Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is a book about disaster that will make you hopeful. Studying five calamities across a century, Solnit uncovers an untold narrative—that people are generally great in a crisis, keen to help one another. Out of these moments, society can be reborn. Such a faith seems particularly relevant in a time of COVID-19 isolation. Recently, she and I corresponded via email to discuss these ideas.
Reading A Paradise Built in Hell, I was struck by the almost cheerful collective spirit of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. In light of COVID, have you thought more about proximity as a catalyst to bring people together?
The 115th anniversary of the 1906 earthquake just passed, so I revisited some of the stories. What was surprising to me about the pandemic is that people found ways simultaneously to socially distance and take care of each other. Young people stepped up to deliver groceries to at-risk elders; people reorganized how we did almost everything—work, educate, gather necessary supplies, connect. A whole lot of fundraising happened.
I learned two things about what mutual aid can be from this pandemic. One was that what you don't do can be an act of solidarity and commitment, a gift. Small businesses and workers—gyms, bakeries, cafés, bookstores—voluntarily changed what they did or obeyed shutdown orders with alacrity and generosity. The other was that I had to rethink what’s mutual about mutual aid, thanks to the Auntie Sewing Squad, an Asian American women–led project to provide cloth masks made at home to frontline, vulnerable, and devalued communities. The squad grew to include hundreds of sewists who made around a third of a million masks, given away for free. This required building purchasing and supply-distribution networks, modeling self-care for the aunties doing the work, building relationships with the Navajo and Lakota communities. The term mutual aid is often tossed out as though there is a concrete exchange between the parties, but this was unidirectional giving. It taught me that what is mutual is not necessarily practical exchange but the premise of the giver that we are already indivisible, united, one people.
The term mutual aid emerges from a book by Peter Kropotkin. Why do you think his ideas haven’t taken more hold?
Kropotkin points out that mutual aid is a practice that exists among many species and then goes on to trace it in traditional societies. His work strikes a blow against assumptions that had devolved into social Darwinism: an emphasis on competition to justify capitalism, and the corruption of survival of the fittest into racist and eugenicist ideas. One of the extraordinary things going on in our time is a recognition that human beings are empathic and cooperative in our default setting, that across the natural world species and systems are elegant, almost orchestral forms of interdependence and collaboration. Every step of the way, there was resistance to recognizing that. In the human sphere, the old “tragedy of the commons” has been discredited, and there is enthusiasm for cooperative models and recognition of our capacity to make them work. Elinor Ostrom, the first woman to win a Nobel Prize in Economics, did so because, in the words of the Nobel Foundation, she “challenged the conventional wisdom by demonstrating how local property can be successfully managed by local commons without any regulation by central authorities or privatization.” Developments in neurobiology, psychology, and sociology studied by organizations like the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley are rethinking human nature and human desire in alignment with these principles.
In A Paradise Built in Hell, I laid out two observations about our species in this light. One is that in a pinch we’re mostly very good at mutual aid; we know how to self-organize to meet the needs of the moment, to work together, and most of us have the empathic desire to do so. But more surprising is how much meaning and joy people derive from this work. “Rising to the occasion” is virtue, but the passionate desire behind it reveals real potentials for more idealistic societies and reminds me that capitalism needs us to be miserable, isolated, needy, dissatisfied, to buy into the delusion that material things (and perfect bodies) are the highway to happiness. We’ve been bombarded all our lives with that marketing-advertising story, in which privatization is essential to capitalism. Kropotkin’s ideas are antithetical to that and validated by what disaster teaches. •