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Cover image for A paradise built in hell : the extraordinary communities that arise in disasters
A paradise built in hell : the extraordinary communities that arise in disasters

Publication Information:
New York : Viking, 2009.
Physical Description:
x, 353 pages ; 24 cm
Prelude : falling together -- A millennial good fellowship : the San Francisco earthquake -- Halifax to Hollywood : the great debate -- Carnival and revolution : Mexico City's earthquake -- The city transfigured : New York in grief and glory -- New Orleans : common grounds and killers -- The doorway in the ruins.
Why is it that in the aftermath of a disaster, people suddenly become altruistic, resourceful, and brave? Award-winning author Solnit explores this phenomena, looking at major calamities from the past 100 years.


Call Number
303.485 SOLNIT 2009
303.485 SOLNIT

On Order



A startling investigation of what people do in disasters and why it matters

Why is it that in the aftermath of a disaster? whether manmade or natural?people suddenly become altruistic, resourceful, and brave? What makes the newfound communities and purpose many find in the ruins and crises after disaster so joyous? And what does this joy reveal about ordinarily unmet social desires and possibilities?

In A Paradise Built in Hell , award-winning author Rebecca Solnit explores these phenomena, looking at major calamities from the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco through the 1917 explosion that tore up Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. She examines how disaster throws people into a temporary utopia of changed states of mind and social possibilities, as well as looking at the cost of the widespread myths and rarer real cases of social deterioration during crisis. This is a timely and important book from an acclaimed author whose work consistently locates unseen patterns and meanings in broad cultural histories.

Author Notes

Rebecca Solnit writes extensively on photography and landscape. She is a contributing editor to Art Issues and Creative Camera and is the author of three books. She has contributed essays to several museum catalogues including Crimes and Splendors: The Desert Cantos of Richard Misrach and the Whitney Museum's Beat Culture and the New America. She was a 1993 recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 6

Publisher's Weekly Review

Natural and man-made disasters can be "utopias" that showcase human solidarity and point the way to a freer society, according this stimulating contrarian study. Solnit (River of Shadows) reproves civil defense planners, media alarmists and Hollywood directors who insist that disasters produce terrified mobs prone to looting, murder and cannibalism unless controlled by armed force and government expertise. Surveying disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she shows that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other. Indeed, the main problem in such emergencies, she contends, is the "elite panic" of officials who clamp down with National Guardsmen and stifling regulations. Solnit falters when she generalizes her populist brief into an anarchist critique of everyday society that lapses into fuzzy what-ifs and uplifting volunteer testimonials. Still, this vividly written, cogently argued book makes a compelling-and timely-case for the ability of ordinary people to collectively surmount the direst of challenges. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Kirkus Review

Historical and philosophical investigation into human responses to disaster and the possibilities for community and democratic participation that can arise from them. Solnit (Storming the Gates of Paradise: Landscapes for Politics, 2007, etc.) examines what disasters tell us about how human societies work, where they fail or succeed during and after moments of crisis and how the small-scale utopias that sometimes emerge in the midst of tragedy might offer hope for larger change. The author's central thesiswhich she develops by drawing on a wide range of philosophers and writers, including William James, Viktor Frankl, Mikhail Bakhtin and William Wordsworthis that disasters reveal the human ability to imagine and spontaneously create communities that fulfill our desire for "connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness." Relying on extensive archival research and oral histories, Solnit considers community responses to a variety of disasters, including the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the Halifax military explosion of 1917 and the bombing of London during World War II, as well as lethal heat-waves, terrorist attacks, nuclear accidents, hurricanes and other natural disasters. The author looks at stories of both community success and failure. In the cases of failure, she reveals how rigid hierarchical structures, elite panic and pre-existing social dysfunctions complicated direct citizen action, even as these crises "demonstrat[e] the viability of a dispersed, decentralized system of decision making." The author imbues her philosophically rich text with an intimate mode of self-reflection, and she provides telling details of her firsthand encounters with the individuals whose stories have inspired her work. A serious and occasionally somber meditation on how disasters bring about the possibility for societal change. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* Life-and-death disasters put us to the test. Do we help others, or are we concerned only with ourselves? Are we bewildered by abrupt, terrifying change, or do we feel a giddy sense of liberation? Solnit scrutinizes the aftermath of five major catastrophes in search of clues to our core selves. Although she in no way diminishes the tragedies of large-scale disasters, her focus is on the great majority of people who are unharmed, resolute, and generous in their efforts to aid those in need. A creative, independent-minded intellectual and gracefully provocative writer with 10 previous books, Solnit describes the earthquakes in San Francisco in 1906 and Mexico City in 1985, the largest manmade explosion in history before nuclear weapons in Halifax in 1917 (an astonishing chapter), September 11 in New York City, and Katrina-slammed New Orleans. In each case, she tracks down vivid eyewitness accounts and analyzes the way each crisis launched or accelerated social change. Through forays into philosophy, religion, Hollywood, carnivals, and revolutions, along with a glimpse into the future of climate-change-generated disasters, Solnit forges a fresh vision of our capacity for rising from the rubble to cast off dismal societies and create paradise.--Seaman, Donna Copyright 2009 Booklist

