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

Rebecca Solnit

368 pages, The Viking Press, 2009

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Earthquakes, hurricanes, and other disasters are terrible—pain and suffering abounding, lives and homes destroyed. Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant new book documents and explains the other side of disasters: how they often sweep away the barriers that isolate people from each other under normal times, inspiring “the better angels of our nature” that President Abraham Lincoln evoked in our nation’s darkest days.

Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell investigates the social consequences of five major disasters: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; the gargantuan 1917 explosion in Halifax, Nova Scotia; the devastating 1985 Mexico City quake; Lower Manhattan after the 9/11 terrorist attacks; and Hurricane Katrina’s 2005 deluge of New Orleans. Each case study provides a thick description of what surviving residents themselves understand to be a temporary utopian society naturally arising in the midst of casualties, disorientation, homelessness, and great loss of all kinds.

Solnit tells many poignant stories of altruism, courage, and compassionate social action. In 1906 San Francisco, for example, we meet Amelia Hoshouser, a middle-class woman who fed thousands of people in her makeshift “Mizpah Café,” while throughout the city soup kitchens, shelters, and relief projects emerged from collective human spirit as if spontaneously from the ruins. The quake led William James (then visiting at Stanford University) to realize that fierce collective action in the public interest can be “the moral equivalent of war.” Meanwhile, Brigadier General Frederick Funston, commanding officer at the Presidio Military Base, marched troops into the city with instructions to shoot the “unlicked mob” (orders that, tragically, some soldiers carried out). Dorothy Day, experiencing the quake as a child, went on to devote her life to recreating systems of social service for the hungry and poor staffed by Catholic Worker volunteers.

Thomas Hobbes remains a political theorist to be reckoned with, but I will never read Hobbes the same way again. Breaking down Hobbes’s conception of a supposedly natural “war of all against all,” Solnit’s empiricism demonstrates that neighborhood societies of cooperation and mutual aid arise precisely when official institutions of sovereign authority have broken down, leaving no one to help the wounded or traumatized except for other survivors, neighbors, and health providers. Solnit shows how often the greatest post-disaster threats to human security and welfare come not from “anarchy” or even “looting” but from the panicked, militarized overreaction of elites who fear a loss of power and control.

Solnit unearths a treasure trove of insightful scholarly literature in the obscure and underappreciated field of “disaster sociology.” For example, I had never before heard of Charles E. Fritz, who helped lead the University of Chicago’s Disaster Research Project in the 1950s, prompted by the Cold War’s nuclear threat. Asked to identify methods of containing anticipated mass panic and social conflict, Fritz discovered that he had been assigned the wrong question. The conventional belief that disasters lead terrified, passive victims toward chaos and dependency was, it turns out, empirically false.

On the contrary, by analyzing evidence gathered from a large data set of catastrophic events, Fritz concluded: “The widespread sharing of danger, loss, and deprivation produces an intimate, primarily group solidarity among the survivors, which overcomes social isolation, provides a channel for intimate communication and expression, and provides a major source of physical and emotional support and reassurance.” Thus disaster survivors often share “a feeling of belonging and a sense of unity rarely achieved under normal circumstances.”

In a world of seemingly relentless disaster and catastrophe, where can we find a true, inspiring source of positive, sustainable social transformation? Solnit provides a stunningly paradoxical answer: right there, at Ground Zero, with the firefighters who sacrificed their lives to rescue so many from the World Trade Center; right there, in New Orleans’s flooded Lower Ninth Ward, where neighbors rescued each other from drowning and provided food and sustenance for each other; and right there, in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, where men and women without food for themselves or their families worked night and day to dig out strangers from the rubble of collapsed buildings, using only their hands for tools.

The cooperative, life-affirming social experiments Solnit finds so often in the ruins are fleeting. They disappear when established institutions of governance and patterns of social behavior eventually return. Perhaps we can learn ways to create profoundly beneficial social innovation in our normal lives by studying the temporary, transient communities of mutual aid that naturally arise in times of greatest need.