Do natural disasters bring out the best or the worst in people? In her latest book, the essayist/historian/activist Rebecca Solnit marshals historical evidence to argue that such communal calamities trigger a "civic temperament" in human nature that leads people to shine rather than go for each other's throats.
From the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Solnit finds that most people took risks to help one another. Looters may get the most press attention, but Solnit contends that they comprise a small group with little power.
The real obstacle during a disaster, Solnit argues, is government, which fears the aroused wrath of the public. To protect their power, politicians collude with the elite, who often control much of the media, and work together to incite panic about looters and anarchists. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, New Orleans neighbors resisted restrictions on their movements and paddled around to help one another despite the fact that "saving lives was an outlaw activity."
Taking aim at the left and the right alike, Hollywood disaster films, the Bush administration and even Thomas Hobbes, Solnit excoriates those who have, in her opinion, twisted public perception over the ages to suit the notion "that people were sheep, except when they were wolves."
These astute and original perceptions are unfortunately undermined by a writing style that veers wildly between the turgid and the sentimental. In a typical passage, Solnit writes, "Many fear that in disaster we become something other than we normally are"“ helpless or bestial and savage in the most common myths"“ or that is who we really are when the superstructure of society crumbles. We remain ourselves for the most part, but freed to act on, most often, not the worst but the best within. The ruts and routines of ordinary life hide more beauty than brutality."
The problem with this passage is it that begins with a decent supposition, then offers a possible conclusion in the second sentence, then ends in the third sentence with a wild leap toward a vague, poetic notion about beauty in ordinary life. And this otherwise well-argued book contains far too many vague notions. With stronger editing, it could have been a slim, potent manifesto capable of winning over skeptics who will dismiss Solnit as a tool of the left.
Her style problems aside, Solnit has produced an original (albeit inadvertently Reaganesque) idea: that during disasters, government becomes the problem, not the solution. We ordinary citizens are not, she persuasively argues, locked in Darwinian combat; rather, "The history of disaster shows we are social animals who want to connect."