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Less Is More, Slow Is Beautiful and Circle of Simplicity and a founder of the Phinney Ecovillage, a project to build Sustainability and Community in her North Seattle Neighborhood. She has been a visiting scholar at Stanford University, where she received her doctorate in education, and an adjunct faculty member at Antioch University and Seattle University. A former community college administrator, she now works with community groups to explore the issue of living more simply and leisurely: how to live lives that are sustainable, just, and joyful. She is on the board of the Take Back Your Time campaign. She lives in Seattle Washington with her husband, former technology writer and current blogger Paul Andrews.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Paradise Built in Hell: Communities that emerge from disasters

I recently discovered one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. It’s called A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster. Author Rebecca Solnit writes about the caring communities that spring up in disasters and tells the stories of how people come together to help each other. Solnit uses first person accounts, and I was absolutely bowled over by the things people had to say. In describing their experiences and emotions, people used words like euphoric and ecstatic and transformative. What people felt was not just fear and anxiety from the disaster, but ultimately caring and connection with others.
Solnit explores several disasters, starting with the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, but the most important stories are about Katrina and 9/11. I had no idea that anything good emerged from these disasters. And in fact, one of the most interesting —and damning — things Solnit says is that “official” accounts of disasters always stress the negative: they talk about violence, looting, or raping and the stories of compassion and caring are ignored.
Why? One, the official version comes from the “elites,” the news media and the public officials. Solnit suggests that the elite viewpoint represents their opinion about human nature — a belief that people are basically selfish and that everyone is out for themselves. She argues that perhaps elites feel this way because that’s what they’re like! Being selfish and cutthroat is usually the way people get ahead!
This view that people are basically selfish is the dominant view in the American culture. But there has been a lot of research lately stressing that altruism is also central to our nature. In other words, we can either be cruel and ruthless or compassionate and caring — it all depends on what your culture encourages.
We have a culture that encourages us to be selfish and cutthroat. We’re taught to compete and to strive to be “number one.” We want to be winners, and we learn to do whatever it takes.
It’s not only that we’re encouraged to compete and win. It’s also that we’re not given many opportunities to be caring and compassionate. For instance, our work hours make it difficult to volunteer or take time to be involved with the community. The wealth gap in our country means we’re always pitted against other citizens for resources, and rich people always seem to want even more money than they have! In more equal societies people understand that what’s good for me is also good for the greater society.
I thought of a good analogy that shows what’s going on: When my kids were little I took them to an easter egg hunt — or I should say an easter egg race. The candy was spread out over the lawn and the kids stood at the starting line and then a (toy) gun was shot and they all started running for the candy. My kids (who went to alternative schools and didn’t learn all the competitive tricks) just stood there, kind of stunned. In other words, you either raced for what you wanted or you got nothing! That’s the way our society is set up and you’re forced to compete if you want anything at all.
How can we change? That’s really what the voluntary simplicity movement is about. We’re saying that we must create a society in which people have the opportunity to care for one another. Thus, the Simplicity movement advocates government policies that help people behave differently. For instance, give people shorter work hours so they have time to volunteer or get involved in their communities. Or another example: if we had universal health care, a lot of people could work fewer hours, giving them more time for their community. Further, if we created more equality people would care for the common good instead of just their own selfish interests.
Most of all, we have to change our value system. That’s why the Solnit book is so important. She’s showing that our basic human impulse is to help and care for others. We need policies that give us a chance to express this basic impulse. A government should help you be the best kind of person you could be, not the worst.

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