In A Paradise in Hell, Solnit surveys responses to disasters and discovers people finding meaning—even exhilaration—in healing and rebuilding their communities.
What constitutes a disaster? Does the current economic crisis qualify?
It's a question of scale. Disaster scholars distinguish an emergency—an incident such as a building burning down—from a disaster, which is a regional disruption like Hurricane Katrina. Of course, there are always complications—9/11 directly affected a small part of lower Manhattan, but disrupted the global economy and was used to make major foreign policy shifts. Economic crises can resemble sudden physical disasters—notably in the questioning of the status quo: the Argentinean economic crash of 2001 functioned like a disaster in catalyzing positive change, including a rebirth of civil society. Iceland has had a similar rebirth since its October 2008 economic crash, and in this country, we are seeing interesting improvisation and radicalization around the depression, and I expect we'll see a lot more.
Why do you think survivors of disasters are depicted as victims even when (as you point out) their testimonies argue so vigorously to the contrary?
Being in a situation where people die and systems are disrupted can have powerful emotional consequences, but to think that everyone who is in such a situation is damaged doesn't address the importance of people's strength and the support they find. This vision of human frailty ties into related pictures of human nature: that we fall apart in disasters, that we need institutions to regulate us because of our weakness and wickedness, and that we should be afraid of a great many things. These serve an authoritarian and divided society, and maybe what one of my sources calls “the trauma industry,” but don't serve most of us well at all.
Are there particular communities best suited to deal with disasters?
Yes. Strong societies are both pleasures and necessities, and disaster makes this clear. Some of that strength comes from the everyday interactions that constitute public life. I have a hard time imagining the residents of a car-based sprawl-city being able to respond with the improvisational generosity and confidence in self and others that New Yorkers gain through their daily lives together in public.
Are “disaster utopias” ephemeral or can their effects linger?
Dorothy Day's vision was shaped by the 1906 [San Francisco] earthquake, and the consequences are with us still 103 year later in the altruistic organizations springing from her Catholic Worker projects. I also look at the coalitions that came out of Katrina that cut racial and class lines and drew in young volunteers in a mode much like Freedom Summer. The “fairy tale” moment is fleeting, but the consequences can be durable.