Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Disaster Mentality

I have been reading Bill McKibben's latest piece for The New York Review with great fascination. It is a review of the book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit. As McKibben makes clear, this book is not an academic analysis. He prefers to think of it as the work of a first-rate reporter who happens to be "covering" past, rather than current, events. Those events are extreme natural disasters in the wake of which highly altruistic communities self-organize when one might expect the population to plummet into chaos and anarchy. Here is McKibben's key summary:

Her point is that people acting on their own were often able to deal with the immediate chaos—that there was a kind of anarchy because government couldn't react fast enough. The anarchy, however, was not necessarily the desperate and selfish thing we imagine, but often its mirror image.

This is the sort of community perspective that is the dream of Internet evangelists, but most of Solnit's case studies took place long before the Internet. Indeed, the earliest of her examples, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, took place at a time when direct communication was still very much a problematic affair. So this is hardly a promotion for how new technologies have advanced our capacity for community-building in the service of the common good.

However, whenever I am presented with a portfolio of case studies offered as success stories, the skeptical scientist in me starts looking for counterexamples. I wonder to what extent were these stories about natural disasters so severe that established institutions "couldn't react fast enough?" As McKibben observes, not all of Solnit's case studies are strictly "natural." She includes "the explosion of an ammunition ship in the harbor at Halifax during World War I, and the September 11 terrors in New York," apparently because they "had almost the character of natural disasters, coming from the blue." This seems to imply that the critical factor may be the inability of those established institutions to "react fast enough," whether the problem is one of a lack of preparedness or inadequacy of resources. At the risk of sounding too reductive, the thesis may well be that communities form to take care of themselves when no one else will do so.

This then raises the question of where the current economic crisis fits among these case studies and their resulting inferences. Rather than concentrating on the mathematics of the performance of stock exchanges around the world, focus instead on the unemployment problem, which continues to get reported through statistics but with little interpretive analysis. Katty Kay's BBC NEWS report last month about people going back to work in Perry County in Tennessee had a strong sense of community to it, but it was still basically a story about jobs created through stimulus money. Furthermore, it was an account of an experiment, which had little to say about what would happen when the period of observation and data collection associated with that experiment had concluded. (Remember the jaundiced view of such "experimentation" in the interests of educational reform that David Simon brought to the fourth season of The Wire.) Would it be fair to ask why a crisis such as this one did not prompt the initiative of self-organizing communities as recently as a year ago, when the Bush Administration was engaged in its usual dithering over how to respond to needs that no one really understood?

One answer may be that economic crises are qualitatively different from the disasters that Solnit examined, whether or not those disasters are natural ones. The sort of communities that Solnit studied form in the interest of providing food, clothing, and shelter to those most in need, often when provision is a matter of personal self-sacrifice. We saw at least a bit of this in some of the tent cities that began to be formed by victims of foreclosure. Economic failure, on the other hand, is not just about those who find themselves without food, clothing, and shelter; it is more about those who (usually unexpectedly) find that they no longer have the capacity to provide food, clothing, and shelter. Put another way, it is not that they have lost these "subsistence basics" but that they have lost the earning power through which they used to have those basics. (Half a century ago Paul Goodman had even warned that the foundation for such earning power was too flimsy to be sustainable, but the reasoning presented in Growing Up Absurd did not attract much attention at either the institutional or individual level.) It is clear that established institutions are not reacting fast enough to this underlying problem, and we would be right to question if they are reacting at all. However, can we expect self-organizing communities to compensate for this particular failure to react? My guess is that we cannot do so, meaning that, while Solnit may tell us a lot about human nature at its most virtuous, her case studies may not go very far in resolving the economic problems that now confront us.

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