“The conundrum we call human nature readily rises to the occasion of a crisis and as readily slacks off when the living is easy. During its decade of prosperity based on precarious financial schemes, Iceland grew politically apathetic and a little dull and demoralized. When its mismanaged economy crashed spectacularly in October 2008, furious citizens took action and a vibrant civil society emerged; it was the best and worst of times as the country lost its economic wealth and social poverty. A young member of the demonstrations that toppled the neoliberal government wrote to me of those days of bonfires and drums. ‘I felt as if Iceland was being born again.’ That the worst of times becomes the best is interesting, but hardly ideal. That the best of times, the safe and affluent ones, become the worst poses other challenges, of how to maintain a sense of purpose and solidarity in the absence of emergencies, how to stay awake in softer times. The religious language of awakening suggests we are ordinarily sleepers, unaware of each other and of our true circumstances and selves. Disaster shocks us out of our slumber, but only skillful effort keeps us awake.” ~Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built In Hell
I can’t recall when or where, but recently, my attention was drawn to Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster (Viking, 2009). Thoroughly hooked by the title, I ran to my computer to scan online reviews and ultimately order the book. What I write here about A Paradise Built In Hell is not a book review, but rather, an urgent invitation to read and assimilate it because of the momentous implications it offers regarding the unprecedented transitions by which we are all impacted.
While Solnit makes no mention of the Transition Town movement in her book, the essential message of it resonates exquisitely with the movement’s mission and methodology and powerfully underscores the need for the vision and strategic planning that Transition initiatives around the world are working to implement. That’s because Solnit isn’t just writing a book about how people come together in crises, but more importantly, how crises can meet our deeper need for meaning in our lives and even positively transform the social and political landscape of communities permanently.
Drawing on the data produced by numerous sociological researchers, Solnit emphasizes that in the wake of disasters, people are more often “…altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors, as well as friends and loved ones”, rather than becoming panicky or behaving savagely. Most importantly, she asserts, disaster offers us “a view into another world for our other selves.” That other world, according to Solnit, is a world of compassion, empathy, cooperation, and service. Moreover, that world brings not only meaning, but joy to most survivors of disaster. Of them the author notes, “They abhorred what had happened, but they clearly relished who they briefly became.”
Relevant to the Transition model is Solnit’s assertion that the health and justness of our communities determines who lives and who dies, and paradise can only arise in hell if the usual order and attendant systems are suspended. She repeatedly reminds us that disaster scenarios are not unlike revolutions in that there is temporary chaos, the collapsing of systems and services, and the emergence of a newfound spirit of community:
“But in disaster people come together, and though some fear this gathering as a mob, many cherish it as an experience of a civil society that is close enough to paradise. In contemporary terms, privatization is largely an economic term, for the consignment of jurisdictions, goods, services, and powers—railways, water rights, policing, education—to the private sector and the vagaries of the marketplace. But this economic privatization is impossible without the privatization of desire and imagination that tells us we are not each other’s keeper. Disasters, in returning their sufferers to public and collective life, undo some of this privatization, which is a slower, subtler disaster all its own.”
In short, disasters give us flashes of a “who else we ourselves may be and what else our society could become”—an ideal which the Transition Town model serves to make real and operative.
As a wordsmith, I am particularly fascinated by definitions Solnit offers for words like emergency—that is to emerge or rise out of, implying our need to rise out of the familiar and rise to the occasion. Catastrophe, she points out, comes from a Greek word which originally meant the upset of a plot or twist, and of course, disaster is derived from a Latin compound which means to be without a star or planet, or we might say, without grounding, without a center. Most importantly, disaster “requires an ability to embrace contradiction in both the minds of those undergoing it and those trying to understand it from afar.” The principal contradiction to which Solnit is referring is the toppling of old orders and the opening of new possibilities. (Anyone who has read my book Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse will be familiar with the concept of holding the tension of opposites as an essential doorway to inner and external transformation.) Simply put, in Solnit’s words, we “manage to hold both irreconcilable experiences, the joy and the grief.”
Why is disaster research important? According to A Paradise Built In Hell:
“Disaster is never terribly far away. Knowing how people behave in disasters is fundamental to knowing how to prepare for them. And what can be learned about resilience, social and psychological response, and possibility from sudden disasters is relevant as well for the slower disasters of poverty, economic upheaval, and incremental environmental degradation as well as the abiding questions about social possibilities.”
