August 19, 2011| 0

What Disaster Tells Us about Community

Disaster Movies

Do you remember the last disaster movie you viewed? As buildings tumbled, did society turn into chaos when people looked to self-preservation above societal good? In this typical movie, were stores looted, innocents trampled or shot, and did the government violently seek to regain control?

Do you believe these representations to be the repercussions of lawlessness? Or, is the government so crucial to human functioning that when catastrophe strikes, and government loses its grip on authority, and all hell breaks loose?

A Paradise Built in Hell

Photo by NASA

I recently read a book by Rebecca Solnit titled, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. For her main thesis, Solnit argues that the disaster clichés flashing on the silver screen have no bearing on reality. Researching the stories of a wide variety of people over the disasters of the last century, Solnit concludes that the overall mentality of a society in response to catastrophe is to work together collectively for survival.

Of course, utopia does not spring from the ashes of a disaster; people can and do act selfishly. However, Solnit also notes that the response of those in authority during disaster is typically an overreaction. For example, looting is an obvious occurrence in the wake of a calamity. However, stealing possessions for profit and taking goods for basic survival carry completely different ramifications. Too often, leaders use excessive force in keeping looters at bay when a majority of the “looters” just need basic, life sustaining supplies.

Whether by sharing resources, administering medical treatment, or sacrificing safety for the sake of a stranger, most caught in a disaster work together.

What about Economic Disasters?

Given this counterintuitive observation, could a communal ethic help our approach to economic catastrophe? With the United States’ recent credit downgrade, and depressing economic outlook, it might be a good time to apply some of Solnit’s observations to the process of economic rebuilding.

Could our national government put politics aside long enough to respond to our economic challenges in ways that invite a spirit of cooperation amidst the chaos? Unfortunately, in all the partisan fighting, one refrain from Washington D.C. seems to be that Democrats’ and Republicans’ first goal is not to solve an issue for the benefit of society but to ensure the appearance of conservative or liberal values on a bill.

Moreover, representatives often work not for the good of the whole but for their specific regions and corporate donors. Too often, proposed bills resemble the needs of a select few instead of the many.

Photo by Anna Destrac

With Derek Thompson of The Atlantic suggesting that the current events in America and Europe point toward a no-end-in-sight recession, it might be time to assert that we face the kind of long-term economic uncertainty that warrants a calamity-type response. In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States encountered a period of unprecedented unity — an excellent example of community arising in disaster. Could we harness the same sense of shared mission today to solve our financial and economic woes? Is it possible for a nation to adopt the sense of urgency that comes from a catastrophe mindset without invoking total chaos?

Luckily, at the very worst, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that as a collective, we are more than capable of surviving, and eventually flourishing in the wake of a disaster, even one in the self-imposed, economic form.

Donovan Richards earned an M.A. in Business and Applied Theology from SPU and works as a consulting analyst for See Seven. You can read more reviews on Donovan's blog.

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