Constructing paradise


A question underlying my writing, both personally and in the wider context of how change happens, is by what means we make the transition from loss, calamity, disaster towards a more future-facing perspective. How do you start to dream of something new when facing up to the difficulties of the present is so all consuming?

There have been earthquakes in Ecuador and Japan, the one-year anniversary since Nepal’s devastating earthquake has passed, while the impact of that disaster and the one that took place in Haiti in 2010 are still being felt.

In her book A Paradise Built in Hell Rebecca Solnit gives an overview of disasters from from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to New Orleans in 2008, to demonstrate that frequently, ordinary people respond to disaster with self-sacrifice, humanity, kindness and basic solidarity. This capacity of ordinary people to organise themselves is times of crisis is not shared by authorities that, gripped by “elite panic”, fear chaos above all:

Elites and authorities often fear the changes of disaster or anticipate that change means chaos and destruction, or at least the undermining of the foundations of their power. So a power struggle often takes place in disaster — and real political and social change can result from that struggle or from the new sense of self and society that emerges… the elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control, and in their fear take repressive measures that become secondary disasters. But many others who don’t hold radical ideas, don’t believe in revolution, don’t consciously desire profound social change find themselves in a transformed world leading a life they could not have imagined and rejoice in it.

I haven’t read enough to see if the book answers my questions about how, in the midst of devastation, and still feeling its effects, we can navigate a path towards the future. I’m not sure either how we cross the line that separates coping with something terrible and moving towards a more creative stage of rebuilding. The flip side of the story about the response of the authorities is that their top down actions could limit peoples’ capacity to respond effectively and act with agency. When people are seen only as victims they are probably most in danger of being halted by despair.

The most heartening things I’ve seen over the past year or so have been to do with the way people pull together, including the people who have responded to the refugee crisis in so many different ways across Europe, the millions of people who haven’t waited for the sanction of the authorities before getting involve. If you take it a step further, you find yourself wondering what the refugees themselves could do if they were allowed to organise rather than be at the receiving end of a series of ‘emergency’ measures.

I feel encouraged by people’s resilience, resourcefulness and creativity in the face of disaster, it helps bolster my resolve. I’m also becoming more convinced that somehow it’s this capacity for collective action that offers the most hope, although the greatest paradox remains that I’ve never been more on my own.

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