Disaster Communalism

I. January 1, 2015. Balmorhea, Texas.

The first night is cold. We wake, bodies stiff and kinked like discarded dolls. The windows of the car reveal nothing but ice, and when we finally crack open the doors to let some air in, the outside world is much the same. Terrible and beautiful, this is the kind of ice that shuts down highways, transforms roadsides to tractor trailer junkyards, turns West Texas prairies into gleaming mirrors of the sky, silences the surrounding world.

The people of Balmorhea, Texas — this four-block town of 491 people rising unexpectedly from the desolate West Texas flatlands — haven’t seen this kind of ice in a generation. A frozen tumbleweed staggers across the road like an early morning drunk.

Inside the community center, about a hundred other fellow travelers are in various stages of waking from an uncomfortable night’s sleep on a scattered array of cots, blankets, and tables. The night before, the Texas Highway Patrol shut down I-10 after they’d finally seen one too many tractor trailers jackknife on the thick layer of ice covering the road, and diverted stranded travelers as best they could to the few isolated towns in this part of Texas. On this crystal clear morning following the storm, people are still straggling up to the community center from wherever they spent the night. But there is already breakfast burritos being made by a couple of local families who stayed late and arrived early to care for those waylaid by the ice.

We sit down at an empty table next to two elderly white folks with a puppy barely able to open their eyes. It turns out they’ve driven all the way from New Mexico to pick up this tiny Tibetan Mastiff from a woman in Austin, Texas. Balmorhea happened to be exactly halfway between the two, so here they are. Ed, a thin and quiet man with shoulder-length gray hair and a friendly mustache, runs a dirt bike track in New Mexico. He later reveals that he has surfed one of the largest waves ever surfed, on the North Shore of Maui.

Over the next 48 hours, we will share meals and stories with an incredible diversity of people — a Korean family touring the US in a rented mini-van, an Indian family who owns a series of four-star hotels outside of Houston (their son is applying to colleges now), a young Hispanic family local to Balmorhea whose two daughters, 6 and 10, basically run this makeshift refugee center.

Within a day, this motley group of complete strangers manages to self-organize into a startlingly efficient and compassionate encampment — 100 cots arrive by the first evening and an assembly line of people speaking multiple languages construct and rearrange the community center to ensure everyone has a bed; freshly made meals appear throughout the day and bottled water (necessary because the local water supply is likely contaminated by nearby fracking operations) is readily available; children’s activities are organized in one corner of the room, while several brave souls play Frisbee in the frozen parking lot out back.

This is no Red Cross operation (though someone did call them). This is not orchestrated by the local government (though the mayor of a nearby town, one the few African-Americans in this predominantly Hispanic community, does make an appearance). It is an entirely community-driven response to an unexpected disruption. In short, an ephemeral community emerges, seems to thrive for a day and a half, and recedes back into the wider world once the highways are finally cleared of ice.

II. On Apocalypse

Haiti. Indonesia. Pakistan. The Philippines. New Orleans. New York. Nepal. Call them political disasters, ecological disasters, economic disasters. But not natural disasters, for there is nothing ‘natural’ or inevitable about the scope and distribution of human suffering. These are products of policy as much as climate chaos and continental drift.

Post-Katrina New Orleans may best exemplify what Naomi Klien calls disaster capitalism — where crises become the justification for further privatizing public goods like education and healthcare, and private corporations profit off the misery of vulnerable people. Klein imagines,

“Here’s a snapshot of what could be in store in the not-too-distant future: helicopter rides off rooftops in flooded cities at $5,000 a pop ($7,000 for families, pets included), bottled water and “meals ready to eat” at $50 a head (steep, but that’s supply and demand), and a cot in a shelter with a portable shower (show us your biometric ID, developed on a lucrative homeland security contract, and we’ll track you down later with the bill).”

Of course, this is already happening during “slow-motion disasters,” such as the refugee crisis in the Middle East and Europe and mass incarceration in the US, where private corporations make enormous profits from warehousing people.

And yet another reality simultaneously exists, which we might call disaster communalism. It is often in times of crises that the threads of community are made most manifest. When visible structures crumble, the invisible structures that hold us together or hold us down are revealed. It’s in this sense that Junot Diaz calls the still unfolding disaster in Haiti an apocalypse: in its original Greek context, apocalypse means to uncover and reveal.

What was revealed during Superstorm Sandy in New York was that 1) again poor people and people of color were left to fend for themselves in the absence of an adequate state response and 2) that these communities were resilient enough to care for themselves. Occupy Sandy, “a grassroots disaster relief network that emerged to provide mutual aid to communities affected by Superstorm Sandy,” was the first coordinated relief effort on the ground in places like the Rockaways and Staten Island, and continues to cultivate community resilience by rebuilding homes, developing worker cooperatives, and organizing communities in the aftermath of the disaster.

