The worst time and the nicest time at the same time

17 Jan 2010

I just finished watching the documentary “Collapse”, and even though I basically agree with everything there—we’re at peak oil, things are going to start falling apart, economic growth can’t continue forever, etc.—it’s still hard for me not to feel a bit of despair after watching it.

At times like this, it helps me to remember the ways that people can come together even during incredibly hard times. I keep coming back to something I heard from a scientist in Bangladesh—Kamal Uddin, of the government’s Climate Change Cell.

We were talking about climate change, of course, but he went back to the bloody war of independence that Bangladeshis fought in 1971 to split off from Pakistan, in which some 3 million Bangladeshis (and a very small number of Pakistani soldiers) died.

Kamal’s English isn’t perfect, but his words were really moving to me, so I didn’t want to clean it up. Here’s what he told me:

You can always see one positive thing. It’s like this to humankind: when you suffer, you get closer [to each other].

When we had the freedom fighting against the Pakistanis, then all man and woman in the country were united. That’s the one time in the history that we had the nicest time. We had the worst time and the nicest time at the same time—1971.

That was our worst time. We were killed, we were abused—a lot of bad things. But at the same time, it was the best time of Bengali nation, in terms of their unity, in terms of their feelings for the others, in terms of their self-respect, in terms of their achieving something—that was the best time in the history.

Similarly, if you bring it to the world…. If climate change is really devastating, that will bring the global people together.

I really hope he’s right. It doesn’t get reported on much, but you can see signs of this in many places. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti, the reports coming out highlighted the potential for violence, rather than what seems to be extraordinary efforts to help each other and moments of beauty amidst the chaos.

An article on Time’s website has the headline “Will Criminal Gangs Take Control in Haiti’s Chaos?”. According to this article, “in Haiti, during emergencies — natural or political — gunshots can be as ubiquitous a sound at night as barking dogs, with armed gangs taking over the streets. One of their favorite chants is ‘Rat pa kaka‘ — Creole for, ‘Not even the rats shit here without our permission.'”

But at the same time, “Stunned people wandered the streets holding hands. Thousands gathered in public squares long after nightfall, singing hymns,” the New York Daily News reported.

Also, the AP reported: “Turning pickup trucks into ambulances and doors into stretchers, Haitians were frantically struggling to save those injured in this week’s earthquake.”

You can be sure these were ordinary people improvising and volunteering to help each other out. Rebecca Solnit’s moving book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster, is full of examples of people coming together during tough times.

In the revolution that Kamal was talking about, Bangladeshis had an external enemy to fight against, making it much easier for them to come together. In the disasters in Solnit’s book, there was a clear event that ruptured people’s everyday lives and opened up space for things to change. But in most cases, those changes seem to have been all-too-brief, with people going back to the usual divisions once things settled down a bit.

Solnit uses these brief openings as windows into the human psyche and soul, and what she finds is encouraging. But still I worry that with coming energy shortages and climate change, it will be slow enough and will lack any visible, tangible “enemy,” so if there are wrenching changes, people may not come together.

But, who knows? Maybe if there are more economic shocks, people will start to feel there’s more to life than making money and buying stuff—and reconnecting with others will be a base on which to build a better response to the challenges that could shake industrial civilization itself.


books I've read on failure & grace

The World Without Us
The Last Oil Shock: A Survival Guide to the Imminent Extinction of Petroleum Man
A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
Hell and High Water: Global Warming--the Solution and the Politics--and What We Should Do
The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl
The Tipping Point
Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace... One School at a Time
The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization
Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail
The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850
Confessions of an Eco-Sinner: Tracking Down the Sources of My Stuff
Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future
The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World

Mason's favorite books »