When Occupy first began, all those tents, medical clinics, and community kitchens in the encampments reminded me of the aftermath of an earthquake. The occupiers looked like disaster survivors -- and in a sense they were, though the disaster they had survived was called the economy and its impacts are usually remarkably invisible. Sandy is also an economic disaster: unlimited release of carbon into the atmosphere is very expensive and will get more so.
The increasingly turbulent, disaster-prone planet we're on is our beautiful old Earth with the temperature raised almost one degree celsius. It's going to get hotter than that, though we can still make a difference in how hot it gets. Right now, locally, in the soaked places, we need people to aid the stranded, the homeless, and the hungry. Globally we need to uncouple government from the Big Energy corporations, and ensure that most of the carbon energy left on the planet stays where it belongs: underground.
After the Status Quo
Disasters often unfold a little like revolutions. They create a tremendous rupture with the past. Today has nothing much in common with yesterday -- in how the system works or doesn't, in what people have in common, in how they see their priorities and possibilities. The people in power are often most interested in returning to yesterday, because the status quo was working for them -- though Mayor Bloomberg is to be commended for taking the storm as a wake-up call to do more about climate change. For the rest of us, after such a disaster, sometimes the status quo doesn't look so good.
Disasters often produce real political change, not always for the better (and not always for the worse). I called four of the last five big calamities in this country the four horsemen of the apocalypse because directly or otherwise they caused so much suffering, because they brought us closer to the brink, and because they changed our national direction. Disaster has now become our national policy: we invite it in and it directs us, for better and worse.
As the horsemen trample over all the things we love most, it becomes impossible to distinguish natural disaster from man-made calamity: maybe the point is that there is no difference anymore. But there's another point: that we can prevent the worst of the impact in all sorts of ways, from evacuation plans to carbon emissions reductions to economic justice, and that it's all tied up together.
I wish Sandy hadn't happened. But it did, and there have been and will be more disasters like this. I hope that radical change arises from it. The climate has already changed. May we change to meet the challenges.
Rebecca Solnit wrote about disasters and civil society in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster and in many reports for TomDispatch and other websites.