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The Resilience Doctrine: How Disasters Can Encourage Social Change

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair


Part 2 of a 4-part Primer on Disaster Collectivism in the Climate and Pandemic Crises.

Disasters sometimes have a way of focusing public attention on basic human needs and long-term ecological survival. According to the Shareable network, survival is not even possible without a “sharing transformation,” or “a movement of movements emerging from the grassroots up to solve today’s biggest challenges, which old, top-down institutions are failing to address….Amid crisis, a new way forward is emerging…The sharing transformation is big, global, and impacts every part of society. New and resurgent solutions are democratizing how we produce, consume, govern, and solve social problems….The sharing transformation shows that it’s possible to govern ourselves, build a green economy that serves everyone, and create meaningful lives together. It also shows that we can solve the world’s biggest challenges — like poverty and global warming — by unleashing the power of collaboration.”

A focus on collaborative resilience can cut across ideological lines, and even take hold in normally conservative areas of the U.S. After a 2007 tornado leveled most of Greensburg, Kansas, city leaders decided to reconstruct the town using principles of sustainability. They rebuilt structures using energy-efficient designs, and ironically harnessed wind power to generate electricity. They also reoriented their local electoral systems around nonpartisan races, in order to increase political cooperation.

After a 2007 tornado leveled Greensburg, Kansas (Michael Raphael/FEMA).

A new Art Center in Kansas was built with renewable energy technology (VisitGreensburgKS).

The connection between disasters and social transformation has been well documented. After Nicaragua was struck by a major earthquake in 1972, the Somoza dictatorship redirected relief funds for private use, and only seven years later Sandinista rebels toppled Somoza from power. The Revolution may have been successful without the earthquake, but most observers agree it was accelerated by the revelations of deep corruption. Similarly, after the extent of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Soviet Ukraine was covered up by Moscow, public resentment intensified of Soviet state secrecy and the treatment of national minorities in the clean-up process, so the meltdown is widely believed to have hastened the collapse and division of the Soviet Union five years later.

The disaster of war can shock a society, but also elevate the position of forces that meet the basic human needs of occupied communities. After the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Shi’a theological seminaries and militias coordinated food and medical relief when governments were not responsive. This practical response played no small part in the victories of Shi’a political parties in subsequent democratic elections. A massive 2020 explosion in Beirut later turned Lebanese against some of those government parties. Similarly, as urban poor communities faced the shock of austerity in South America, the food relief of the olla común (collective cooking pot) popularized dissent that later led the 1989 uprising against Chile’s military junta, and the 2001 popular rebellion and cooperative movement in Argentina.

After a 2004 earthquake off Sumatra devastated Indonesia’s Aceh province, and unleashed a tsunami across the Indian Ocean, governments and rebel groups competed to respond, and the natural disaster in turn affected the civil wars between them. The response of Aceh separatist rebels legitimized them among the citizenry, and they were able to reach a peace agreement with the Indonesian government the following year. The same tsunami, however, widened the gap between Sri Lanka’s government and Tamil separatist rebels, and led to a bloody military offensive. Achenese refugees from the tsunami were also unexpectedly welcomed in neighboring Malaysia. In the Tamil Nadu state of India, generosity was expressed by a wedding party that fed stricken communities with the food that it had planned to serve to guests.

The 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan triggered both a tsunami and a nuclear meltdown. Japanese drew from their experience of mutual aid societies after the 1995 Kobe earthquake, and rapidly rebuilt much of the tsunami-damaged coastal area. The meltdown of the Fukushima reactors rekindled Japan’s anti-nuclear movement, which temporarily shut down other reactors and won a ban on new reactors.

Post-Disaster Cooperation

Similarly hopeful post-disaster responses are documented by Rebecca Solnit’s 2010 study A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Solnit used the San Francisco quakes of 1906 and 1989 as jumping-off points to discuss “the ability of disasters to topple old orders and open up new possibilities” (16). In many disasters, she observed, “strangers become friends and collaborators, goods are shared freely, people improvise new roles for themselves. Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away… where the old divides between people seem to have fallen away” (17).

