In A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, Rebecca Solnit looks at how people responded in the aftermath of disasters such as the earthquakes in San Francisco in 1906 and Mexico City in 1985, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. What she finds, by delving behind the official accounts and media headlines, is an inspiring picture of the innate intelligence and compassion of human beings, who spontaneously self-organise into communities of mutual support.

Following on from last week’s blog post on biomimicry, and other recent posts on chaotic and emergent systems (like Team of Teams, and Fairness, Floyd, Cooper, Cummings, and Chaos), I was fascinated to read how people, displaced and disrupted by natural or manmade catastrophes, rapidly coalesce into improvised supply chains to provide food, clothing, and shelter for those in need.

I could picture it almost like the Boids computer programme that I linked to last week – immediately after the disrupting event, the Boids/humans are milling around in disarray, but after a couple of beats, points of attraction emerge – a town square, or a church, or a charismatic individual – and people start to gravitate towards them. As they gather, they begin to collaborate, often focusing on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable first. Resources are acquired and distribution mechanisms set in place. It quickly starts to look like an emergent system, with new rules of governance created via the collective intelligence of the crowd.

Many of Solnit’s accounts report how calm people are, and how altruistic. After an earthquake, long before the official first responders can arrive on the scene, neighbours are already working to reach those buried in the rubble, making the most of the crucial period immediately after the buildings have collapsed when the chance of finding survivors is the greatest. Media reports tend to focus on the official response, largely because the reporters arrive around the same time as the uniformed professionals, at which point civilians are usually banished from the scene. So the version of the story that makes it into the media tends to exaggerate the role of the official responders, who are indeed brave and skilful at their jobs and deserving of praise, but the downside of this emphasis is that the role of ordinary people to serve and save their neighbours is downplayed.

In many cases, the official response actually makes things worse, rather than better. Katrina was a case in point, with a laggardly, inadequate, and often inhumane response from the authorities.

“At large in disaster are two populations: a great majority that tends toward altruism and mutual aid and a minority whose callousness and self-interest often become a second disaster.”

This latter is called “elite panic”, the phrase coined by Rutgers University professors Caron Chess and Lee Clarke for the fear felt by those with the most to lose.

“…to heck with this idea about regular people panicking; it’s the elites that we see panicking. The distinguishing thing about elite panic as compared to regular-people panic, is that what elites will panic about is the possibility that we will panic. It is simply, more prosaically more important when they panic because they’re in positions of influence, positions of power.”

“Elite panic in disaster, as identified by the contemporary disaster scholars, is shaped by belief, belief that since human beings at large are bestial and dangerous, the believer must himself or herself act with savagery to ensure individual safety or the safety of his or her interests.”

Original caption for this photo: “Looters make off with merchandise from several downtown businesses in New Orleans, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit the area. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)”

This was particularly evident in the aftermath of Katrina, when vigilante groups defended privileged neighbourhoods against the perceived threat of looters, shooting people (almost without exception people of colour) who they suspected of ill intent, based more on their mere presence and the colour of their skin, rather than on any evidence. Solnit also points out how the racial bias of the media often manifested in reports of this process of distributing necessary goods – black people were reported to be “looting”, while white people were said to be “requisitioning supplies”.

As with so many of the narratives currently dominant in our world:

Disaster myths are not politically neutral, but rather work systematically to the advantage of elites. Elites cling to the panic myth because to acknowledge the truth of the situation would lead to very different policy prescriptions than the ones currently in vogue.”

So let’s dive into that last sentence a little further. Humans have emerged as the dominant successful species (rather too dominant, and too successful, some might argue) because we are good at cooperation. And we were good at cooperation long before there were laws and structures to force us to cooperate. It was a biological and evolutionary imperative. As creatures go, we’re not particularly fast or strong, and our senses are positively dull compared with many other species. But, as Yuval Noah Harari points out in Sapiens, humans are really good at cooperation and adaptation – both being qualities that disasters call forth.

Looking to the future, there is every chance that we are going to see more and more disasters. Climate change leads to more severe weather events – floods, hurricanes, maybe even earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. Climatic volatility tends to lead to political instability, which can lead to manmade disasters and sudden mass migrations. Elites, desperately clinging to power, will default to old-school command-and-control strategies, trying to hold back the tide of disruption that threatens their power base. The image of King Canute comes to mind.

