Questions & Answers / A Conversation With Rebecca Solnit

A writer and self-described anarchist who looks back at a century of disasters and notes how they often served as an opportunity for humans to create ad hoc utopian communities

Rebecca Solnit is one of those rare independent writers who has made a career of taking on the topics that engage her interest and passion, and writing non-fiction books full-time. An intellectual, but not an academic; a journalist, but not on the staff of any regular publication - Solnit, 48, is the author of 12 general-interest books, and none are celebrity bios. Her 2003 book "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West" examined not only the life of the man who invented high-speed photography, but also the connection between the United States' expansion westward to the Pacific in the 19th century and the development of photography and technology in general. That won her a National Book Critics Circle Award. Other titles have included "Wanderlust: A History of Walking," and "As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art."

Solnit's new book, "A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster" (Viking; 405 pages, $27.95), looks at the silver lining that accompanies many natural and man-made disasters - namely, the utopian ways human beings relate to and take care of one another in the face of the breakdown of the regular order of things. Beginning with the 1906 earthquake and the subsequent fires that devastated her hometown of San Francisco, Solnit, through resourceful archival work and, in the case of more recent episodes, reporting from the field, describes the altruism with which most people respond to disaster. Left to their own devices, they become their "brother's keepers," setting up tent camps, sharing food and other resources, forming search parties to rescue people trapped in the rubble.

Nonetheless, she argues, we have been conditioned - by Hollywood, the media and politicians - to expect people to behave in a "Hobbesian" way, treating others with savagery to protect themselves and their possessions, before the same is done to them.

Ironically, Solnit documents, it is often the authorities, viewing every survivor as a potential murderer or thief, who get in the way of people helping themselves and one another. Not surprisingly, a good portion of her book examines Hurricane Katrina, a truly catastrophic natural disaster, to be sure, but one in which a significantly smaller number of people would have died if the federal, state and municipal authorities hadn't treated the victims as criminals, turning New Orleans into a veritable prison camp. Her research also turned up solid evidence that a band of white supremacists actually roamed the city in the days following the 2005 storm, killing black people at random for the sport of it. Solnit spoke with Haaretz by phone from an Amish retreat in Massachusetts, where she was working on her next book, an essayistic atlas of her region.

 Much of what I read in your book reminded me of what an anarchist whom I recently interviewed had to say about the benefits of a decentralized society and ownership of resources.

 Yes, the disaster moment is anarchistic, in that no one is in charge and everyone has agency - which is imagined as dangerous or chaotic, but often works remarkably well. People rise to the occasion. A lot of people today are anarchists, in that they believe in decentralization, localization and in being as unhierarchical as possible. A lot of them don't see themselves as, or want to say that they are, anarchists, but I will say I'm one. It's essentially premised on faith in human beings - though not on the idea that if all the police disappeared tomorrow, we'd have a party. Still, people are often resourceful and generous and creative in the absence of authority. Of course, they also sometimes behave awfully. It depends in part on what you come into the situation with.

 When you say 'what you come in with,' do you mean the values with which you were raised, or one's current material situation?

 Mostly the former - the ethics of what do I owe other people, to what extent am I part of society? Severe and chronic material deprivation can damage people, but it's not necessarily the poor who behave badly in disaster. Elites are often the most fearful, and their actions - which can include legitimized looting and murder - have disproportionate consequences. Some believe that, in absence of order and authority, you're going to attack me. We saw a great deal of that expectation in Katrina, and in the 1906 earthquake. The Hobbesian view of humans. You heard bizarre language expressing bizarre beliefs during Katrina. People were said to be "looting." The belief seemed to be: First they'll come for your TV, then they'll rape your grandmother, and after that, kill your children. People who are homeless and desperate often have other priorities than making off with your television, but the fear is there. And the people who stayed behind in Katrina stayed behind because they were elderly, car-less, poor or committed to taking care of others. I decided to abolish the word looting from my own language, because it conflates legitimate appropriation of necessary resources in an emergency with everyday theft, and because the word is so incendiary. It's an amazing thing, when I spoke to the disaster sociologists, who've done the meticulous research into thousands of disasters since World War II, careful, statistically buttressed fieldwork, they said that generally speaking in disaster and crisis, we don't panic, that we are altruistic, that crime drops - both violent and property crime.

