Thursday, September 10, 2009

Lessons from Hell

In the New York Times Book Review Tom Vanderbilt discusses the new book by Rebecca Solnit on the communities (frequently amazingly altruistic) that arise in times of disaster, during which one might have expected the social fabric to rend.
Disasters, for Solnit, do not merely put us in view of apocalypse, but provide glimpses of utopia. They do not merely destroy, but create. “Disasters are extraordinarily generative,” she writes. As the prevailing order — which she elliptically characterizes as advanced global capitalism, full of anomie and isolation — collapses, another order takes shape: “In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society.” These “disaster communities” represent something akin to the role William James claimed for “the utopian dreams” of social justice: “They help to break the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order.”

A meta-narrative governing official response to the various disasters Solnit examines, from the industrial explosion that devastated Halifax in 1917 to the Mexico City earthquake of 1985 to New York on 9/11, is that cities wracked by disaster need to be protected from rampaging mobs, that government needs to suppress the panicked masses and save the day. But as Solnit illustrates, through an absorbing study of the academic subfield of “disaster sociology,” these Hobbesian (and Holly­wood) beliefs are seldom true.

First, official emergency responders are rarely the first people to respond to an emergency. Second, the central command-and-control model often misinterprets the reality on the ground. Third, the hero motif neglects the role of social capital, a soft-power variable that is played down in disaster management but which might help answer such interesting questions as why Cuba, in contrast to its neighbors (including the United States), responds so well to hurricanes, or why the 2003 New York City blackout was calm while its 1977 equivalent was not...Lastly, there’s the panic myth. A sociologist who set out to research panic in disasters found it was a “vanishingly rare phenomenon,” with cooperation and rational behavior the norm. More typically, panic comes from the top

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