Natural Disasters

Disaster Progressivism


Spontaneous cooperation, not social chaos, is the norm after a natural or technological disaster. That fact looms large in Jacob Remes' Disaster Citizenship (University of Illinois Press), a book that looks at two devastating events—a 1914 fire in Salem, Massachusetts, and a 1917 shipyard explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia—and shows what happened when that grassroots mutual aid ran headfirst into the Progressive Era's passion for rule by "expert" professionals.

Remes examines everything from ethnic networks to labor politics to the battle for control of government aid. (The people of Salem and Halifax were often happy to take the help, but only on their own terms.) As an undergrad at Yale, Remes took a class from Seeing Like a State author James C. Scott, and a very Scottian theme runs through all of the book's nuances and distinctions: the clash between an "organic, emergent order" and a power structure for whom that order was "inherently illegible and unknowable."