Photo: Occupy Sandy

What is revealed in Syria right now is both 1) that the barbarism of war is largely inflicted on the poor, women, and children and 2) that in the absence of state repression, a radically democratic multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual model of self-governance can emerge. This ongoing experiment in direct democracy in Syrian Kurdistan, known to some as the Rojava Revolution, has not only successfully fought off ISIS forces, but established a sophisticated bottom-up system of governance that guarantees leadership by women and political participation by Kurds, Christians, Yezidis, Arabs, Turkmens, Chechens, and Armenians. All this in the midst of total war and a traditional culture that has marginalized women and minority groups for centuries.

Apocalypse is traumatic. It can also be transformative.

III. April 25, 2015. Oakland, California.

We are woken early by a series of text messages asking if our family is safe. We turn on the radio — on one station, Baltimore is burning; on another, Kathmandu is collapsing. Potential crises on both sides of the family then — I’m from Maryland, my wife is from Nepal.

While we had slept peacefully in our own earthquake prone home, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake has rocked the Himalayas, turning parts of the ancient city of Kathmandu to dust and spilling tea cups as far away as New Delhi. Immediately, one thousand four hundred people are reported dead, and that is surely just the beginning of the body count. In an instant, thousands of people dead or displaced, thousands of years of history dismantled.

Richa spends the morning calling and texting family, many already scattered across the globe. We are fortunate — there are no deaths in our immediate family tree, though everyone knows someone who is missing, dead, or injured. It will be weeks before anyone really has a grasp on the extent of the damage, but at this moment we are morosely thankful that it has not been worse.

By the next morning, something else is clear: It’s mostly the poor who are dying. We wake to reports of rain in Kathmandu, people having now slept out of doors for two nights without electricity and limited access to water. This will be some people’s daily reality for months to come, through both the monsoon season and the coming winter. And it will be the poor, women, and children who suffer the most.

Nepal. It’s one of the most biodiverse places on earth, and thus one of the most ecologically wealthy. Which makes its status as one of the “least developed” countries on earth according to the Human Development Index so problematic. Only within a very particular (and very globalized) political economy could such a paradox exist. And the future proposed (and likely imposed) on Nepal by this system is mega-dams and foreign investment, two dynamics that will most likely exacerbate existing artificial scarcities in clean water and democratic accountability.

There is something else at work here though, something that is perhaps so ancient that it rarely qualifies as “news.” It is community.

Arriving in Kathmandu just days after the first massive earthquake, Peabody Award-winning producer Scott Carrier is interviewing Nepalis about the collective response to disaster. Sujeev Shakya, a management consultant and chairman of the Nepal Economic Forum, tells Scott that in Nepal,

“You don’t live for yourselves. You live for the community, you live for the nation, you live for the society. …so it’s different than how you would live through a disaster in the US.”

This statement expresses both a deeply embedded culture of community responsibility, and a reaction to the dominant media narrative about disaster in the US — that in the absence of state authority, society breaks down into anarchy, looting, and murder. These were the images of New Orleans broadcast to the world, but they actually say much more about the completely inadequate and often overtly racist state response to the disaster than anything about the affected communities themselves.

Perhaps it is mutual aid and grassroots solidarity that are more often the norm in moments of crisis. Sometimes those threads of community are ephemeral, arising in a moment of need and receding back into the social landscape. Such was my experience in Texas. Sometimes it is the threads of community we are deeply immersed in but rarely see in its totality. Such is likely the experience for many in Nepal at this moment. Just like in New York, mutual aid networks emerged spontaneously across rural Nepal from the loose, though often invisible, ties of a wider community. And just like in New York, those networks have the chance to turn this disaster into opportunity, to continue organizing for real change to a political system exposed by the earthquake as inherently flawed.

IV. May 2, 2015. South of Mt. Tamalpais.

I’m walking up a hill in the Marin Headlands, surrounded by swaying Eucalyptus trees and bright mist rolling in off the Pacific Ocean. Suddenly, as I round a slight bend in the trail, Mt. Tamalpais comes into view, its sacred peak shrouded in clouds. I stand in awe of its magnitude, its sheer density, this stoic feature of an ever-changing landscape. In this moment, I also become aware of a small and delicate plant with red flowers swaying in the wind, perched on the side of the hill just in front of my feet. A tiny native bee dances from flower to flower, drinking and pollinating, nourishing and being nourished. It occurs to me that, in fact, this enormous mountain in the distance, appearing so solid and unshakable, is held together by many many small flowers pollinated by many many small bees; that the mountain’s soil is quite literally stitched together by a dense web of roots crisscrossing the mountainside.

Perhaps human communities and structures of oppression are similarly held together — by intricate and delicate and impossibly resilient relationships. They too seem immovable, enormous, pervasive. And yet small acts and small beings either hold them together or allow them to erode.

As we enter an era of increasing uncertainty and crisis, it may serve us to acknowledge the realities of both disaster capitalism and disaster communalism, and that the magnitude of our interventions need not match the perceived magnitude of the mountain.

Originally published at https://oaktreegarden.wordpress.com/2015/12/30/disaster-communalism/

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