“A Lot of It Is in Our Hands”: Rebecca Solnit on the Transformative Potential of Every Crisis

The disaster historian sees reason for hope.

Trent Davis Bailey

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Rebecca Solnit thinks we’re living in a fairy tale. As the coronavirus monster keeps us locked in high towers, people are caring for their neighbors, conjuring rituals to be “together while apart,” and sewing countless masks in an effort she describes as “epic.” But fairy tales aren’t all triumph and romance. “A lot of them are really gruesome,” Solnit told me in a recent phone call. Two days before, Solnit had livestreamed the latest installment of her reading folktales from around the globe on Facebook. She’s hosted more than a dozen story hours since the pandemic began, her own way of helping young people and families find solace and meaning amidst the chaos. “I felt like reminding kids, and anyone else who wanted to listen, of stories of people who’ve endured,” said Solnit. “To give them stories that end seemed like a good thing, as we’re in the middle of our own story… [and] being in the middle of a story is a really hard place.”

A genre-bending historian who’s written on everything from landscape painting to gentrification, Solnit researched the human response to crises for her 2009 book A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster. Deconstructing the belief that disasters bring out the worst in people—fear, violence, toilet paper hoarding—Solnit argued that a more common response is one of compassion and mutual aid, with people spontaneously mobilizing to feed and shelter each other after cataclysms like September 11th and Hurricane Katrina. Solnit has watched countless such efforts arise as coronavirus swept across the globe.

Though she sees marginalized communities bearing the brunt of a mismanaged official response (the Trump regime is its own disaster, Solnit says), she also sees the potential for lasting transformations in the way society meets people’s needs. Yet “the change that matters is not down the road, the end of a chain reaction,” Solnit wrote in A Paradise Built In Hell. “It is present immediately, instantly, when people demonstrate resourcefulness, altruism, improvisational ability, and kindness.”

Many of us feel anxious about the increasing prevalence of disasters. With summer approaching, wildfires and hurricanes could soon compound the damage of coronavirus, creating complications around housing and evacuations while public dollars are already stretched thin. But Solnit sees reason for hope: not in the government institutions that so often fail us, but in the civil society we each have the power to call into being day after day, even—or especially—during a pandemic.

I talked to Solnit about mutual aid, fairy tales, socializing online, and how to cope with uncertainty.

What are some of the more interesting examples you’ve heard of people helping each other through the time of COVID-19?

There’s been so many, and they’re so interestingly complex, since so much of it is a workaround for the fact that we’re not supposed to have contact with each other. One of the first things I saw was people volunteering to do the grocery runs for vulnerable people, which I thought was so much more noble than using Instacart, in all its exploitativeness. And seeing people start to improvise food systems. I saw a young woman who lives at the Paiute Lake Paiute Reservation saying she had gotten a lot of seedlings and seeds and was there to help people start gardens. People are reverting to baking and gardening with a sense of feeling anxious about resources and needing to be more self-reliant. There’s an eagerness, among people who aren’t desperate, to give. 

There are times where there’s a really clear-cut line between professional activity and mutual aid volunteers. And now, I don’t think that’s the case. GM has people who work in procurement who stepped up to procure different parts for ventilators, from sources around the world…the way California Governor Newsom sourced 100 million masks, like real medical-grade masks, not homemade. There’s this really interesting way in which nothing is flowing the way it was before the pandemic. In terms of new ways things are being made, and new relationships, from giving employment to seamstresses who’ve been put out of work, to this huge project whereby Amish woman retooled to start making masks for the Cleveland Clinic, in high volume.

Dolly Parton started a story time. Heather Cox Richardson started giving history lessons online. My friend Wendy McNaughton decided to do a class for kids at 10:30 every day for the rest of the school year, which she has now realized is this huge commitment. It’s above and beyond the logistics of how people will get by, such as people singing off their balconies in Italy or applauding health care workers in New York. It’s a way for people to be together while they’re apart.

In A Paradise Built In Hell, you focus on disasters that hit New Orleans and New York City, which are now epicenters for COVID-19. Does the mutual aid infrastructure carry over from past events like 9/11 or Katrina, or does the grassroots have to start from scratch every time?

