The Nov. 5, 2009 edition of The New York Review of Books contained a review by Bill McKibben of “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster” by Rebecca Solnit.
NewsLanc has continuously inveighed against the internecine character of the leadership class of Lancaster County, citing examples (The Convention Center Project and the questionable new location of the Norfolk Southern rail yard) of a few predators taking advantage of the unwillingness of their peers to publicly object. We half jokingly raise the battle cry of “Stamp out niceness!”
Solnit’s well-documented contention is that when real disaster occurs, the society quickly and informally reorganizes and competent and altruistic leaders come to the forefront.
McKibben writes “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….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.”
“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.’
“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 gatherers 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’.”
Solnit’s wisdom is especially apparent to this writer. He, with others, experienced a disaster during the aftermath of Hurricane Agnes in 1972 which flooded over the second floor and up to the roof tops in much of Wilkes-Barre, Kingston and other Luzerne County river towns.
What emerged was a momentary new leadership of altruism, courage and competence, replacing the usual fawners and posturers. Volunteers emerged from nearby and out of town who selflessly played important leadership roles, afterwards to disappear in the routine of their inconspicuous lives.
May Lancaster never experience a disaster. But metaphorically, a flood that would wash away much of the current docile (read “getting along is everything” ) and predatory (read exploiting the former) establishment and bring more altruistic, independent and competent individuals to the fore would be a service to the community. May NewsLanc’s contributors be part of that ‘flood!’