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

Disaster Politics

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (New York: Viking, 2009).

Disasters, more or less by definition, kill people and destroy property. But that is not all they do. They also void contracts, disrupt schedules, and cause organizations to fail. They interrupt daily life. They undermine our usual assumptions.

What happens then? Do people panic? Do they become irrational and helpless? Do they revert to a kind of animal state, amoral, selfish, short-sighted, and fierce?

Rebecca Solnit’s latest book, A Paradise Built in Hell, examines the evidence of recent history, looking at public behavior in numerous disasters of the last hundred years – from the San Francisco earthquake (and then fire) of 1906, to the Halifax explosion of 1917, to the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, and New York on the morning of September 11, 2001, ending with 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. She finds, with astonishing consistency, that when the normal institutions fail people don’t panic, break down, hoard goods, attack passersby, or otherwise fulfill the Mad Max prophecies. Instead, they prove themselves “resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and brave” (8). When institutions fail, people build community.

Solnit, writing in the tradition of anarchist geographer Peter Kropotkin, suggests an evolutionary basis for such sociability, arguing that species capable of cooperation have an evolutionary advantage, based on mutual aid developing as “a default operating principle” (313). But she also considers the question from a more spiritual perspective. While never applied in a religiously doctrinal sense, the rhetoric of “paradise,” “hell,” and being “our brothers’ keepers” pervades the text, beginning of course with the title.

Whether spiritually or scientifically construed, the fundamental question is one of human nature. Solnit contends that “there are many human natures, shaped by culture and circumstance,” and that “the majority of human natures on display in disaster may not suggest who we are ordinarily or always, but they do suggest who we could be and tend to be in these circumstances” (49). She also remarks:

Two things matter most about these ephemeral moments. First, they demonstrate what is possible or, perhaps more accurately, latent: the resilience and generosity of those around us and their ability to improvise another kind of society. Second, they demonstrate how deeply most of us desire connection, participation, altruism, and  purposefulness. (305f)

These desires lie deep within us, though, in “normal” times it is difficult to adequately express or fulfill them.

If we are in some ways Hobbesian creatures – isolated, selfish, and cruel – it is because the capitalist market both demands and rewards just such characteristics. However, when the normal routine is interrupted and the institutions of society suddenly disappear, even if through adversity or tragedy, the result is still a kind of freedom. The crisis offers a reprieve from the constraints of our social system. And given the choice, people tend to behave in ways almost calculated to confound the authoritarian predictions: cooperatively, compassionately, and with striking courage and intelligence.

Well, most people. Solnit notes that the largest exception consists of those trying desperately to preserve or return to the status quo ante – “those who believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism” (2). These are, in the usual case, exactly those people who present themselves as our protectors – the agents of the state. In their efforts to regain control, the authorities tend to treat the public as the enemy.

In most of the cases Solnit describes, the state prioritized the protection of property over human life, shooting looters rather than launching rescue operations. In many cases, police and soldiers actively interfered with any efforts the survivors employed to aid themselves. And a great deal of the time, the authorities behaved not only meanly, but foolishly, making the humanitarian crisis needlessly worse – withholding vital information, trapping people in dangerous areas, or (in San Francisco) spreading the fire they were meant to be fighting. All of these tendencies, and their terrible consequences, were on display following, for example, Hurricane Katrina.

Also, in New Orleans, cops and soldiers were supplemented by racist vigilantes who blocked escape routes and shot Black men more or less at random. “Here was the marauding, murdering gang the media had been obsessed with,” Solnit sardonically notes, “except that it was made up of old white people, and its public actions went unnoticed” (253).

Solnit explains these anti-social exceptions with reference to the ideology of the people involved. “Beliefs matter,” she says repeatedly. “You had to believe, first, that all African American men are criminals and intruders and, second, that people in a disaster have a pressing interest in acquiring private property, to act as the vigilantes did” (257).

At the level of the individual – cop, soldier, or armed property owner – such simple, delusional prejudice is certainly a factor. But at the level of the state, I think the theory of “elite panic” (a phrase Solnit borrows from sociologist Kathleen Tierney) gives the authorities too much credit – or perhaps too little. It assumes that their intentions are good but that the state’s attitude toward the citizenry fundamentally changes in the midst of disaster, that the authorities succumb to distrust and antagonism at precisely the moment that community members learn to cooperate, to trust and rely on each other. Misguided, unnecessary, counter-productive violence results.

But maybe, just as disaster sometimes reveals the best qualities within human beings, those virtues that too often lay dormant, it also exposes the worst qualities of our social systems. Maybe the violence typical of the elite response is not a by-product of the disaster, but an expression of the normal relationships of power, stripped of the sheen of legitimacy. When the usual social framework fails, inequality can only be re-imposed by force. But then, wouldn’t this suggest that violence is always implicit in these relationships, even when it is not made manifest? If so, then disasters offer, not only a glimpse of a world without our existing institutions, but also an insight into the present society that they structure.

And here is another reason why disasters matter: There are more catastrophes, both economic and ecological, looming on the horizon. A great many people are going to suffer – some inevitably, some needlessly – while states fight to preserve their sovereign rule and corporations callously, cynically, pursue higher profits.

But perhaps we, the rest of us, can seek out something else instead. Perhaps, just past the horizon, on the far edge of the storm, we will find the shores of utopia. Or perhaps, just as we are always in the midst of disaster – this disaster called capitalism – we are also always in the process of building paradise.

Nothing is assured, of course. No paradise is inevitable. But Solnit has assembled a volume of evidence that utopias are possible, and that they sometimes arise under the most surprising conditions.

2010 Kristian Williams, Author
American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination; Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America

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