I think of Occupy Wall Street as a response to another catastrophe, which was the 2008 financial collapse, and Occupy turned around to become Occupy Sandy the next year in a really remarkable way. I think a lot of people have networks that still exist from previous catastrophes. I was looking at Dorothy Day again. She was eight-and-a-half when the 1906 earthquakes happened, but she was inspired by that to become the co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, which is actually doing good work with homeless and Indigenous people in this pandemic. One hundred and fourteen years after she had her epiphany about disaster communities, that’s still at work. And in some ways, it was also in response to the disaster of the Great Depression.

One of the things that I found with 9/11 is that a lot of people in New York City seemed to go back to the lives they were leading before, but some people started projects and shifted their focus and never really stopped. I was just looking at my Twitter feed, and Amy Siskind, who responded to Trump’s election as a disaster, which I think is an accurate characterization, is tweeting really useful statistical information. People rise to the occasion. Amy has a different role than she ever had before, as have many people who’ve responded to these moments. And they’re not going home. They’ll continue with that kind of higher profile, stronger capacity in civil society.

If you think of Trump as a disaster, the pandemic in the US is shaped very much by that disaster—dismantling our pandemic response, not keeping our emergency supplies stocked, not respecting science, and then the short-term actions of not responding appropriately to the pandemic in the early stages. And hearing the governors talk about the fact that the US government has become a saboteur of their ability to obtain ventilators and protective equipment is really kind of extraordinary. It’s a sign of how we’re used to the federal government as a kind of destructive insurgency. The fact that they’re sabotaging state efforts is treated as unremarkable when it should be completely shocking, another kind of civil war. But there was so much resistance organizing in the aftermath of the 2016 election, and also organizing on immigrant rights and things like that, and I do think a lot of those networks continue.

In your book you quote Dorothy Day as saying, “while the crisis lasted, people loved each other.” You also mention “the remarkable fact that some people wish some aspects of disasters would last.” What are some aspects of this current crisis that you wish would last?

I think that there’s a deep recognition of the irreplaceable necessity of a functioning food system, of the ways that it’s already in crisis—seeing the 10,000 cars lined up in San Antonio Food Bank. There will be a new appreciation of the entire food labor system, from farm workers to grocery stockers and clerks, and an appreciation of the medical system. There may be more awareness of the need for universal health care and how not having sick leave and health care for some of us endangers all of us, that health is a collective and not just an individual thing, and that employer-based health care is a catastrophe.  

A lot of what I want to see last is recognition of the systems of survival, what constitutes vital work. I’m hoping that people recognize interdependence and interconnection at various levels and are more willing to support it. I am very taken with a tweet I saw the first week of shelter-at-home in California, where somebody staying home with their kids said, “public school teachers should make a billion dollars a year. No, a week.”

It’s also really striking to me that we’re all having such completely different pandemics. To stay home in a nice apartment alone is really different than being crammed into inadequate housing, with an abusive spouse or annoying roommates or just too many people packed into a place. People who are really busy with their jobs as essential workers, or people whose jobs transferred home, are really different than people who suddenly lost their jobs. I have yet to hear a lot about how it’s going to unfold in places like India and Brazil, where sheltering in place can mean a hovel with no running water.

 I think that a lot of us have entered a period of deeper stillness that is sometimes contemplative, sometimes valuable. And I like to think that maybe when you stayed home for a month without buying anything other than groceries, you won’t need to go back to all the busyness of buying and needing. I wonder whether there will be a kind of metaphysical re-centering in a quieter, more introspective, less busy life, with less rushing around, and also less global travel.

For better or worse, a lot of the people having this kind of deep interior life are the people who determine what the country and the world look like. But that doesn’t erase the existence of people who don’t have a home, or their home isn’t safe, or they’re in financial freefall and don’t know how to buy next week’s groceries. The intersectional understandings that many of us have been working on have been really useful for recognizing wearing a mask is different if you’re Black and male. Sheltering in place is different if you’re an abused woman. Your kids’ homeschooling has a lot to do with whether you have the digital devices and internet connection that are not universal. And the fact that somebody’s stressed out by too much human contact doesn’t negate the loneliness of somebody who’s not having enough.

One thing that’s perhaps unique to this crisis is how the need to stay at home has created this mass socialization through Zoom and other virtual platforms. In the past, you’ve suggested that there is a shallowness to some of our new social technologies, and that these things can interrupt the necessary work that comes with being alone. What are some of the opportunities and pitfalls you see of people being quarantined in the Silicon Age?