New York Review of Books Review

IN his journals, Jack Kerouac recalled riding on a bus through North Dakota in 1949, when snow and ice brought the highway to a halt. From a nearby town came "crews of eager young men" who "pitched in" through the "attritive, swirling, arctic-like night." Kerouac was struck by their selflessness, their willingness to help strangers of whom they had "no need." "Where in the effete-thinking East," he wrote, "would men work for others, for nothing, at midnight in howling freezing gales?" He concluded with a koan of sorts. "Men work against each other only when it is safe to abandon men - only when and where." Kerouac was, in essence, asking a favorite question of social psychologists: Under what conditions are people willing to help others? Urbanites, or the social dynamics of urbanism, have been particularly implicated in these inquiries, whether by "diffusion of responsibility" - the more people who are around, the less any one person feels compelled to act - or "information overload," the idea that city people must filter and limit what they take in, including appeals for help. But every so often comes a moment when the normal rules of life are suspended, when some kind of force brings suffering, deprivation or, at the very least, extreme inconvenience. Given the normal travails of city life, one might reasonably expect the social fabric to rend. But ask any New Yorker about, say, the blackout of 2003, and you're likely to get not a shudder of horror but wistful reminiscences about people spontaneously directing traffic when the signals went dark. As Rebecca Solnit documents in "A Paradise Built in Hell," a landmark work that gives an impassioned challenge to the social meaning of disasters, this same sort of positive feeling has emerged in far more precarious circumstances, from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to Hurricane Katrina. Disasters, for Solnit, do not merely put us in view of apocalypse, but provide glimpses of utopia. They do not merely destroy, but create. "Disasters are extraordinarily generative," she writes. As the prevailing order - which she elliptically characterizes as advanced global capitalism, full of anomie and isolation - collapses, another order takes shape: "In its place appears a reversion to improvised, collaborative, cooperative and local society." These "disaster communities" represent something akin to the role William James claimed for "the utopian dreams" of social justice: "They help to break the general reign of hardness, and are slow leavens of a better order." Solnit is an exemplar of that perpetually endangered species, the free-ranging public intellectual, bound to no institution or academic orthodoxy. As in her previous works - most notably "River of Shadows," a study of the photographer Eadweard Muybridge that opens out into a consideration of time, motion and the American West - there is here a wonderful confluence of unexpected connections. And so we find James, teaching at Stanford University at the time of the 1906 earthquake, wading into the rubble. He was struck by two things: one was the "rapidity of the improvisation of order out of chaos"; the second was that "the pathetic way of feeling great disasters belongs rather to the point of view of people at a distance." But the heroism of ordinary people is only part of Solnit's study. The larger, and more troubling, questions that emerge in "A Paradise Built in Hell" concern our tendency to assume that people will not act this way and the official responses that come out of this belief. A meta-narrative governing official response to the various disasters Solnit examines, from the industrial explosion that devastated Halifax in 1917 to the Mexico City earthquake of 1985 to New York on 9/11, is that cities wracked by disaster need to be protected from rampaging mobs, that government needs to suppress the panicked masses and save the day. But as Solnit illustrates, through an absorbing study of the academic subfield of "disaster sociology," these Hobbesian (and Hollywood) beliefs are seldom true. Hurricane Katrina: A disabled woman is rescued in Pascagoula, Miss., Aug. 29, 2005. First, official emergency responders are rarely the first people to respond to an emergency. Second, the central commandand-control model often misinterprets the reality on the ground. Third, the hero motif neglects the role of social capital, a soft-power variable that is played down in disaster management but which might help answer such interesting questions as why Cuba, in contrast to its neighbors (including the United States), responds so well to hurricanes, or why the 2003 New York City blackout was calm while its 1977 equivalent was not. Lastly, there's the panic myth. A sociologist who set out to research panic in disasters found it was a "vanishingly rare phenomenon," with cooperation and rational behavior the norm. More typically, panic comes from the top - hence the reaction of officials during the Three Mile Island evacuation: "They're afraid people are going to panic," another disaster scholar notes, "so they hold the information close to the vest about how much trouble the reactor is in," putting the public in greater danger. A weightier charge by the disaster sociologists, one echoed by Solnit, is that "elites fear disruption of the social order, challenges to their legitimacy." Thus, Solnit argues, the official response in 1906 San Francisco - where the subsequent fire caused more damage than the quake kept volunteers "who might have supplied the power to fight the fire by hand" away, relying instead on "reckless technological tactics." In the aftermath of Katrina, there were myriad accounts of paramedics being kept from delivering necessary medical care in various parts of the city because of false reports of violence. Whether this was elites defending against challenges to their legitimacy or simple incompetence is unclear; as Solnit observes, the "monolith of the state" is actually a collection of agencies whose coordination may be illusory. A PARTICULAR problem in modern disasters is that many people get information from a different kind of first responder: the media. Solnit argues that the exaggerated accounts of lawlessness in New Orleans, circulated in Mobius fashion by elected leaders and some reporters, obscured - and even discouraged - the far more common acts of altruism. Her description of looting as mostly vital "requisitioning" may be optimistic, but she is right to question the moral calculus that seems so often to put property in front of people in disasters. For all the talk of violent mobs, she argues that "no evidence exists that anyone was shot or killed by the supposed gangs," and in one of the most unsettling sections, she cites testimony from self-styled white vigilantes who boasted of killing AfricanAmericans. This may or may not be true, but for many it is the myths of the Superdome that endure. For all its power, "A Paradise Built in Hell" leaves a number of questions unresolved. How are disaster communities, here romantically depicted as harbingers of utopia, different from other forms of spontaneous and deeply felt community operating under real or perceived duress, from combat units to millenarian cults? If the worst events can bring out the best in people, why can't that impulse be sustained in everyday life? As Solnit notes, "the real question is not why this brief paradise of mutual aid and altruism appears but rather why it is ordinarily overwhelmed by another world order." Is it, as Solnit too glancingly notes, the "conundrum we call human nature"? In a fascinating aside, she considers the traditional Carnival, described by Mikhail Bakhtin as the "temporary liberation . . . from the established order," and compares it to the communities created in disaster. As heady as it can be, would Carnival feel so energizing if it were the norm, and not the brief subversion of that norm? Tom Vanderbilt's book "Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)" has just been released in paperback.

