The author of Men Explain Things to Me explores the moments of altruism and generosity that arise in the aftermath of disaster
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.
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.
Excellent Insights With Deep Perspective of Human Nature
Ms. Solnit's book doesn't pull punches (pardon the cliche). Her stories about people in disasters the world over show the other side of disasters, the side of humanity that stands up ready to do anything to help. We are all so ready to let authorities take charge of emergencies even in the face of recent past disaster responses that were so horribly managed. Yet the stories in this book resonate with the incredible bravery and care that ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances take upon themselves to help those in most need after a disaster.
For me, the individual stories Ms. Solnit tells throughout the book are the most compelling. Interviews with some of these extraordinary citizens are simply captivating. The studies related to disaster response and recovery are interesting, but only secondarily so. Although they serve to prove the validity that the experiences of the people in these stories are not the exception, but are more common than we might believe.
The book does border on the edge of trying to make a case for a utopian anarchist society. But each time the author wanders off in that direction, she comes back to reality quickly and gets back to the compelling stories and research around disaster responses.
I very much enjoyed the book and since I work for a small San Francisco nonprofit in the disaster preparedness, response and recovery sector, I appreciated the wealth of information even more. But this is a great book for any person hoping to learn about the possibilities our society holds hidden in the masses until disaster strikes.