I am grateful that it’s happening in an era where we actually do have a lot of ways to connect that are not physical. If these circumstances had existed 30 years ago, we would all be much more remote from each other. Although, I am old enough to remember phone conversations as a huge part of my social life, and I have been having more of that. People have been just calling each other up to check in, and having deeper conversations.

I’ve always thought that technology can be used for a variety of things: misogynists and feminists can both use Twitter. And [right now] I see people doing a lot of constructive stuff. There is a kind of malleability there. And so that part I think, is good. But I’ve felt all along that there isn’t really a substitute for direct and immediate human contact, like experiencing yourself as a member of the public in public space. I think that there’s a kind of intimacy, not just in the erotic sense, but of spending time with people in person. The social media version of ourselves is more superficial and I don’t think it’s an adequate substitute. So I worry about it encouraging us to kind of disembody and withdraw.

But I think a lot of people will come out of this craving and grateful for any and all chance for real contact, and we’ll probably pursue it avidly. I don’t think the world of January 1, 2020 will ever exist again. There will be losses and there will be gains, and a lot of it is up to us to improvise and demand and prevent and orchestrate as we go forward.

I’m going to remember those words as a mantra: improvise, orchestrate, demand, and prevent.

Yeah, because people have a tendency to do this kind of ridiculous false prophecy. “This will never happen,” or “of course that will come out that way,” or “the corporations are going to grab everything”…all of my Hope In The Dark work has been mostly towards reminding people that the future has not yet happened and how it happens depends on what we do in the present. There are times when very little is in our hands, and there are times, whether it’s climate change or electoral politics, gender roles or anything else, where a lot of it is in our hands. It’s not that individually you have total choice over it, but that collectively we are deciding and shaping these things.

I’m constantly reminding people that we’re in the middle of a fairy tale. We want to know how it ends, but we’re not at the end, we’re in the middle. And that’s really hard. Being in the middle of a story is a really hard place for people. They want to skip ahead and see how it ends. And when it’s history, you don’t get to skip ahead. People who are really informed about pandemics can make guesses about what’s going to happen. But nobody knows exactly. And wisdom and intelligence consists of knowing that you don’t know.

Speaking of which, you’ve been using your Facebook to live-stream you reading fairy tales during the pandemic. Why fairy tales?

It was originally because I’m the aunt and great-aunt of a bunch of people who are quite young, and I thought when they started closing the schools that I could go hang out with the kids to help their parents. I was really disappointed when it turned out that we were going to be separated. So this felt like a way to reach out to them and other kids I know.

But also, fairy tales are often misunderstood as being about their superficial veneer of glamour and magic and impossibility, dragons and castles and fairies and jewels. But what they’re really about is people who are generally powerless or unvalued, rejected, abandoned, finding their way in the world and finding their people, genuinely through some kind of great difficulty—magical tasks, endurance, escaping threats and miserable situations, finding allies…they’re stories mostly about very young people, because that’s when you’re making your life and finding out who you are, who your people are and who’s gonna be there with you. That felt right for the moment, and also they’re kind of fun. They do have a magic to them at the same time as they’re about these serious difficult things.

The day after Passover, you told a story about Elijah’s prophetic journey in which he never knew how he was going to get his next meal, but God always provided it in the end. You’ve written deeply about hope as something arising from the memory of unexpected events, like gay liberation or the fall of the Soviet Union, and the certainty that more unexpected things will happen. How do you maintain faith that the future will be positive—that we’ll always find our next meal?

I don’t have faith that it will be positive or that we’ll find our next meal. It won’t be 100 percent positive—we have climate change. But you do get a lot of people who have the false confidence that it will be 100 percent negative and that no good things will happen, which is a kind of certainty about what will happen next. The story of Elijah is about somebody who doesn’t have economic security, but things turn up, and that’s what I liked about that part of the story. Hope isn’t confidence that everything will be fine, but it is confidence that not everything will be awful. Optimism is the belief that everything will be fine, and often it won’t. The Soviet Union broke up, but look at Russia now.

Uncertainty doesn’t mean, “trust to the future to take care of itself,” or that just because good things happened historically, good things will happen again. Good things happened because people organized, took initiative and intervened, refused, stood up, or just were generous and engaged. The good things don’t happen of themselves, but there’s evidence that we’re capable of making them happen.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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