Major loss in our personal lives usually isolates us from the community whereas “When the loss is general, one is not cast out by suffering but finds fellowship in it.” One of the most profound impacts of disaster for its survivors is the extent to which their deep longing for community is typically met as they come together to meet each others’ needs.
Solnit notes that horrible disasters have shaped the lives of some people who have become luminaries of healing and social change. One notable example is Dorothy Day who was eight years old when the San Francisco earthquake struck, and the most profound memory she took from the disaster was that “While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.” The impact of that love shaped Day’s life and work as she devoted herself entirely to organizing people to meet the needs of the poor and to create a more just and magnanimous society.
In the popular, consumer-driven, and therapy-based culture of modernity, we live isolated and disconnected lives where the sense of self is “privatized”, and sadly, we know little of sharing in collective suffering until disaster forces us to do so. The culture of civilization invariably sucks all meaning out of our lives, unless we consciously seek to find it. Solnit comments that “Meaning must be sought out; it is not built into most peoples’ lives. The tasks that arise in disaster often restore this meaning.”
As I have noted in Sacred Demise, we are the only species that hungers for meaning, and to that end, I quoted Victor Frankl, the famous physician who survived Auschwitz and had asked himself what distinguished those who survived from those who didn’t. Finding and holding meaning, he argued, mattered most. Those who had something to live for and who struggled accordingly often survived. Frankl asserted that human beings do not need a discharge of tension and physical and emotional comfort above everything else, but rather “the call of potential meaning” which we need so badly that we sometimes choose it over survival.
The famous sociologist, Charles Fritz, gave birth to what we would call today, disaster studies. At first deemed a radical premise, Fritz argued that everyday life in a soul-numbing, alienating, consumeristic society is already a disaster and that actual disasters liberate us. Fritz researched how community identity is nurtured during disaster because, in the words of Solnit, “disaster offers temporary solutions to the alienations and isolations of everyday life.” Fritz believed that everyday life is actually more difficult to live than dealing with disaster because in the latter, we know what to do and who to be.
As I have endeavored to clarify in Sacred Demise, there is a spiritual component in all catastrophe. Solnit elucidates this beautifully by reminding us of our hunter-gatherer origins in which as a species, we faced nearly constant disaster or at least, protracted crises of survival. We wisely moved beyond that existence but at the expense of leaving “the forces that bind us to each other, to the moment, and to an inherent sense of purpose.” Disasters, the author says, provide us opportunities for community and a changed sense of self.
Moreover, in numerous situations such as the Mexico City earthquake of 1985 and the Nicaraguan earthquake of the 1970s, disaster ultimately precipitated a shift in those nations’ political processes, leading to more grassroots, bottom up leadership. Disasters usually dismantle hierarchies and require small groups of people to very quickly create makeshift, and even perhaps long-term, structures for meeting their needs. In this way, they are not unlike revolutions, and in some cases, result in similar outcomes over time. Typically in such a milieu, elites are threatened because “power devolves to the people on the ground in many ways”, demonstrating the viability of “a dispersed, decentralized system of decision-making.” In these moments, says Solnit, “Citizens themselves constitute the government”, and and generosity are demonstrated, as well as the depth of our longing for connection and purposefulness.
Nicaraguan novelist and poet, Gioconda Belli, referring to that nation’s disastrous 1972 earthquake said: “You realize that life has to be lived well or is not worth living. It’s a very profound transformation that takes place during catastrophes. It’s like a near-death experience but lived collectively.”
Solnit believes that many disasters are ahead of us in terms of resource depletion and climate change, and she says, “The current global economic depression is itself a vast disaster.” Whereas governments give lip service to “disaster preparedness”, their motivation is primarily driven by the need for order and control. Typically, disaster preparedness is exceedingly pragmatic and addresses only issues of physical well being. On a soul level, however, A Paradise Built In Hell brilliantly and sensitively analyzes what disasters do for us and the joy that is almost always found in certain aspects of them. As Solnit says, “Disasters may offer us a glimpse, but the challenge is to make something of it, before or beyond disaster: to recognize and realize these desires and these possibilities in ordinary times.”
One aspect of my involvement with the Transition Town movement is precisely the vision expressed above by Solnit and throughout her book. The Transition model is not unique in its mission to nurture in “ordinary times” the qualities that disasters almost always manifest—compassion, cooperation, the pride of place, and yes, even joy. However, it offers myriad tools for creating, not structures and communities that “arise” in disaster, but those that are already in place and that provide an ongoing sense of meaning and purpose which may be savored with or without catastrophe.