear we expect.

I feel often that we don’t have the right language to talk about emotions in disasters. Everyone is on edge, of course, but it also pulls people away from a lot of trivial anxieties and past and future concerns and gratuitous preoccupations that we have, and refocuses us in a very intense way.

You have a lot of those positive effects in blackouts, for example, which lack the loss of life, contamination and other real calamities that [occur in major disasters], but include the disruption from routine and assumptions and preoccupations.

In your book, you describe many scenes of humor and outright euphoria.

You might not see this in [catastrophes like that in Japan, after which everything is wrecked], but in some disasters you have more exuberance and joy. Like London during the Blitz. Why were they so cheerful when they were being bombed? There are lots of stories of people being positively exuberant. I don’t think we’ll see that in Japan. But we are seeing bravery, generosity and altruism.

Why do we assume that disasters will lead to violent mobs and looting, rather than altruism?

Partly because the media keeps repeating the myths. In Japan, we see explanations of why the Japanese aren’t looting, with the underlying assumption that everyone else would be looting.

[Also], it serves particular interests to believe that. It serves Hollywood because it gives Tom Cruise [a chance to be a hero and save everyone], and it serves authorities well because it makes people believe in their necessity by suggesting that if they weren’t around and weren’t threatening or using violence, both in crisis and at other times, we would all be barbarians and savages and that’s who we are in our natural state.

I’m not saying that if the police disappeared, we’d all be singing hosanna. But authority is often the problem when it warps society to create deprivation and differences that generate crime, and often serves as crime itself. We saw that with Katrina, with the prevention of rescuers and aid, by the government — all the way from the New Orleans police on the bottom to the Bush-era FEMA at the top.

One of the Katrina heroes in my book stayed behind for his grandparents, and he ended up rescuing hundreds of people by boat before he was shot [by vigilantes] as a “looter.”

You write about how after some disasters, like Katrina and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the authorities disrupted spontaneous efforts that were successfully saving lives, and that these official efforts increased the number of casualties. What can authorities do in disasters to avoid that kind of harm?

They should keep the focus on saving human life and not shift to law enforcement. When someone’s grandmother is dying on a roof, who cares whether someone might steal a TV?

The disaster sociologists who are the source for many of the perspectives in my book say that panic is vanishingly rare in ordinary people in disasters, but we do see “institutional panic” — assuming that people are going to behave badly and acting on that assumption.

What else can people do?

Everyone should work hard at not believing rumors. Right now, there are lots of crazy rumors [in California] about radiation. There is a lot of profound misinformation about radiation in this disaster.

I see people saying, “Unlike in New Orleans, there’s not all this rape and pillaging and murder [in Japan].” Except there wasn’t any during Katrina either, unless you count the police and white vigilante violence. The media and government need intense training about what does and doesn’t happen in catastrophes and what the historical record is, because people die from this misinformation.

Why is the belief in panic and natural chaos so persistent?

A certain part of human nature is believing that the worst must be true. I think it’s partly misinformation. I saw a British news site that showed the moment when the earthquake hit Japan. There were people running around but they were actually behaving sensibly at top speeds so that they could get in the right position.

When the World Trade Center collapsed, was it panic to run fast? That was actually the sanest thing you could do. And if someone fell down, they didn’t get trampled, they were helped up. People were acting altruistically.

Really extraordinary behavior isn’t required of us most of the time and most of us don’t know whether or not we’re capable of it, but I think we surprise ourselves, just as the kids in the [Egyptian and other Arab] uprisings are surprising themselves with their courage and their commitment.

How do you think this false belief specifically affects disaster reporting?

That’s part of what happened in Katrina. People were demonized and then because they were demonized and criminalized, New Orleans was turned into a prison city. They felt abandoned, as though no one would help. People weren’t allowed to walk out of the city and no one was allowed in, and I think some of the taking of property was about that social breakdown. The lack of appropriate help and demonization and spread of panicked rumors led to actual violence [when police would not allow people to leave].

The social contract there was broken by the privileged first. That’s not natural. That’s a social disaster being manufactured.

With the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan, it’s clear that there will be huge consequences and we don’t know what they are yet. It will take years to know what they are and we hate not knowing what a disaster means. And I think in this catastrophe, and generally, we’re seeing more and more predictive journalism, how people will behave, what the voter turnout will be. I think it’s dangerous because it’s often wrong and it shuts down people’s minds. It tends to create events instead of reporting on them.

I remember the sense of solidarity and community and connection we felt in New York City after 9/11, the lines of people at the blood banks and strangers talking to each other on the street.

And then it all went away. But some people do remain permanently changed. It’s funny — it is a big question for me: it feels as though in the English-speaking world, we almost have no framework to value [this through language] or to appreciate who we were [during those crises] and who we want to be. In other parts of the world, it feels like there’s a deeper sense of society [and connectedness].

In disasters, the great majority of people behave well. In some ways, they behave better than in ordinary life and in some disasters people find [out about] the meaningful role of deep social connections and see their absence in everyday life.