Rebecca Solnit explores how our responses to disasters can point the way to a better society. (A review of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.)
Published in the November 2009 issue of The Progressive.
How do we react to crises? When author Rebecca Solnit started talking with people about disasters they have lived through, she was regaled with stories of “Midwestern snow days, New York City blackouts, oppressive heat in Southern India”—along with earthquakes in California, and economic collapse in Argentina. But instead of hearing tales of trauma and terror, she watched people glow in recounting memories of candlelit public spaces, neighbors with whom they bonded for the first time, and kitchens that freely offered food to strangers. “It was the joy on their faces that surprised me,” she writes.
In A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit probes several notorious disasters and ends up with a series of contrarian insights that not only should change our understanding of people in crisis and strategies for aid—they also suggest that disaster communities provide a glimpse into a type of real-life utopianism that can extend beyond the immediate aftermath of catastrophe.
People caught in disaster are apt to act with more purpose than panic, and in a manner more collective than selfish, Solnit contends. “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,” she writes. Clearly, there is anguish among those whose homes are gutted by fire or deluged by floodwater, along with tremendous grief among those whose loved ones are killed. But the connectedness and sense of mission that arise in an emergency, Solnit argues, “bring joy even amidst death, chaos, fear, and loss.”
Hollywood imagines hysterical throngs of people screaming, pulling at their hair, and running every which way when caught in a disaster. In contrast, Solnit quotes first-hand accounts describing calm lines descending down the stairs of the burning Twin Towers on September 11, 2001. People stepped aside to make way for those carrying out injured or disabled coworkers.
Another common assumption is that all disaster victims must be immobilized by trauma—pop diagnoses of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder have flourished. Yet many who have survived crises have found them to be unexpectedly positive opportunities for personal reflection or exercises in Buddhist-style nonattachment, forcing them to focus on what is important in life.
Crises have social implications as well as personal ones. Solnit argues that the disruption of order created by disaster can point the way to a new, better society. She quotes one survivor of the terrible 1906 San Francisco earthquake: “What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward…. Mother and all our neighbors were busy from morning to night cooking hot meals. They gave away every extra garment they possessed…. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other.”
The survivor who told that story, originally as a written account in the 1930s, was Dorothy Day, whose family was living in the Bay Area during the quake. She was one of the many whose lives were profoundly shaped by the experience. She went on to found the Catholic Worker movement. Day and others like her carried a sense of solidarity nurtured by disaster into efforts to address the slower crises of poverty, inequality, and exploitation.
Solnit’s anecdote about Day—a story of how small gestures of kindness ultimately gave rise to one of the most significant movements in the American Catholic left—recalls her 2004 Hope in the Dark, one of Solnit’s ten previous books. There she beautifully contends that progress rarely comes in predictable, linear strides. Rather, it is often an unforeseen consequence of hopeful, determined actions largely overlooked by conventional histories.
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Probably the weakest element of Naomi Klein’s often-strong The Shock Doctrine is her suggestion that disasters inevitably work to the advantage of reactionaries. That book ominously quotes Milton Friedman arguing that “only a crisis, actual or perceived, produces real change”—as if this were an inherently right-wing proposition.
In A Paradise Built in Hell, Solnit takes Klein to task for presenting extreme crises as moments in which, in Klein’s words, “We no longer know who or where we are. We become like children, we look for daddies.” Solnit counters with examples such as the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, which emboldened popular outrage at government corruption and helped to break the back of one-party rule in that country.
Solnit overlaps more closely with Klein when she describes the responses of the powerful to crisis situations. Elites in disaster situations are likely to paint a dark picture of human nature and to respond accordingly. Crowds of selfish, panicked, unruly, and dangerous people are ones that need to be controlled, preferably with a firm hand. In post-Katrina New Orleans, these tendencies were on full display. The callous and militarized official response exposed ugly fissures of racism and set loose waves of vigilantism, sometimes officially sanctioned, against black men presumed to be looters.
Of course, the actual behavior of citizens in crises points to far more noble aspects of humanity, and these, too, have policy implications. A citizenry that is, as Solnit writes, “resilient, resourceful, generous, empathetic, and brave” is one that should be enlisted in relief efforts and empowered by authorities to take individual initiative.
Ultimately, A Paradise Built in Hell is not a work fixated on any single argument. One of Solnit’s earlier books, Wanderlust, bills itself as “a history of walking,” and the writing style of her new work also reflects a love of a good, roundabout stroll. She dots her narrative with perceptive commentary on the selfishness of sitcom characters, the nature of pragmatist philosophy, Wordsworth’s reflections on the French Revolution, and the cultural importance of the lucha libre—Mexican pro wrestling.
Solnit is willing to digress in order to remark on the experience of falling in love or the limits of therapy (“the scope of the psychological generally leaves out the soul, the creator, and the citizen, those aspects of being human that extend into realms beyond private life”). One could say that A Paradise Built in Hell is a treatise on natural disasters. One could also say it is a reflection on human nature, or a book about anarchy, state power, utopia, urbanism, and social change. That it is all of these is a genuine pleasure.
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An aphorism frequently attributed to Anton Chekhov states, “Any idiot can face a crisis; it is this day-to-day living that wears you out.” Solnit expresses similar sentiments at several points. Yet if she convincingly shines a light on the virtuous impulses that surface in emergencies, her writing grows hazier when illuminating how disaster communities might transform into pillars of lasting change.
She writes, “One of the fundamental questions of revolution is whether change at the level of institutions and systemic power is enough or whether the goal is to change hearts, minds, and acts of everyday life.” Solnit clearly leans toward the latter. For those who have spent any time with the literature or culture of contemporary anarchism, some of her enthusiasms will feel predictable, and some a bit dated. Solnit repeatedly references the idea of the Temporary Autonomous Zone, conceived by theorist Hakim Bey and popular in the 1990s, which posits that short-lived countercultural gatherings and impromptu street parties hold the seeds of ongoing liberation. In Solnit’s joyful but blurry formulation, carnivalesque moments of solidarity allow people to return to society “with renewed power and ties.”
Solnit allows that good governance can make a difference. She speaks well of some local measures in San Francisco, and, citing Oxfam, she favorably compares Cuba’s citizen-based disaster response systems to those of other Caribbean islands. But she usually evinces distaste for party politics and public policy. When she looks for inspiring examples of change in Latin America, she does not mention any models from the dozen-or-so progressive governments that voters throughout the region have pushed into power since the year 2000 on mandates to break with “free market” orthodoxy and better serve the poor. Rather, she celebrates the Zapatistas, whose uprising in Chiapas began in 1994. This is a worthy social movement, no doubt, but also one far more romanticized and revered on the international scene than in Mexico itself, where a variety of questionable political decisions over the past decade have made ski-masked figures such as Subcomandante Marcos increasingly marginal.
Of course, uncertainty about how to convert crisis into sustained progress is not a weakness unique to anarchism. Plenty of radical economists who have predicted market breakdowns for years are currently struggling to make arguments more productive than “I told you so.” And activists who held the latent belief that the next great economic downturn would inevitably spur revolution must now witness conservative tea-baggers and town-hall criers brim with passionate intensity. Strategies for how to capitalize on the moment come hard.
For her part, Solnit suggests that in the core of our beings, we already know what to do. She argues that those who advocate a society based on cooperation and mutual assistance are tapping a stream that runs deep within human nature. They are “not inventing anything new but reclaiming something ancient.” Although many of us may regard this reassuring notion as inadequate to the demands of today’s politics, we should desperately hope that it is true nonetheless.