The Sunday Edition

'In disasters, most people are altruistic, brave, communitarian, generous…' says Rebecca Solnit

Author Rebecca Solnit has an enduring fascination with what happens to communities in times of crisis, and what disasters reveal about human nature. With the global spread of the coronavirus pandemic, and its radical impact on our lives here in Canada, Solnit’s research on disasters becomes even more resonant.
Rebecca Solnit’s latest book, Recollections of My Nonexistence, is a memoir. (Adrian Mendoza and Penguin Random House)
Listen42:53

Writer Rebecca Solnit's incessant curiosity drives her to explore everything, from nuclear testing to photography to the hidden conflicts embedded in maps.

Over the course of her more than 20 books, she has written about atlases, Alzheimer's, the history of walking, climate change, the desert, fairy tales, the color blue, punk music and contemporary politics.

In her new memoir, Recollections of My Nonexistence, she writes about how San Francisco and the American West shaped her as a person, how she came to understand the epidemic of violence against women, and how she developed her voice in a world that wants to keep women silent.

She also has an enduring fascination with what happens to communities in times of crisis, and what disasters reveal about human nature. That was the subject of her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell.

The Sunday Edition's host Michael Enright spoke with her in February. As the coronavirus pandemic has spread around the globe, and radically altered our lives here in Canada, her research on disasters is even more resonant.

Here are some highlights from their conversation, which have been edited for clarity and condensed.


What disasters reveal about human nature and our longing for connection

In 1986, San Francisco had a massive earthquake. What happened is that the U.S. military, the city government and the state militia all freaked out, decided that ordinary people were their enemy and protecting private property was the highest goal and started shooting looters on sight … We live inside stories, and they had a story about human nature that said that ordinary people are basically savage, and only the threat of institutional authority with its capacity for violence makes us all behave well. And that's actually a lie.

In disasters, most people are altruistic, brave, communitarian, generous and deeply creative in rescuing each other, creating the conditions for success of survival- Rebecca Solnit

Then I saw those lies in Hurricane Katrina justify a militarized and violent response that treated survivors of the disaster, still in the city, as criminals and monsters, rapists and pillagers, and violent people who needed to be subjugated, needed to be locked down in a ruined city with no resources, no medical care. A lot of people died because of that story.

I had learned by reading the oral histories of the 1906 earthquake, and by reading the wonderful disaster sociologists in a field that begins in part with Samuel Prince, looking at the Halifax Explosion in 1917 ... that actually in disasters, most people are altruistic, brave, communitarian, generous and deeply creative in rescuing each other, creating the conditions for success of survival and often creating these little disaster utopias where everyone feels equal. Everyone feels like a participant.

It's like a reset, when you turn the machine on and off and on again, that our basic default setting is generous and communitarian and altruistic. But what's shocking is the incredible joy people often seem to have, when they describe that sense of purpose, connection, community agency they found. It speaks to how deeply we desire something we mostly don't have in everyday life. That's a kind of social, public love and power, above and beyond the private life.

In day-to-day living, we face structures that are built up to isolate and alienate us. People who find their deepest meaning and satisfaction in their connection to each other don't make good consumers … So we have a lot of forces that want to tell us that we are privatized and we have no connection to the people around us. Our differences separate us. Don't even bother trying. And yet that reset shows us how much we desire membership in a community, a sense of belonging, a sense of agency, a sense of power.

Why she wanted to write about nonexistence

This title came up early as I was thinking about this project. Some of it is [about] the feeling I had as a young woman that it was really likely I might be raped, and in the course of being raped I might be murdered. And it was also about … how do you evade men who are menacing you, because you don't have a voice, because you can't say "don't," "stop," because that sometimes makes them worse ... You learn to disappear, evade, fade away, slip out ... so you're constantly disappearing in order to survive.

But it's also about the wonderful disappearance into books in which I spent so much of my life, particularly when I was young, just devouring a whole novel a day sometimes. As a reader, you're everything and nothing in the book. Nobody sees you, but you see everything through the narrative.

People who find their deepest meaning and satisfaction in their connection to each other don't make good consumers.- Rebecca Solnit

Then also it's a book about other forms of nonexistence I encountered as I got involved in Native American land rights, as I got close to a lot of gay men who had their own threats, including homophobia and AIDS to deal with, as I watched a black neighbourhood that I lived in disappear through gentrification. So I think we'll have some nonexistence in our lives, and how and where we appear and to whom is a huge question. What prevents us from appearing or punishes us for showing up?

How the Nevada Test Site reshaped the way she sees the world

It was this great peace movement against nuclear weapons that brought an extraordinary collection of people from Mormon downwind, to nuclear physicists, to Japanese atomic survivors, to atomic veterans, to eco-feminists and anarchists all together. The test site was just such an extraordinary experience of this sublime vastness of the place, of the quite intense possibility of an all-out world annihilating nuclear war, of the resurgence of this extraordinary Native American presence that I would join up with, as the Western Shoshone land rights movement.

I realized that as a writer, I needed to use everything I'd learned … You could use the tools I'd learned as an art critic to analyze a nuclear weapon, the misrepresentation of nature [and] of native people. And you had to use that first-person voice to describe, what does it actually feel like to watch a glorious sunset while handcuffed in a cattle pen full of other handcuffed people who share your beliefs?

Click 'listen' above to hear the interview.

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