Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Gulf Disaster & the Climate Future: The Shadow Government is You

As the Climate Crisis leaches into Climate Cataclysm, we're likely to see more disasters. Some of them, like hurricanes and other storms, will spend their first fury within a relatively short period of time, with a long aftermath of coping and recovery. Others, like droughts and other climate effects, will be slow-motion catastrophes. Still others will be something in between, similar to the current BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico: they will happen and keep happening over time, with effects that are both immediate and long-lasting.

The prospect of such disasters fill us with forboding, because they cause a lot of pain, and often change things for a long time for many people and for a particular place, with some effects continuing forever. But we fear these disasters not only for what hurricanes or whatever forces do, but for what we may do to each other, or not do for each other. And in this regard, Rebecca Solnit has some reassurance, although she also finds some truth in another fear.

San Francisco-based author Rebecca Solnit explores how people responded to historical and contemporary disasters, from the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake to hurricane Katrina, in her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (Viking.) Her two principal findings contradict conventional expectations, and in Katrina particularly, suggest that what we think we know through media coverage is pretty close to dead wrong.

From movies and TV as well as common philosophies of human nature we expect responses to disasters that range from fearful selfishness to predatory violence. But time after time, as evidenced by reporting and scientific studies, the opposite happens: people share, help each other, and work together, Solnit finds. And despite the dire circumstances, they do so joyfully.

This happened in New Orleans, although this catastrophe wasn’t reported that way. Which follows from Solnit’s second conclusion: authorities like police and military often make matters worse by treating civilians as dangerous criminals, and the media reports from their point of view.

Think of the New Orleans Superdome, which we heard was a nest of violence, gangs, murder and rape. The truth was slower to emerge: no murders, and the "gangs" were often young men who organized to prevent rapes and to “loot” stores—for food, water and supplies, with particular attention to the needs of babies and the elderly. Meanwhile, the people there and elsewhere in New Orleans were all but abandoned by authorities, not only unable to help, but obsessed with keeping order and afraid of the people who looked to them for help. They even discouraged volunteer rescuers. That the New Orleans police and white vigilantes murdered black citizens, often rescuers, is documented and now slowly coming to trials.

Solnit’s book ends before the Haiti earthquake, but reporting from there supports these observations: authorities were often more afraid of ordinary people than they were intent on helping them stay alive.

Solnit’s general conclusion is that the existing system, built on fear, “is mitigated every day by altruism, mutual aid, and solidarity, by the acts of individuals and organizations who are motivated by hope and by love rather than fear. They are akin to a shadow government—another system ready to do more were they voted into power. Disaster votes them in, in a sense, because in an emergency these skills and ties work while fear and divisiveness do not.”

This, frankly, doesn't surprise me. It's not just that people are naturally compassionate. It's that people have capabilities they never get to use, for a purpose they know is good. They are often eager to do so.

The heartening message is the ability and willingness of ordinary people to focus on helping each other, because typically that’s all the help there is for at least the first 48 hours after a big disaster. That's a comfort for those of us in a perennial danger zone, as many of us are (here on the North Coast, a catastrophic earthquake is inevitable, probably within a generation.) But the dismaying message is the tension between authorities and people. The paranoid Rabid Right analysis of police and government has some basis in fact, though as New Orleans shows, the white middle class people promoting it have less to fear than minorities, including the objects of the Rabid Right's Arizxenophobia.

We also see perhaps a new wrinkle on this tendency in the Gulf, where it is a mega-corporation that is pushing people around--including (reportedly) preventing people from wearing protective masks when cleaning up toxic oil and chemicals from the beaches. When police are basically in the employ of corporations--or, as in the case of mercenaries like Blackwater in New Orleans--are corporations themselves, then people and their communities are in danger from the very people that finance Tea Partiers, and that they and their libertarian ideologues support.

At the very least, I hope Solnit's book is read by disaster response planners, government officials, police and the military, and it helps them focus on ways to help people instead of treating them as the enemy.

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