on a paradise built in hell

An expansive work of cultural history, Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell triumphs the empathy of civil society in the wake of disaster.

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Across five extensively researched sections, Solnit surveys local and state reactions to the world’s major environmental and manmade disasters since the dawn of the twentieth century, from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the Halifax Explosion in 1917 to the Chernobyl Disaster in 1986. The author’s global perspective is breathtaking and allows her to convincingly argue her case.

The book’s thesis is clear: across cultures most residents of places resourcefully react to disaster, aspiring to help out their neighbors, even as institutional authorities, the wealthy, and the media panic, frame the masses as a savage mob, and unleash brutal force on the citizenry in an attempt to reestablish the unjust status quo.

Contrary to the elite’s racist and classist claims, Solnit contends, most people are not just capable of effectively governing themselves but deeply desire the kind of dignified work and strong sense of solidarity that arise following an unanticipated disaster. The ability to maintain both can lead to lasting social and political change, just as the failure to so do can lead to disastrous consequences that intensify injustice.

Part of what makes the book so memorable is that it livens up dry concepts from the field of disaster studies. Again and again studies have demonstrated that people don’t panic in disasters, but scholars’ language is dry and their work inaccessible; most people unsurprisingly buy into the media’s sensational accounts, from Hollywood disaster films to the 24/7 news cycle’s fear mongering about looters.

In lucid prose Solnit offers a series of vivid case studies that illustrate concepts like mutual aid, tend-and-befriend, and post-traumatic growth. Readers learn about how San Franciscans in 1906 opened efficient citizen-run kitchens and took great pleasure in helping each other, rather than being served by the state. Rather than collapsing in despair after an earthquake wrecked Mexico City, the third section details, indignant citizens organized and campaigned for quality housing and a multi-party state.

Solnit repeatedly returns to the idea that we ought to struggle to preserve the widespread sense of solidarity that organically arises following a disaster, in order to construct a greater society. Engaging with thinkers as diverse as philosopher William James and activist Gioconda Belli, Solnit proposes civic passion as a constructive alternative to war, offering the same acute sense of urgency, meaning, and community with none of the violence, cruelty, or injustice.

A Paradise Built in Hell regrettably doesn’t focus on South Asia’s recent tsunamis, or much consider how climate change soon will lead to a perpetual state of disaster across the world, but its points are well thought out and difficult to dispute. The book culminates a decade’s worth of insightful cultural history on the author’s part, and it’s well worth checking out.

11 thoughts on “on a paradise built in hell

  1. This sounds like essential reading indeed! Is this the book that resulted in your added Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine to your stack (is that this month or next month?)?

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    1. Strangely enough I selected both not realizing how related they are (Solnit namechecks Klein several times, and in This Changes Everything, Klein Solnit). I understand criticisms of Solnit’s optimism, but it’s just so refreshing.

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  2. Another terrific review! Haven’t read this one, but Hope in the Dark and various incisive essays have been, along with political commentary by Naomi Klein, some of the most biting and inspiring sources during this agonizing trump era.

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    1. Thanks Dee! I couldn’t agree more. Klein and Solnit are so inspirational—they don’t turn away from how terrible things are (and have been) but they refuse to become numb in response.

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  3. What you say I believe is also true of Japan after the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

    I have just come off a Judicial Review case to stop airport expansion in the South East (we lost). Although numerous seats had been set aside in the courtroom for the press, they remained empty for the entire fortnight of the case, filling up only for the judgement. The papers then printed a few predictable dreary soundbites and lost interest.

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    1. I believe so as well – the exclusion of any tsunamis in this felt off. Sorry to hear about your case. It’s disheartening how misleading and fragmented mainstream media’s coverage can be.

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  4. I do love to see people rise up after a disaster, because it reminds me that humans do care. Why, though, can that care not translate into daily care for others? That’s the part I don’t get. Whether it’s increased taxes to better fund schools and social services or committing to an act of service weekly, whether there is a disaster or not, we’re not good to each other consistently.

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    1. Sadly true, and something Solnit touches upon but not extensively. Things in the US have been deteriorating for decades, though I’m hopeful that the anti-Trump backlash will (soon?) translate into electoral gains and lasting policy changes aimed at reviving social services and the public sphere.

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