 You suggest in the book that this subject is of special relevance because we are going to be facing more natural disasters.

 There will be more disasters because of climate change, and more populations are going to be more vulnerable - because of their poverty, because they live more and more in already marginal conditions, and have neither rural resources nor middle-class affluence to cushion them. In truth, climate change is already here. We already have increased wildfires, heat waves, erratic weather, and increased droughts and floods.

 What about last autumn's economic crash, would you call that a disaster?

 Economic crash: a disaster. You know, I wrote primarily about sudden disasters where everything changes suddenly and people feel released, for better or worse, from the everyday conditions of life - but for a lot of countries, the economy is slow-moving, creating unemployment and poverty over an extended period. In places like Iceland, however, the crash was very much like a disaster. It was really the sudden disruption of the everyday order of things. Iceland's crash produced an uprising that overthrew the neoliberal government that had got them into this situation. In the years before, the country had become materially rich but socially poor and disengaged, and cynical, and overnight there was a remarkable rebirth of civil society that was almost jubilant in nature despite the crash of the economy. They were now socially rich, if materially poor. On January 20, the same day of the Obama inauguration, the Icelandic protests turned into rage and dissent, to the level where the government resigned and a very different one was chosen to come into power, and take the county in a radically different direction. It is much more responsive to what people want. The complete destruction of your economy is not usually seen as exhilarating. But there was a sense of engagement with each other, it really supercharged the people with energy and possibility.

 Even though I'd heard a lot of it before, it was still shocking to read your description of the official response to Katrina. It's stunning that a country like the United States couldn't respond properly to a hurricane.

 What's interesting is, it's always framed as "couldn't," but I think "wouldn't" is more accurate. They responded, but not with aid. The sheriff of Gretna [the town on the other side of the bridge leading away from where thousands of New Orleans residents were stranded in the Superdome and the Convention Center] actually prevented people from evacuating New Orleans on foot. All those people from the Superdome could have walked to Gretna, and from there they could have been evacuated. They were turned back at gunpoint. FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] and other authorities were preventing volunteer rescuers, they stopped Walmart from bringing in trailer trucks of water. People were prevented from rescuing victims, who were treated as criminals. Old people were dying in front of you. The federal authorities turned down the offer of a military hospital ship, and so many resources that could have been used.

You could rewrite Katrina in so many ways. They could have evacuated everybody. What if the government had actually used all available resources, the way they would have if Westchester [a prosperous county in suburban New York] had been hit by disaster, or Manhattan? Look at how well things worked in 9/11 [also the subject of several chapters in Solnit's book], where people were seen as victims and all possible assistance was marshaled, and for the most part volunteer efforts were allowed to go forward.

A lot of good stuff happened in New Orleans anyway. I saw a photograph of bumper-to-bumper traffic, with good old boys from the surrounding region driving into the city the day after Katrina to unload their boats, so that they could rescue people who were strangers to them, even as those strangers were being demonized by the mass media. The lack of culpability among the mass media is astounding - the fear-mongering, the way they broke down their standards of verifying things, really contributed to the panic of the elites, the demonization, and the lack of aid, though reporters on the ground gave up being "objective" in another way to express outrage, grief and compassion for New Orleanians.

So all in all, it was a perfect storm of weather, and engineering disasters and levees, and a social disaster with no evacuation resources for the poor, even though people were ordered to evacuate. The poor performance had consequences. Bush's own pollster credits Katrina with being the end of the Bush administration's mandate from heaven. It's a huge watershed moment, making people come to terms with poverty again, and racism. And the incompetence and sheer unreality of the Bush administration's worldview.