November/December 2009


A Paradise Built in Hell

THE TITLE OF Rebecca Solnit’s new book sounds uncharacteristically inspirational. Not that Solnit, an award-winning cultural critic, is a pessimist. But she is typically lauded for clear-eyed, incisive analysis, not soft-focus uplift. Here she investigates the startlingly egalitarian community responses to a range of natural and manmade disasters, focusing largely on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1917 Halifax ship explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. Those who lived through any of the more recent events may cringe, anticipating bromides on human goodness and the American spirit. I did: I live four blocks north of the World Trade Center site and was evacuated from my home for over a month. I picked up Paradise with trepidation born of jingoistic overload.

Fortunately, Solnit is too keen a thinker to fall prey to sentiment. Her book tells the stories of ordinary people who respond to extraordinary situations in what might seem like extraordinary ways — but are actually, according to Solnit’s argument, quite typical. Her examples inspire, not as a stirring catalogue of good-doing but as a thoughtful assessment of what the human response to disaster can tell us about our political and social structures. What disaster reveals, she argues, is the human longing for purpose and meaning — needs unfulfilled by a life devoted to getting and spending.

Increasingly, environmentalists are turning away from considering humans and the environment separately. This makes the question of human nature critical. Are we, at core, selfish, greedy savages? Or are we cooperative, self-sacrificing nurturers? Solnit believes the response of ordinary citizens to catastrophe suggests the latter. This insight is more radical than it might seem. If it is in our nature to be deeply other-directed, then our increasingly individualistic, privatized culture is thwarting our deepest and best selves. In fact, the paradoxical joy many people find in tragic disasters suggests what’s normally lacking: “In a society in which participation, agency, purposefulness and freedom are all adequately present,” she writes, “a disaster would only be a disaster.”

In some ways this book completes the picture painted by Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine. Klein outlines how authoritarian governments, backed by conservative economists, utilize disaster to force privatization and unjust social reforms. Solnit describes how disaster can lead to the opposite: citizens remaking society in a more integrated, communitarian mode. She poses this as a corrective to Klein, whose argument she calls “surprisingly disempowering.” In fact the two forces can be seen as dialectical drives unleashed by catastrophe. “At loose in disaster,” Solnit writes, “are two populations: a great majority that tends toward altruism and mutual aid and a minority whose callousness and self-interest often become a second disaster.” This minority is frequently composed of those in power. Paradise discusses at length the concept of “elite panic”: the authorities’ exaggerated fear of the mob whenever the normal social order is suspended. This fear has led to appalling miscarriages of justice, including the murder of citizens by National Guard troops in San Francisco in 1906, and by authorities and vigilante civilians in New Orleans in 2005.

Solnit handles these ugly situations with compassion and complexity. While the structure of the book begins to feel repetitive — in every case, citizens demonstrate compassion and authorities evince anxiety — this is partly the point. People will take care of themselves and others, given the opportunity. What’s startling is how quickly this impulse is squelched by the dominant culture. Her section on 9/11 is particularly good at showing how participatory problem-solving and shared trauma were quickly drowned out by war-mongering and nationalist grandstanding — a transition regretted by most New Yorkers and elided by the mainstream media.

In laying out her examples, Solnit sheds light on movements and individuals given short shrift by history. We learn about Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, anarchist Peter Kropotkin, and the philosophies of both William James and the Diggers, British utopian farmers. But the core of the book is the argument that disaster shows us fine truths about ourselves, truths we should use to remake our lives in ordinary times. “Disaster may offer us a glimpse,” Solnit writes, “but the challenge is to make something of it.”