I like it when fiction writers have something to say about the world. I mean the real world, beyond the world of books. Junot Diaz, author of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, wrote an excellent article in the Boston Review recently about natural disasters, focusing particularly on the earthquake in Haiti. It’s rare to read something fresh about an event like that. Somehow the loss of so much life seems to render us incapable of producing anything but platitudes.

Junot Diaz, though, provides something fresh. His argument is essentially that there is no such thing as a natural disaster – all disasters are social. The wind may blow and the earth may shake and the tides may rise, but who dies is determined largely by social factors. In Hurricane Katrina, poor African Americans were abandoned before, during and after the disaster; wetlands were sold to developers, removing natural defences; budgets for maintaining levees were slashed, and so on. Diaz traces the same sort of history of social intervention in Haiti. In a wonderful 380-word sentence he gives a potted history of Haiti, from slavery through dictatorships, the IMF and a whole lot more, and concludes: “the world has done its part in demolishing Haiti.”

He then connects Haiti back to the wider world:

Isn’t that after all the logical conclusion of what we are wreaking? The transformation of our planet into a Haiti? Haiti, you see, is not only the most visible victim of our civilization—Haiti is also a sign of what is to come.

By this he means the marginalisation of poor people, the widening gap between rich and poor, a world in which the rich are ultra-rich and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves, dying at the hand of whatever “natural” disaster comes our way. He sees hope, though, in some of the reactions of people, especially Dominicans, whose traditional animosity to Haiti evaporated in the midst of the crisis as they were the first to help their neighbours. This is something that resonated with me, because I always tire of reading about how in a post-apocalyptic world, we would all run around eating each other. In truth, the lesson of any massive disaster is that people help each other, for the most part. However, this less disastrous vision of the future does rely upon us having the wisdom to, as Diaz puts it, “heed the ruins”, something we seem to be very bad at doing. We are good at wringing our hands and donating money, but often this is to avoid looking at the bigger picture, learning the lessons that Diaz sees written in the ruins.

After all, apocalypses like the Haitian earthquake are not only catastrophes; they are also opportunities: chances for us to see ourselves, to take responsibility for what we see, to change. One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen, and for once we won’t look away. We will reject what Jane Anna and Lewis R. Gordon have described in Of Divine Warning as that strange moment following a catastrophe where “in our aversion to addressing disasters as signs” we refuse “to interpret and take responsibility for the kinds of collective responses that may be needed to alleviate human misery.” One day somewhere in the world something terrible will happen and for once we will heed the ruins. We will begin collectively to take responsibility for the world we’re creating. Call me foolishly utopian, but I sincerely believe this will happen. I do. I just wonder how many millions of people will perish before it does.

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There are 9 comments

  1. I think that there are natural disasters but the impact they have is social. Japan is a rich country, still the tsunami swiped away all the houses. But I get his point. I also agree, that funny enough a catastrophe can have a positive impact as people feel close and start to help each other and many who are better off actively contribute to make things better. I hadn’t known that the Dominicans helped the Haitians in this. I’m glad to hear it. It is one island but there is a rift that is huge. I think one of Edwige Danticat’s (Farming the Bones) novels focuses in part on this difference between Dominican Republic and Haiti.

  2. Our tendency, because the powers that be prefer us to be fearful and therefore manageable, is to always see the donwside. I read a story this morning in which the character wanted to do something but was too scared to. By the end of the story, he admitted he was scared. It was a boring story, but maybe if the author had started the story at the end point, we the reader, might have got something, been uplifted. Maybe disasters, tragic and horrible as they are, are just the beginning of the human story. I hope so.

  3. Hi Caroline, yes, there is a huge rift on that island, so it was heartening to hear those stories. Haven’t read that novel by Edwidge Danticat, but it’s something I picked up on from my time in New York, where a lot of Haitians and Dominicans live. On the social nature of the Japan tsunami, there was a comment at the bottom of the article from a Japanese reader that I found interesting:

    “I’ve been working in the relief efforts in Japan, and I couldn’t have asked for a more insightful articulation of what I believe the current challenge is in Japan.

    Regardless of the structure or set-up of the political system, the “social” nature of this disaster is in the fact that the general public was stripped of any sense of involvement or participation in creating its own world, particularly since the economic decline in the 90s.