Solnit recounted the story told by a Nova Scotia resident who lived through a 2003 hurricane, and saw that “everybody woke up the next morning and everything was different. There was no electricity, all the stores were closed, no one had access to media. The consequence was that everyone poured out into the street to bear witness. Not quite a street party, but everyone out at once—it was a sense of happiness to see everybody even though we didn’t know each other” (10).

Solnit asserted that the history of disaster “demonstrates that most of us are social animals, hungry for connection, as well as for purpose and meaning. It also suggests that if this is who we are, then everyday life in most places is a disaster that disruptions sometimes give us a chance to change” (305). One example of alleviating disaster in everyday life was when the Black Panthers, usually known for their militant tactics and image, organized a free breakfast program for kids, setting a precedent for government lunch programs.

Popular culture would have us believe that such cooperative thinking goes against human nature. Watching any episode of Survivor leaves the impression that all human beings are so individualistic and selfish that they would eliminate others, even in their own “tribe,” by voting them “off the island.” But how would any of us actually behave if stranded on a desert isle? A more revealing series might be Gilligan’s Island, in which power hierarchies are reversed by the castaways. The bumbling Skipper, the dowdy Millionaire and his Wife, and the clueless movie star Ginger were stripped of their prestige and authority, and depicted as largely useless for survival. Meanwhile, the common-sense knowledge of the Professor, the Kansas farm girl Mary Ann, and especially the goofy but practical first mate Gilligan tended to save the day.

Survivor and Gilligan’s Island (Fandom.com).

The early 1960s series perfectly captured the Keynesian era, when labor unions and values of economic equality were still strong. Creator Sherwood Schwartz set up Gilligan’s Island as “a social microcosm…in the sense that when necessary for survival, yes we can all get along.” But these values were later displaced in popular culture by assumptions that an inevitably dystopic future will be dominated by brutal competition as assumed in Lord of the Flies or Mad Max. Survivor represents the “Me-First” popular culture of the post-1980s neoliberal era, was directly inspired by the Lord of the Flies, and does not reflect the actual stories of cooperation when young boys are stranded on an island.

Misinterpretations of disaster resilience

Another neoliberal misinterpretation of resilience comes from the “survivalist” movement of so-called “preppers,” who seek to prepare for emergencies and general social breakdown by stockpiling food, supplies, and often weapons. Such preparations put the well-being of the individual and immediate family ahead of the larger community. “Preppers” can be ordinary people who are simply trying to prepare for natural disasters or prolonged power outages. Preppers can take the form of super rich executives constructing fortified compounds in remote areas or foreign countries. They can also take the form of white supremacists reacting harshly to social and political change, which explains why the movement grew under the Obama Administration. The movement declined in the first years of the Trump Administration, which “quieted the fears” of these reactionary preppers. But the movement dramatically rebounded in the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic.

Anthropologist Chris Begley acknowledged, “I understand the appeal of these post-apocalyptic fantasies. They resonate with the rugged individualism and self-sufficiency that we imagine in ourselves. In the post-apocalypse, we would be able to start over, from a blank slate: decluttering on a global scale. Our needs would be immediate, and our focus clear…Life would be simple…. As an anthropologist who studies human societies, I know this is not how it plays out. An apocalyptic disaster will be nothing like those fantasies…. Any post-apocalyptic reality will not be a time machine to a mythical past we long for. It will not be a simpler, uncluttered life. We will not be able to run away. We will have to stay and fix things, and if we succeed, we may not recognize ourselves.”

Begley concluded, “While the wilderness survival skills certainly can’t hurt, it will be empathy, generosity, and courage that we need to survive. Kindness and fairness will be more valuable than any survival skill. Then as now, social and leadership skills will be valued. We will have to work together. We will have to grow food, educate ourselves, and give people a reason to persevere. The needs will be enormous, and we cannot run away from that. Humans evolved attributes such as generosity, altruism, and cooperation because we need them to survive. Armed with those skills, we will turn towards the problem, not away from it. We will face the need, and we will have to solve it together. That is the only option. That’s what survival looks like.”

