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The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

by Rebecca Solnit

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-6700-2107-9
Publisher: Viking

Historical and philosophical investigation into human responses to disaster and the possibilities for community and democratic participation that can arise from them.

Solnit (Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, 2007, etc.) examines what disasters tell us about how human societies work, where they fail or succeed during and after moments of crisis and how the small-scale utopias that sometimes emerge in the midst of tragedy might offer hope for larger change. The author’s central thesis—which she develops by drawing on a wide range of philosophers and writers, including William James, Viktor Frankl, Mikhail Bakhtin and William Wordsworth—is that disasters reveal the human ability to imagine and spontaneously create communities that fulfill our desire for “connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness.” Relying on extensive archival research and oral histories, Solnit considers community responses to a variety of disasters, including the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Halifax military explosion of 1917 and the bombing of London during World War II, as well as lethal heat-waves, terrorist attacks, nuclear accidents, hurricanes and other natural disasters. The author looks at stories of both community success and failure. In the cases of failure, she reveals how rigid hierarchical structures, elite panic and pre-existing social dysfunctions complicated direct citizen action, even as these crises “demonstrat[e] the viability of a dispersed, decentralized system of decision making.” The author imbues her philosophically rich text with an intimate mode of self-reflection, and she provides telling details of her firsthand encounters with the individuals whose stories have inspired her work.

A serious and occasionally somber meditation on how disasters bring about the possibility for societal change.