    Most of the public has reacted to Fukushima saying that if they knew, or had the sense to learn about the dangers of nuclear energy beyond what the authorities claimed prior to this accident, things may have been different.

    Most of the Japanese public has been slogging along since the economic decline in the 90s without much direction, and without the initiative or sense of empowerment that things can be changed.

    This sense of not feeling empowered to take responsibility for the world you live in– this I think is at the heart of why this disaster hurt so much, and was such a wake-up call to so many.

    The relief efforts are in fact being led by a multitude of unofficial groups and alliances springing up to cooperate and help resuscitate the affected areas, aside from the official help being organized by the government. There is a sense that the people are standing up, taking this as an opportunity to rebuild their nation, this time with their own hands.”
    — posted 05/07/2011 at 04:21 by Yuichiro Kamikawa

  4. Hi Sarah, Thanks for your comment!

    “Maybe disasters, tragic and horrible as they are, are just the beginning of the human story. I hope so.”

    I hope so too! My only personal experience of a disaster was being in downtown Manhattan on September 11, and I was struck by how instantly the disaster rendered completely irrelevant all of the divisions that had ruled our lives until that day. Of course, we were then bombarded with militaristic revenge talk in the media and from out government, and people once again became fearful and suspicious, and the divisions were reconstructed with even greater force than before. But on that particular day, in the midst of the disaster, and for several days afterwards, the only impulse I had or observed in others was the impulse to survive and to help others survive.

  5. Thanks for the link to the article by Junot Diaz. The issue of natural disaster is interesting. It’s, of course, termed a disaster by us because of the devastation they unleash. But I doubt, nature (whatever that is) thinks of earthquakes or tsunamis etc as disasters. Afterall the earth is doing what it needs to live. If the earth needs to release pressure and shift some plates in order to be comfortable, it does so. Kinda funny but also really scary as we’ve found out over the centuries. I guess I do agree with Junot. We humans compound the effect of these events. By now, famines in the Horn of Africa should not be this devastating. How can we prevent thousands from dying when systems of governance and societal structures have collapsed? Plus, I think that democratic governments should trust their people more. I abhor this practice of withholding information from people. Like what happened in Japan. People will rise to the challenge if given a chance. Thanks and insightful as always.

  6. I love that way of thinking about it! All these events that are apocalyptic to us are really just the earth shifting around to get comfortable! We do tend to view things entirely through human experience, which I suppose is natural, but in the bigger scheme of things it’s not all about us, is it? Probably even harder to remember if your house is collapsing, though.

    I agree about governments trusting their people. I was talking with someone about this the other day and they said it would never work because people think short-term and never vote for anything that’s against their own immediate interests. I could see the point, but I think a lot of how we behave now is because we’re treated like children. If we really felt as if we were in charge and had all the information and all the relevant choices, we’d make difficult decisions. Polls suggest, for example, that most people want to take action on things like poverty and climate change, even though there’s nothing immediately in it for them. I think the more information is withheld, the more people feel disempowered and retreat into their own lives, ignoring what’s going on around them. I think you’re right that “people will rise to the challenge if given a chance”.

  7. Thank you for the introduction to this interesting article and ensuing comments.
    I am growing more confused about the human nature as I get older. Fundamentally I believed in human goodness, but now I see a divide among the human species: there always were good and bad people, and there always will be good and bad people. From moment to moment we may change our roles from being good to bad and vice versa, and most of ordinary lives are not even about being good or bad. But clearly there is shocking amount of evil out there done by seemingly ordinary people in ordinary circumstances. Our human reality is certainly stranger than fiction.

    1. Hi Sarah
      You’re welcome – I’m glad you found it interesting. Human nature is very hard to pin down. As I mentioned in an earlier comment, I do agree with Junot Diaz’s point about “heeding the ruins”. I think that disasters are often exacerbated by existing social divisions, but that in the disasters themselves we often see the return of the better human instincts. We originally came together into groups, after all, in order to help and protect one another, and perhaps in times of crisis we remember that. It’s during the ordinary times that we can indulge in the fantasy of believing we don’t need each other, and behave in quite horrible ways as a result. Thanks for the comment!! I always like it when someone comes on one of my old posts and helps me remember it.

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