Such responses to disasters reveal an alternative vision of how to organize society: with ordinary people banding together to help rescue each other and rebuild their communities. When disasters strike, people with greater numbers of formal and informal connections fare better than those who are more isolated. This is true, and unsurprising, on an individual and familial level; people who can rely on friends and relatives for shelter and support will recover faster and more completely.
But it is true on a communal level, too. The sociologist Eric Klinenberg, writing about a heat wave in 1995, showed that old and isolated residents of a Chicago neighborhood with bustling streets, shops, and restaurants survived at a greater rate than similarly aged and isolated residents of an adjacent neighborhood whose streets were empty and looked “bombed out.” Even though the individuals were equally isolated, the social connections and institutions of their neighborhoods protected them.
Disasters serve as reminders that everyone is dependent on their friends and neighbors, and that those relationships need not be mediated by the state. Indeed, they are often better left unstructured by the state.
Yet that does not mean that government policy is unimportant. Daniel Aldrich, a political scientist, showed that in a series of Asian disasters, villages with stronger and more participatory local government rebuilt faster and better. Building infrastructure for tighter and more successful communities is the business of government, and it can be pursued through policies ranging from zoning to education to labor relations to transportation. Government should—as a matter of disaster preparedness—build communities that foster and encourage connection and solidarity. That means, as in Klinenberg’s Chicago, safe neighborhoods where people are unafraid of either criminals or the police, multi-purpose community centers, and bustling streets that encourage lingering with strangers. Most of all, it means countering the radical individualism that is dominant in contemporary society.
“There is no such thing as society,” Margaret Thatcher famously said in 1987. “There are individual men and women, and there are families.” Thatcher’s individualist ethos now reigns so completely over our public discourse that even progressive responses to crises are increasingly couched in market-based terms. How to save water during a drought? Raise water prices. How to decrease carbon emissions? Cap total emissions and encourage companies to buy and sell the right to pollute. Through these programs based on markets and individualism, Thatcher’s slogan becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. These programs have the effect of naturalizing competition and inequality, rather than the solidarity needed to solve collective problems. And perhaps worse, they hide what disaster shows to be true—that there is indeed such a thing as society. When people need society the most, when they are at their most vulnerable, they see society at its strongest, whether in Frank Brinton’s neighborhood, the gangs Denise Moore observed, or the informal and temporary group Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky joined.
Disasters like Katrina—and the decade of disasters that has followed—prove that another world is possible. The immediate response to disaster is not individualist or state driven, but rather created by local people helping each other. That cooperation and solidarity, visible after disasters, can also make ordinary lives richer and more resilient.
This project was made possible with support from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.