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

19 Nov

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in DisasterA Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit

My Rating★★★☆☆


What is the moral equivalent of war?

Solnit’s book is in many ways an extended argument (with examples) on William James’ essay on his famous question: “What is the moral equivalent of war?” – Based on the premise that war is an ennobling bringing-together of humans and that the experience is uplifting and necessary and an equivalent would be a wonderful thing to find.

Everyone from Hobbes to Hollywood filmmakers has assumed and showcased that when disaster strikes, society crumbles. They show this “Law of the Jungle” as pure and dangerous chaos. Solnit wants to show that what in fact takes place is another kind of anarchy, where the citizenry by and large organize and care for themselves and rises above the disaster.

News Media (to most the only media that exists) loves spectacle and spectacle is gore – they highlight the worst stories and that is what you remember. That is why this book is important. Because Beliefs matter.

Especially when we move into an age where disasters are going to be more and more a part of our lives, it is important to learn to maintain continuity and a sense of societal organization through such periods.

Solnit tells numerous stories to illustrate that in the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it Solnit asserts.

But belief lags behind, and often the worst behavior in the wake of a calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism.

This is the power of self-fulfilling prophesies – any belief that is acted on makes the world in its image. Beliefs matter. And so do the facts behind them. The astonishing gap between common beliefs and actualities about disaster behavior limits the possibilities, and changing beliefs could fundamentally change much more.

Of course it is dangerous to subscribe fully to this optimism and the case can easily be made that Solnit got carried away in this book. Her descriptions of disasters are so ennobling it begins to test the limits of belief.

Then Solnit starts talking of how disaster is almost nostalgic to its survivors:

…It reminded me of how many of us in the San Francisco Bay Area had loved the Loma Prieta earthquake that took place three weeks before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. Or loved not the earthquake but the way communities had responded to it.

Especially when you hear phrases like “enjoying immensely the disaster…”, it is natural to feel skeptical but we also have to keep in mind that this might only be a limitation of language:

…if enjoyment is the right word for that sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture in everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive. We don’t even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear. We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.

In addition, a few major drawbacks too have to be pointed out:

1. By and large Solnit avoids turning her gaze to the disasters in the developing world where chances of solidarity might (or might not be) be less. I am not implying that the people would be less noble, but with less infrastructure and with total anarchy, it might disappear. The study is not complete without exploring that aspect.

2. Solnit paints a particularly dangerous picture of the administration and the authorities in this book. This is dangerous since if the purpose of the book is to influence beliefs, painting such a caricatured version would make it harder for order to be established post-disaster – trust in the authorities would surely be necessary at some point.

This near-parody portrayal of the ‘authorities’ is extreme and should probably be ignored. That is the problem with anecdotal books – a book could easily be written too about how the supposed monsters of bureaucracy becomes angels of deliverance in a disaster. This is not to use that as a hammer against this book, but only to suggest that such a book too should probably be written.

3. Another parody-portrayal is that of the ‘elites’ – painting them as the defenders of some ‘order’ who completely lose it when utopian anarchy descends in the wake of a disaster. Being blind to goodness, they then embark on a path of distraction that brings a bad name to all disaster victims. ‘Elite Panic’ she calls this phenomena. This section of the book is written with some heavily shaded blinkers and deserves at best a derisive laugh from the unbiased reader.

4. In addition to these wild approximations, Solnit in her quest for legitimacy for the ideas presented opts for wildly reaching speculations into various fields – for example, comparing disaster to carnivals and thus as a necessary celebration of life. Or comparing to revolutions, or to freedom struggles to show that disasters are a break with the past, ‘mini utopias’ of a sort. That is surely more than just ‘stretching an argument’. In these aspects the book is an overkill. Even lunacy, at times.

Indeed, as Richard says in his review, this is the Oprah version. But, in spite of all the criticisms above, it is still an important book. Sometimes the best way to convey to people that the horrid hell of a disaster aftermath is still a path to possible escape is to draw upon real stories, and present them in as empathetic a manner as possible. Disaster is never terribly far away. Knowing how people behave in disasters is fundamental to knowing how to prepare for them. And what can be learned about resilience, social and psychological response, and possibility from sudden disasters is relevant as well for the slower disasters of poverty, economic upheaval, and incremental environmental degradation as well as the abiding questions about social possibilities.

The purpose of the book is not to inform, it is to affect in a visceral fashion – you might not remember facts when the next super-cyclone hits, but you might remember a story and if that stops you from going for an axe for a second longer – enough to see the pain in another eye – the book might have served its purpose. Beliefs matter.

P.S. Of course, this review is also the Oprah version, but I was moved and I will stand by the author on this one, at least in essence, if not in full.

View all my reviews

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Posted by on November 19, 2013 in Book Reviews, Books


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