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Current Reaction to Solnit

March 16, 2011

“Often enough, many of those people find the disruption deeply satisfying as well as unnerving.  They enjoy the disruption not only of the barriers that normally separate them from their neighbors but also of their own grinding self-absorption.  Such disruption can provide a satisfaction so profound it transcends even the fear and sadness of disaster’s devastation.” (32)

Watching the news recently and hearing about the 8.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Japan has made me revisit Rebecca Solnit’s “The Use of Disaster.”  For those that haven’t been watching the new/been alive in the last week, on Friday, Japan was hit by the worst earthquake in its recorded history.  It has killed more than 1,900 people and counting.   The earthquake occurred around 2:46 PM about six miles below sea level and 78 miles off the east coast of Japan.  As a result, it unleashed a 10m-high tsunami that has destroyed towns and sparked a nuclear emergency.  There are unconfirmed reports of over 3,000 people missing while emergency response teams are going to work across the country.  While watching the news when this natural disaster was occurring, I thought there were a lot of similarities and differences with Solnit’s work and this unfortunate event.

Ironically, Solnit beings her piece about a hurricane hitting Halifax, Nova Scotia and killing 8 people.  Reminiscent, on a smaller scale, of Japan’s current state, Solnit claims, “Sixty-foot waves battered the shore and nearly hundred mile-per-hour winds snapped power lines…” (31).    When reading it the first time, I never paid much attention to the fact that Solnit claimed there was a sense of happiness in the town.  I didn’t fully understand how controversial that statement really was until now.   Yes, the natural disaster that occurred in Japan was on a much larger scale (and 8 people dead compared to more than 1,900 is different), but nothing even close to happiness has been felt.  Yes, people did find themselves inexplicably drawn to each other in an effort to help those affected.  Yes, it is endearing to see how people from around the world have attempted to aid the situation.  But, there is always a sense of gregariousness when disaster strikes.

Solnit further claimed that, “such pleasure in the face of suffering and loss is  not unusual”(32).  I know in ways portraying a devils advocate but I think it is interesting to relook at this piece now.  It hits closer to home than one would expect.  Even more ironically, Solnit explains this quotation with the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 as an example.  Dubbed the greatest urban disaster in U.S. history, this earthquake killed over three thousand people and made two hundred thousand people homeless.  This disaster seems to be very similar to the problems that are occurring in Japan today. But yet, Solnit claims that the ‘air of pleasure was unmistakable.’  I dare someone to say anything close to that about the disaster that has occurred in Japan.

Recent headlines from news sources from around the world seem to conflict with Solnit’s thesis.  CNN claims, “Anxiety in Japan grows as rescue workers find more bodies.”  BBC claims, “Fear and Shortages in Japan.”  The New York Times claims, “Crisis Stokes Fear In Europe.”  Anxiety, Fear, but no happiness?


Bloggers Note: In no way do I mean to sounds insensitive the plight that is occurring in Japan, in fact I am trying to achieve the opposite.  I just think it is interesting to reread this piece by Solnit after this event has occurred because it exposes different feelings/issues when looking back at it.


  1. March 16, 2011 9:30 PM

    *This post was published a couple of days ago, but did not show up on the blog until today.

  2. Eric Chang permalink
    March 17, 2011 2:23 PM

    I don’t think that what Solnit describes would ever be portrayed in the media. Good news, such as cooperation, a neighborhood coming together, or a small act of kindness would remain unseen, and certainly not make an interesting story. Have we ever read headlines such as “Optimism Rises After Hurricane,” “Families Bond in Time of Need” or “Hurricane Reveals Government Vulnerability.” Nope. A few feel-good stories about a selfless volunteer might emerge, but the majority of headlines are negative, masking the “unfamiliar version of human nature” that Solnit describes. So media headlines do not necessarily disprove Solnit’s theory on the uses of disaster.

    Having been fortunate enough to have never experienced a major natural disaster, I can only imagine what the experience would be like. But the relief, escape from our daily distractions, might allow us to experience something that wouldn’t previously be possible. Solnit writes, “Disaster’s disruption can provide a satisfaction so profound it transcends even disaster’s devastation.” Our televisions and smartphones would be rendered useless, and perhaps only then could we realize a non-virtual type interdependence, in which strangers selflessly offer food and supplies, and band together to build shelters. This basic human action, of coming together towards a common goal in desolate times, could perhaps elicit a unique type of happiness that transcends fear and sadness.

  3. alexqhe permalink
    March 20, 2011 5:45 PM

    I mostly agree with what Eric said above — fear and destruction often makes for more sensational news than happiness. This is simply what sells in the mainstream media today.

    When you see articles like this one – – detailing the sacrifices that a lot of Japanese workers are making to ensure that the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant does not completely melt down, the first thing that comes to mind is indeed not pleasure, but instead of suffering and selflessness.

    I’m sure it would be considered quite gauche if the media painted a picture of the pleasure that these workers most likely take in their sacrifice. Yet, quite honestly, I don’t doubt that they do take pleasure and pride in the fact that they are sacrificing life and limb in defense of the land and people they love. Happiness is a hard concept to pin down and to accurately define, but I do disagree with your assertion that there is no pleasure taken in the work that they do.

    I believe that Rebecca Solnit was completely right. Not only does disaster bring people closer together in the aftermath of a storm, but it can even bring uninvolved parties closer to the affected people, as evident by the multiple fundraising groups springing up all around the country and the internet. Even the Yakuza, Japan’s organized crime syndicate, is channeling money into relief efforts as opposed to capitalizing upon the nation’s stricken status (

    “As one members said, “There are no yakuza or katagi (ordinary citizens) or gaijin (foreigners) in Japan right now. We are all Japanese. We all need to help each other.”

    _____ — on an unrelated note, I thought that this was pretty interesting.


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