Choice Review

This is an important book. Major disasters obviously create chaotic conditions, but contrary to popular images of a Hobbesian world of individual survival amid panic and disorder, Solnit argues that the immediate hours and days following disasters are marked by altruism and even joy. That joy comes not from the event itself--which is obviously terrible--but from the spirit of community and sense of purpose that emerges as individuals struggle to help themselves and others survive. Using examples drawn from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1917 munitions explosion in Halifax, the London Blitz, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, the attacks of 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina, Solnit highlights again and again that rather than being scared, disordered, and looking for authority figures to guide them, individual citizens step up in times of crisis and, in doing so, provide glimpses of a different social order defined by concern for the welfare of fellow citizens. The best evidence of panic, Solnit argues, comes from elites whose foundations of authority are challenged by the disaster. Solnit is a terrific writer, and students at all levels will find the book accessible. Summing Up: Highly recommended. All levels/libraries. M. Mulcahy Loyola College in Maryland

Library Journal Review

Prize-winning author Solnit (A Field Guide to Getting Lost) delivers an insightful glimpse into the compelling human interest stories behind five major disasters: the San Fransisco earthquake of 1906, the Halifax explosion of 1917, Mexico City's 1985 earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. But more than just the stories, she turns her attention to the larger subject of the sociology of disasters and the incredible community spirit that can arise amid disaster. In contrast to media portrayals of negative human behavior in times of distress, Solnit believes that humans have an intrinsic need to help each other and work together in communities forged by disaster. These surreal situations demonstrate how deeply most of us desire connection, participation, altruism, and purposefulness. Thus the startling joy in disasters. Solnit wonders if some of these ephemeral moments could be recaptured in our normal day-to-day routines, thus enhancing our sense of community. VERDICT Despite wandering into some murky what-ifs, this book offers a timely study in community during these uncertain times.-Holly S. Hebert, Rochester Coll., Rochester Hills, MI (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.