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


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 ...

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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.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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.
The Barnes & Noble Review
How natural to distrust any guide who directs you, for the purpose of inspiring uplift, toward a study of the grisliest disasters that have befallen human communities. In the case of Rebecca Solnit's book on mass destruction and its effects, this logical impulse is, well, dead wrong. For what she witnesses, borne up on the smoke from earthquakes, fires, and explosions, is nothing less than the highest aspects of human spirit. This is a paradox she examines fully and fruitfully, even if the prescriptive lessons she finally asks us to take back into daily life seem unfortunately impossible: Utopias arise from the embers of calamity, as she recounts again and again; yet they, too, inevitably burn.

The focus is on five great disasters -- the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; an explosion in Halifax in 1917; Mexico City's earthquake in 1985, which not only leveled the city but also its political structure; September 11th as a local tragedy; and post-Katrina New Orleans, reported first-hand by the author -- but the book is by no means limited to these. Solnit (whose previous, poetically varied work includes River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West and A Field Guide to Getting Lost) is not the kind of writer who is limited by anything. Here, without quite saying so, she considers human biology from a social viewpoint: we evolved as communal animals and then survived because we did.

The heavenly locale of the title is situated in that strange place where disaster begets joy -- the surpassing joy of coming together over the fallen ramparts of social divides. Anyone who has experienced a white-out snowstorm in a big city knows this feeling, a freedom from walls both literal and metaphorical. People empty into the streets, to communicate, to help, to join. Trouble there may be but happiness, too, in temporary relief from the old order that keeps us separated, in line. Even in events during which widespread death and injury occur, "a paradise of unbroken solidarities" is reported by people as a source of happiness that sometimes changes lives forever.

The explosion of a munitions-laden ship in Halifax Harbor on December 6, 1917, was "the largest man-made explosion in history before nuclear weapons." Three thousand tons of powder detonated; the blast -- heard 200 miles away -- lifted the hull of the Mont Blanc a thousand feet into the air, and the ensuing shock wave and fireball destroyed every building within a mile, erupting into a massive conflagration. More than 1,500 people died and 9,000 were injured. Horrific as the scene was, it became the stage for transformation of both individuals (into heroes capable of "generosity beyond reason") and the city at large: a historian observes that the town, "with its rigid class structure -- divided by religion, class, and country -- briefly integrated" as helping the injured became the primary goal of all.

As Solnit's exploration proceeds, these examples accrete to the status of scientific data, and it becomes impossible not to see this selfless behavior as instinctual, something in our nature that only blooms fully when it meets the exigencies of need. It is, it seems, what we were built for. Crisis allows us to express our true selves -- and is thus a form of relief. A paradise indeed.

Yet not a perfect one. From the beginning, Solnit repeats "Beliefs matter," and shows the fatal result of holding beliefs that are patently wrong, since they can cause us to act dangerously. So police restrict crowds, believing in a human impulse to chaos when social strictures are temporarily loosened; or vigilantes, believing property is at risk, take aim using amateur racial profiling (numerous unarmed African Americans, merely trying to survive or help others, were shot by whites in New Orleans). "Elite panic" of this sort has long been a feature of the sudden event, from the fear of ring snatching that is "a major component of urban disaster myths" to the distrustful anxiety of the rich, and especially of the reigning political powers, that the new communal order might become permanent. That is when they call out the National Guard. And that is when the trouble really begins.

One of Solnit's main points is that disasters can be revolutions of sorts, imposing new order in a cataclysmic overnight. In the case of the 1972 earthquake in Nicaragua, this was literally true, because as the people came together to help each other in its aftermath, finding new strength in solidarity, the Sandinistas had their way prepared.

This rather unexpected aspect of her subject permits the author to venture to the far territories of thought -- she is an experienced long-distance traveler -- and she spends a while in the precincts of political theory (Kropotkin, anarchy, utopianism). Not for the sake of establishing her intellectual credentials, however (these are sealed already), but to reiterate that theory matters, since decisions that affect the outcome in disaster scenarios are made on the basis of beliefs about how people behave. Believe wrong, and people can die. This happened, graphically, in San Francisco, when extensive fires were set by law enforcement agents, with fatal results.

Again and again, "the authorities" expect one thing -- chaos, lawbreaking, panic, despair, collective regression -- and again and again humans instead engage in mutual aid, spontaneously creating precise operational systems to ensure survival. Here, then, is the paradox at the heart of this intriguing book: disasters can be good for us, even as they are undeniably tragic. "They provide relief from that old web of griefs, habits, assumptions, and fears in which we are ordinarily caught: the effects are as psychological as they are practical." Solnit is, morally, bravely treading on thin ice in a gray area, to necessarily mix metaphors: from several quarters, one can already hear the angry dissenters, shrieking, Oh, so here's an author who finds death and destruction a good thing? Um, yes, but only because she is an author with a subtle mind, one that can make a case for, in her term, "redemptive disaster" (even as she recognizes that "it is a dangerous thing to say that disaster is liberating"). In just one of the brick-load of examples the book is solidly built from, "The earthquake is a mythic moment in Mexican history, and civil society is the phoenix that rose from its rubble."

The book has many such beauties, both in what it recounts and in what it is: a reflection of the writer's athletic mind at play, moving surely and sinuously across wide territories. Along the way we spot 19th-century social history, Dorothy Day, a survey of the carnival as rite of social inversion, the Diggers, TV's Survivor, man-made horrors such as the Blitz, and a brief but lively study of Hollywood conventions as applied to disaster storylines.

Oxfam reported in 2007 that in the previous 20 years, the incidence of weather-related disasters had quadrupled. One can only fear the future statistics on terrorism. With this ahead of us, Rebecca Solnit's multivalent work is not only of great pertinence. Events to come may well pull a transformational trick on this book's genre: literary exploration to instruction manual, in one terrible blow. --Melissa Holbrook Pierson

Melissa Holbrook Pierson is the author of three works of nonfiction: The Perfect Vehicle, Dark Horses and Black Beauties, and The Place You Love Is Gone, all from Norton. She is writing a book on B. F. Skinner and the ethics of dog training.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670021079
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/20/2009
  • Pages: 368
  • Product dimensions: 6.36 (w) x 9.46 (h) x 1.28 (d)

Meet the Author

Rebecca Solnit is the author of numerous books, including Hope in the Dark, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. In 2003, she received the prestigious Lannan Literary Award.

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