Kerala, India

So what would it be like if we had leaders that recognised where the world is heading, and gave us back the rights to our freedom, autonomy and creativity, that recognised that the majority of human beings are resourceful, kind and generous and allowed us to express the better angels of our nature as millennia of evolutionary biology have conditioned us to do? Simply put, what if we were allowed to be more self-organising?

Contrast this narrative with the narrative put forward in his book, tellingly titled Propaganda, by Edward Bernays who is credited (or blamed) as the godfather of the modern-day advertising industry:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country… In almost every act of our daily lives, whether in the sphere of politics or business, in our social conduct or our ethical thinking, we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons…who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”

Which of these narratives do we want to hold to be true? Are we capable of organising ourselves in civilised, dignified, and compassionate ways? Or are we puppets to be manipulated by a small number of cynical, powerful people pursuing their own ambitious ends?

At the moment, I would say that both are true. But both don’t have to be.

Solnit’s conclusion is that:

“In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it.”

And in fact, there may even be gifts in the coming disruptions. They may be immensely traumatic and painful in the short term, but as I wrote a few weeks ago (If You’re Not Living On The Edge..), the cool stuff happens at the edge of chaos, where the fragile faux-stability of the old order rubs up against the vibrant potentiality of the as-yet-unknown.

You’ve probably heard the parable of the chopsticks:

A very old man knew that he was going to die very soon. Before he died he wanted to know what heaven and hell were like, so he visited the wise man in his village.

“Can you please tell me what heaven and hell are like?” he asked the wise man.

“Come with me and I will show you”, the wise man replied.

The two men walked down a long path until they came to a large house. The wise man took the old man inside, and there they found a large dining room with enormous table covered with every kind of food imaginable. Around the table were many people, all thin and hungry, who were holding twelve-foot chopsticks. Every time they tried to feed themselves the food fell off the chopsticks.

The old man said to the wise man, “Surely this must be hell. Will you now show me heaven?”

The wise man said, “Yes, come with me.”

The two men left the house and walked farther down the path until they reached another large house. Again they found a large dining room and in it a table filled with all kinds of food. The people here were happy and appeared well fed, but they also held twelve-foot chopsticks.

“How can this be?” said the old man. “These people have twelve-foot chopsticks and yet they are happy and well fed.

The wise man replied, “In heaven the people feed each other.”

The point is, heaven and hell might be much the same… but in heaven, everybody helps each other.

This, I believe, will be the invitation of our times: can we learn to support each other during this chaotic, exciting, creative liminal space of transformation? I believe we can, especially when we trust in the power of self-organising, biomimetic, mutually supportive communities, bound by love and trust and the understanding that we live or die… together.


  • How brilliant your writing, thinking and heart are Roz …… YES YES YES to all you say to beautifully. Felt quite sick reading the piece by Edward Bernays… especially having been in the ad industry some many moons ago.

    I wonder if you know that Open Space Technology, as ‘found’ by my wonderful colleague and mentor Harrison Owen, is based on the fundamental knowing that we are self-organising systems…. and that when we are allowed to co-operate together in that way, magic happens, the world works, and people are fulfilled. It is Open Space that I am particularly known for in my organisational and community work, holding the space and facilitating (perhaps) people to decide and create their futures together.

    OST is perfect in a disaster situation, for example…. enabling literally thousands of people to self-organise. The inspirational Haiti Partners operates fully on Open Space principles, and has done brilliantly for many decades.

    Thank you once again for your true inspiration……..

    with love….

    • Ah well, many of us have worked on the dark side before seeing the light! 🙂

      Thanks for drawing my attention to this aspect of OST – of course, that makes perfect sense. And thanks also for the link to Haiti Partners. Their model makes so much sense – too often aid is just another form of colonialism. So much more dignified for all concerned when people are given the means to help themselves, as the experts in their own lives and communities.

      There seems to be a lot happening in this space – teal organisations, crowdocracy, etc. It really gives me hope for the future!

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