Octavia Butler’s classic 1993 novel Parable of the Sower reflects this more community-oriented disaster resilience through the lens of speculative fiction, as the novel’s protagonist Lauren Olamina navigates a late-2020s California ravaged by drought and wildfires induced by climate change, and social chaos and crime generated by extreme inequalities. As Lauren observes, “Get ready for what’s going to happen, get ready to survive it, get ready to make a life afterward. Get focused on arranging to survive so that we can do more than just get batted around by crazy people, desperate people, thugs, and leaders who don’t know what they’re doing!.”

Another extreme response to disaster, in the face of mayhem and mob rule, is for citizens to surrender their agency to an all-powerful, protective State, in order to fend off disorder or mob rule. Indeed, blindly following authority during a catastrophe can actually be deadly. After a plane struck the World Trade Center’s North Tower on 9/11, loudspeakers urged South Tower employees to return to work, and those who obeyed the calls perished in the second attack. After the 2011 Japan tsunami (according to Evergreen student Koki Hiraguchi), unprepared teachers in Okawa believed the tsunami hazard maps, and ordered their students to evacuate to an area that was not high enough, so nearly all of them perished. In Kamaichi, the students took the lead in seeking higher ground, so all but a few “survived based on their own judgement, saving not only their own lives but also those of the adults around them.” They had drilled for disaster, did not believe the tsunami hazard maps, and “were taught to make decisions for themselves.”

During the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, researchers in the Seattle Flu Study defied federal orders not to use mandated flu research funds to test patient samples for coronavirus. They found a case of community spread, which set off alarm bells throughout the country. Famously, the captain of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt bypassed his chain of command to set off alarms about an outbreak aboard his ship. Though he was disciplined by the Navy, he gained widespread respect among his sailors.

Elaine Scarry, describing her book Thinking in an Emergency, observed, “One of the things that has seduced people into giving up on their own actions is the claim of emergency—the government will often make the spurious claim that because certain things require very fast action, there is no time for ordinary processes of deliberation and thinking….I find exactly the opposite to be the case. Thinking and emergency action are deeply compatible. Sometimes that thinking takes the form of very recognizable deliberative processes.” Scarry’s observations are evident in the following case studies of disaster response in a range of communities, which underscore the strength of the Resilience Doctrine.

Common Ground in New Orleans and Occupy Sandy in New York

In A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit identified another risk of “1%” elites taking charge of emergency situations, as they exhibit “elite panic” when they lose a sense of total control. She cited post-Katrina martial law as one of the best examples of how leaders (from both political parties) issued racist orders to shoot looters, instead of drawing on the knowledge and cooperative traditions of New Orleans’ largely Black and working-class communities. Solnit noted that sociologists have documented that ordinary people are usually calm and rarely panic in emergencies. But elites perceive a threat from out-of-control and unruly ‘mobs,’ so create a myth of social panic that shapes their actions, and they panic as a result. Elite panic reinforces an assumption that human nature is greedy and animalistic, and an upending of their social order can only lead to chaos.

Solnit explained, “Elite panic in disaster…is shaped by belief, belief that because 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. The elites that panic are, in times of crisis, the minority, and understanding that could marginalize or even disarm them…as well as the media that magnify their message. This would help open the way to create a world more like the brief utopias that flash up in a disaster” (308).

False media rumors in New Orleans reported that gang members were raping and murdering flood refugees in the Superdome, a claim that has persisted in popular mythology. But Solnit cited temporary Superdome resident Denise Moore, who remembered that the gang members “were the ones getting juice for the babies. They were the ones getting clothes for the people who had walked through that water. They were the ones fanning the old people, because that’s what moved the gangster guys the most, the plight of the old people” (244). Meanwhile, actual violence was being perpetrated by local police against Black refugees trying to flee to white-majority areas, and by Blackwater mercenaries flown directly from Iraq.

Solnit noted, “Hierarchies and institutions are inadequate to these circumstances; they are often what fails in such crises. Civil society is what succeeds, not only in an emotional demonstration of altruism and mutual aid but also in a practical mustering of creativity and resources to meet the challenges….” (305).

