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

Solnit, Rebecca

My comments 2021-12-31


Do people in disasters generally revert to a Hobbesian state, attacking each other, fighting for resources to survive? Or do they start helping each other, sharing and caring? Rebecca Solnit documents in a journalistic fashion what happened after disasters such as the earthquake in San Francisco 1906, the earthquake in Mexico City 1985, the terrorist attack destroying the Twin Towers in New York 2001, the hurricane Katrina inundating New Orleans 2005, and several others.

Talking to many people involved in these events, she reports that the dominant reaction was to help each other out. The Hobbesian idea that people turn violent in such conditions is simply not borne out. In fact, more often than not, people came together to form impromptu organizations to help each other and others. And many say afterwards that these disasters brought out the best in them, and that their efforts were intensely meaningful and gratifying.

The problem with Solnit's text is that it is messy, especially the first third. It's eminently readable, that is not the problem. She mixes commentary, analysis and conclusions with here description of events in a way that makes it clear that she has a very definite approach, and that she wishes to make a point. I do not really have a problem with her making points, but I do have the nagging worry that her zeal makes her description of events skewed. Does she skip over those events that do not fit her ideas? This concern of mine pulls down my rating of the book.

Her critique of the Hobbesian view is explicit; she thinks it is downright false. The cases where violence occurred she attributes to so-called "elite panic", where authorities (military, police) in acted as if the stricken public were its enemies. She exemplifies with the killing of so-called looters, which most often were people simply trying to find food, water and materials to make shelter. But Solnit also reports on the white vigilantes in New Orleans who likely killed many black people when they were simply trying to pass through the "wrong" neighborhood. Now, to me this sounds like Hobbes. But Solnit does not make that connection.

Solnit views this pattern of helping each other in times of crisis as a glimpse of what society could be. She views current everyday life as a low-key permanent disaster, a kind of wet blanket smothering us, which is ripped away when a natural disaster strikes. In such circumstances we become who we really are; social, caring, egalitarian. In her analysis she refers to anarchist political philosophy, but her discussion does not go very deep. In particular, she does not try to answer the question why these spontaneous self-help and altruistic societies revert back to "normal life". Why are they not sustainable? Simply saying that this is the elite in action does not really answer the question: Why and how are these elites able to reassert their power?

Thus, her analysis is shallow. It basically just says that these societies are inspirations for another way of life. That is not enough. Although reading her book is worth while, it is also ultimately unsatisfying.