In past weeks, I have been dedicating some think-time to the largely untapped role of civil society and volunteerism in disaster prevention. If so many of us volunteer in the aftermath of a disaster, why don’t we do so before a disaster? Why do few volunteer groups and networks flourish in ‘ordinary’ times? Are there particular kinds of societies that support more active civil society participation? How do institutions working with the public mind factor this into their disaster policies and communication strategies? 

And so, I was pleasantly surprised when I came across Rebecca Solnit’s ‘A paradise built in hell’. The book is about the ‘extraordinary communities that arise in disasters’. Below, paraphrased, are some soulful excerpts from her book’s epilogue, where she does justice to the spirit of risk reduction efforts worldwide: 

“Disasters are a crack in the walls that ordinarily hem us in, and what floods in can be enormously destructive – or creative. Two things matter most in these moments. First, disasters demonstrate what is possible or, perhaps latent: the resilience and generosity of those around us, and their ability to improvise another kind of society. Second, disasters demonstrate how deeply most of us desire connection, participation, altruism and purposefulness. The joy in disasters comes, when it comes, from that purposefulness, the immersion in service and survival, and from an affection that is not private and personal - but civic. …

Disasters may offer us a glimpse but the challenge is to make something of it, before or beyond the disaster: to recognize and realize these possibilities in ordinary times. If there are ordinary times ahead. We are entering an era where sudden and slow onset disaster will become far more powerful and far more common. What we know about the history of disaster and the plethora of disasters coming, calls for obvious infrastructure and systemic changes and specific disaster preparedness. But it also calls for more metaphysical changes – first, to acknowledge how people respond in disasters and to reduce the institutional fear and hostility to the public, then to incorporate what the disaster sociologists call ‘prosocial’ behavior into disaster planning. …

Better preparation for disasters must make a society more flexible and improvisational, more egalitarian and less hierarchical, with more room for meaningful roles and contributions from all members – and with a sense of membership. Civil society is what saves people and creates the immediate conditions for survival – rescue teams, field kitchens, concerned neighbors – and it is a preventive too, as the Chicago heat wave, Cuban hurricanes and many other disasters have demonstrated. ...

Disaster sometimes knocks down institutions and structures and suspends private life, leaving a broader view of what lies beyond. The task before us is to recognize the possibilities visible through that gateway and endeavor to bring them into the realm of the everyday.”


This post first appeared in the disaster diary on the 21st of April 2011:

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