Katrina followed the pattern of most disasters around the world, in which the poorest communities are also the most vulnerable. The low-lying Ninth Ward, a fount of African American culture and music, bore the brunt of the flooding, as dramatized in the HBO series Treme. After the storm, the community-based Common Ground Collective set up clinics, mobile medics, soup kitchens, and tool-lending stations, and distributed goods languishing in Red Cross warehouses.

As in other disasters, prioritizing community resilience enabled alliances across lines of significant difference, particularly racial, ethnic, and national lines. Solnit observed that “people on both sides of the old racial divides went away with changed perceptions. The volunteers mitigated the racial violence and demonization of the first days after the storm” (293). Similarly, the grassroots “Cajun Navy” was a grassroots effort of boatowners who rescued thousands of New Orleans residents without government assistance.

During Katrina, Houma Indigenous community leader Brenda Dardar Robichaux canoed to southern Louisiana homes with food, housed refugees, and held cultural workshops for Katrina relief volunteers. Robichaux remembered that FEMA and the Red Cross “were incompetent and ineffective. I don’t know where we would be without the volunteers. Our people have language barriers and education barriers; 47 percent of the adult population has less than a high school education.”

Robichaux’s experience also showed how women’s knowledge and networks are critical to recovering from disasters in which women and children are among the primary victims. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported in 2007 that “women make an important contribution to disaster reduction, often informally through participating in disaster management and acting as agents of social change. Their resilience and their networks are critical in household and community recovery.”

Solnit identified the bottom-up cooperation as posing a threat to top-down authority in post-disaster society: “One reason that disasters are threatening to elites is that power devolves to the people on the ground in many ways: it is the neighbors who are the first responders and who assemble the impromptu kitchens and networks to rebuild. And it demonstrates the viability of a dispersed, decentralized system of decision-making. Citizens themselves in these moments constitute the government – the acting decision-making body – as democracy has always promised and rarely delivered. Thus disasters often unfold as though a revolution has already taken place” (305).

Hurricane Sandy’s direct hit on New York and New Jersey in 2012 was a test of the Occupy Wall Street movement that had flourished and floundered elsewhere in the country. As it became clear that the government relief response was feeble at best, neighborhood activists organized “Occupy Sandy,” with the hashtag #WeGotThis. Like in New Orleans, the neighborhoods most vulnerable to damage and flooding were the lowest and poorest, and in areas previously exposed to industrial toxins. Occupy Sandy organized food and medical relief, infrastructure repair, and cell phone charging stations. FEMA and National Guard personnel received so little support from their own agencies that some were seen at Occupy Sandy trucks getting food and coffee from the activists.

As the neighborhoods recovered all too slowly, Occupy Sandy organized a “People’s Recovery” to literally and figuratively “Restore Power to the People.” The activists secured donations from around the country, and even set up wedding registries at major stores to request critical goods such as refrigerators and generators. The community recovery and empowerment programs involve long-term skills sharing and training, such as initiating multiple day-laborer collectives. Several hurricane-damaged businesses, such as a bakery, restaurant, and taxi cooperative, were being rebuilt as worker-run enterprises.

Occupy Sandy (Facebook).

Solnit reminded us that “disasters are, most basically, terrible, tragic, grievous, and no matter what positive side effects and possibilities they produce, they are not to be desired. But by the same measure, those side effects should not be ignored because they arise amid devastation. Most social change is chosen—you want to belong to a co-op, you believe in social safety nets or community supported agriculture. But disaster doesn’t sort us out by preferences; it drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save the neighbors”(6).

This does not mean that we should wait for disasters as opportunities to change society. Community resilience in the face of disaster means prioritizing preparations before the disasters, immediate responses during a disaster, and long-term recovery after the short-term disaster has passed. It is not necessary for progressives to cynically exploit or manipulate disasters for their own political ends, but to recognize that neoliberal interests will do so, and be on alert, equipped, and strong enough to counteract such moves. In the process, even normally conservative residents may open their eyes to practical alternatives.

The Resilience Doctrine:
A Primer on Disaster Collectivism in the Climate and Pandemic Crises
Part 1: An Introduction to Disaster Resilience
Part 2: How Disasters Can Encourage Social Change
Part 3: Indigenous Nations Understand Disaster Resilience
Part 4: Mutual Aid in the Pandemic and Beyond