A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disasters

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disasters

by Rebecca Solnit
     
 

A startling investigation of what people do in disasters and why it matters

Why is it that in the aftermath of a disaster? whether manmade or natural-people suddenly become altruistic, resourceful, and brave? What makes the newfound communities and purpose many find in the ruins and crises after disaster so joyous? And what does this joy reveal about

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Overview

A startling investigation of what people do in disasters and why it matters

Why is it that in the aftermath of a disaster? whether manmade or natural-people suddenly become altruistic, resourceful, and brave? What makes the newfound communities and purpose many find in the ruins and crises after disaster so joyous? And what does this joy reveal about ordinarily unmet social desires and possibilities?

In A Paradise Built in Hell, award-winning author Rebecca Solnit explores these phenomena, looking at major calamities from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco through the 1917 explosion that tore up Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She examines how disaster throws people into a temporary utopia of changed states of mind and social possibilities, as well as looking at the cost of the widespread myths and rarer real cases of social deterioration during crisis. This is a timely and important book from an acclaimed author whose work consistently locates unseen patterns and meanings in broad cultural histories.

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Editorial Reviews

Dan Baum
In A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit presents a withering critique of modern capitalist society by examining five catastrophes…Her accounts of these five events are so stirring that her book is worth reading for its storytelling alone. But what makes it even more fascinating is Solnit's demonstration that disasters give rise to small, temporary utopias in which the best of human nature emerges and a remarkable spirit of generosity and cooperation takes over…[an] exciting and important contribution to our understanding of ourselves.
—The Washington Post
Tom Vanderbilt
…a landmark work that gives an impassioned challenge to the social meaning of disasters…Solnit is an exemplar of that perpetually endangered species, the free-ranging public intellectual, bound to no institution or academic orthodoxy. As in her previous works…there is here a wonderful confluence of unexpected connections.
—The New York Times Book Review
Dwight Garner
At her best…[Solnit] has a rare gift: the ability to turn the act of cognition, of arriving at a coherent point of view, into compelling moral drama…As she moves confidently through her arguments, Ms. Solnit attacks thinkers on the left as well as the right. She criticizes Naomi Klein, the author of The Shock Doctrine, for portraying civilians as merely frightened and disoriented during times of crisis, rather than invigorated and capable. She notes that the British intellectual Timothy Garton Ash fed stereotypes after Katrina, saying that the storm's "big lesson is that the crust of civilization on which we tread is always wafer thin." Ms. Solnit's optimistic book advances just the opposite worldview.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

Natural and man-made disasters can be "utopias" that showcase human solidarity and point the way to a freer society, according this stimulating contrarian study. Solnit (River of Shadows) reproves civil defense planners, media alarmists and Hollywood directors who insist that disasters produce terrified mobs prone to looting, murder and cannibalism unless controlled by armed force and government expertise. Surveying disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she shows that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other. Indeed, the main problem in such emergencies, she contends, is the "elite panic" of officials who clamp down with National Guardsmen and stifling regulations. Solnit falters when she generalizes her populist brief into an anarchist critique of everyday society that lapses into fuzzy what-ifs and uplifting volunteer testimonials. Still, this vividly written, cogently argued book makes a compelling-and timely-case for the ability of ordinary people to collectively surmount the direst of challenges. (Sept.)

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Library Journal
Prize-winning author Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost) delivers an insightful glimpse into the compelling human interest stories behind five major disasters: the San Fransisco earthquake of 1906, the Halifax explosion of 1917, Mexico City's 1985 earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. But more than just the stories, she turns her attention to the larger subject of the sociology of disasters and the incredible community spirit that can arise amid disaster. In contrast to media portrayals of negative human behavior in times of distress, Solnit believes that humans have an intrinsic need to help each other and work together in communities forged by disaster. These surreal situations demonstrate how deeply most of us desire connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness. Thus the startling joy in disasters. Solnit wonders if some of these ephemeral moments could be recaptured in our normal day-to-day routines, thus enhancing our sense of community. VERDICT Despite wandering into some murky what-ifs, this book offers a timely study in community during these uncertain times.—Holly S. Hebert, Rochester Coll., Rochester Hills, MI
Kirkus Reviews
Historical and philosophical investigation into human responses to disaster and the possibilities for community and democratic participation that can arise from them. Solnit (Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, 2007, etc.) examines what disasters tell us about how human societies work, where they fail or succeed during and after moments of crisis and how the small-scale utopias that sometimes emerge in the midst of tragedy might offer hope for larger change. The author's central thesis-which she develops by drawing on a wide range of philosophers and writers, including William James, Viktor Frankl, Mikhail Bakhtin and William Wordsworth-is that disasters reveal the human ability to imagine and spontaneously create communities that fulfill our desire for "connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness." Relying on extensive archival research and oral histories, Solnit considers community responses to a variety of disasters, including the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Halifax military explosion of 1917 and the bombing of London during World War II, as well as lethal heat-waves, terrorist attacks, nuclear accidents, hurricanes and other natural disasters. The author looks at stories of both community success and failure. In the cases of failure, she reveals how rigid hierarchical structures, elite panic and pre-existing social dysfunctions complicated direct citizen action, even as these crises "demonstrat[e] the viability of a dispersed, decentralized system of decision making." The author imbues her philosophically rich text with an intimate mode of self-reflection, and she provides telling details of her firsthand encounters with the individuals whosestories have inspired her work. A serious and occasionally somber meditation on how disasters bring about the possibility for societal change.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780670021079
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/20/2009
Pages:
368
Product dimensions:
6.36(w) x 9.46(h) x 1.28(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

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