A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster Paperback – 31 Aug 2010
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About the Author
Rebecca Solnit is the author of numerous books, including "Hope in the Dark," "River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West," "Wanderlust: A History of Walking," and "As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art," which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. In 2003, she received the prestigious Lannan Literary Award.
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Solnit's core argument -- that we can find hints of a humanist-style utopia in the world's worst disasters -- is not only provocative but fascinating, as she amasses a host of evidence to prove her point from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 up to Hurricane Katrina nearly a century later, disasters that range from the Halifax explosion during World War 1 to the terrorist attacks on 9/11 in both New York and Washington. In the midst of these disasters, as she chronicles repeatedly, people -- ordinary individuals, not institutions -- rose to the occasion. Rather than panicking, they acted, whether that meant battling to save lives or simply to reach out to strangers in random acts of love and compassion. With disaster, paradoxically, can come joy, since in disaster it is possible for those of us not immediately afflicted to rediscover a sense of community and purpose that is otherwise absent from our lives. "The desires and possibilities awakened are so powerful that they shine even from wreckage, carnage and ashes," Solnit writes.
Solnit was driven to write this book by her experiences in California's Loma Prieta earthquake; I was compelled to pick it up by my own experiences in the heart of lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001. I witnessed sights that continue to give me nightmares, but experienced (and to some extent participated in) the kind of reforging of a spirit of community of the kind that she describes. I had stranded strangers camped out in my apartment, and, after trekking across the Brooklyn Bridge to my home, benefitted from the help of others (like the woman standing with a roll of paper towels making makeshift nose filters to block out the smoke and stench wafting over us).
What this book does, however, goes well beyond simply chronicling the many and very compelling personal stories that form part the evidence supporting Solnit's case. The phenomenon of joyousness and purpose found amidst destruction naturally raises the question in her mind of why it takes a disaster to do this -- and why it is that the preconception is that we will all behave like headless chickens or -- worse -- as violent lunatics in response to a crisis. So she formulates her second theory, one that is more provocative still -- that of 'elite panic'. Those with a vested stake in the status quo, whether they are politicians, corporations or even established charitable organizations, have found that disasters can be dangerous for them. After all, earthquakes in Nicaragua and Mexico exposed and made unacceptable the immense shortcomings of both countries' political regimes (in the former case, the Somoza dictatorship, in the latter, single party rule by Mexico's PRI). When a disaster suddenly transforms a society that we inhabit, it opens our eyes and imaginations to new possibilities -- ones that are not always welcomed by those in whose interests the previous society worked. (No wonder George Bush told us all to just go shopping...) Elite panic, as she labels the reaction, manifests itself in a rupture of the social bonds, in this case, the bonds tying most of us to those in a position of authority. Her argument becomes more provocative still, as she argues that "the person in the elite position does something that creates greater danger", whether it is shooting people carrying bags in case they are really rioters and looters, concealing crucial information (Three Mile Island) or, in Mexico City, assisting owners of garment factories to rescue their expensive equipment while leaving seamstresses trapped in the rubble to die.
This isn't a perfect book. Solnit is at her best when she explores her primary thesis -- that of the disaster utopia -- and links it to psychological and philosophical thinking throughout history. The 'elite panic' argument is at once more provocative and less well developed, but perhaps that is inevitable; I see this book as the starting point in what could be an important debate revolving around the issue of what is the meaning of community and coexistence.
More provocative questions flow from this and are left only partly addressed. For instance, Solnit chronicles ways in which some of the changes that emerged from disaster utopias have led to lasting changes. But while she displays her passion for the grassroots and improvised solutions and tactics, most of those legacies have been institutional in nature, such as the formation of a union of seamstresses in Mexico. Left unaddressed is the question of whether those new institutions, despite their grassroots origins in disaster, can remain organic when the initial sense of urgency fades. As political history in Britain and elsewhere has shown us, unions, too, can become part of the political elite. Similarly, Solnit appears to argue in favor of finding ways to craft similar grassroots solutions to all problems on an ongoing basis. It's easy to toss that out as a utopian ideal, but when the sense of external threat passes, so too does the overwhelming urge to bond with your neighbor, previously a stranger. I was stunned by the unusual politeness and warmth that swept across New York in the aftermath of 9/11, but that didn't last long. (And just today, someone assumed I was sarcastic when I thanked them for holding a door open for me, and starting screaming at me... ah yes, the normal New York!) So the broader questions remain of how to handle conflict in more normalized times, when at least some people are not longer willing to relinquish their own self interest in the broader cause of social utopia. Similarly, like it or not we do live in a global world; I suspect there is a limit to the extent that we could manage that world by acting solely in ways that Solnit would embrace as part of her world view. (She emerges as a big fan of anarchists like Kropotkin; it was a pleasure to find an accurate representation of what anarchism is -- not chaos and random violence of the kind seen in fiction like A Clockwork Orange, but rather self-determination and egalitarianism.)
After spending several days thinking about this book once I'd finished reading it, I ended up thinking that it is far more valuable for what it does accomplish than would be reflected if I didn't give it a 4.5 star rating. Had Solnit remained as thoughtful and balanced in her view of the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina as in the other disasters she chronicles, and had she put forward in a more consistent matter thoughts about ways that people can retain a sense of community, purpose and joy when the disaster passes or how to create that spirit in the absence of a disaster, it would have been a perfect five-star book. (The latter elements are there, but in a scattered and sometimes unfocused way throughout, and then in a breathless and short conclusion.)
Highly recommended to anyone interested in current affairs, political philosophy, etc. The arguments will be particularly appealing to Green Party members and other advocates of alternative societal and political arrangements, and probably unappealing to libertarians. Still, Solnit's analysis is compelling and whether you end by embracing her world view wholeheartedly or dismissing it with scorn, I'd recommend reading this. It's great food for thought, and deserves a wide audience, of the kind that in the past has flocked to books like Fukuyama's treatise on the demise of history or Samuel Huntington's argument about the clash of civilizations. (Oh yes, unlike either of those two scholarly books, it's beautifully written!) If you've already read Susan Jacoby's societal critique,The Age of American Unreason (Vintage), this is a great follow-on book.
Viewers of "The History Channel" will be familiar with its habit of broadcasting a regularly scheduled "Apocalypse Week", during which they attempt to goose the ratings by scaring the bejasus out of their viewing audience. A typical day's programming during Apocalypse Week takes one possible way in which the world might end (megavolcano explosion, meteor impact, nuclear holocaust, deadly plague, climatic catastrophe, the Rapture, Armageddon as prophesied in the Book of Revelations, insert your own favorite apocalyptic nightmare here ...) and develops it in depth. The cynicism and idiocy with which these scenarios are fleshed out cannot be overstated (e.g. alleged "experts" pontificate on whether emergency services are likely to be overextended, or whether planes will fall out of the skies, in the immediate aftermath of the Rapture; or the apocalypse is "linked" to the prophecies of Nostradamus, or the Mayan calendar; boundless idiocy runs rampant). Certain themes are common to all apocalyptic scenarios, however- in particular, a complete breakdown of the social order, with people reverting overnight to atavistic stereotypes, resorting to looting and hoarding as they fight tooth and claw for limited resources. This projected behavioral model is also popular with government and law enforcement agencies, e.g. to justify the aggressive intervention by armed law enforcement personnel with broad powers and orders to shoot to kill (think of the official response to Hurricane Katrina). It's based on a depressing and frightening view of human nature.
In "A Paradise Built in Hell" Solnit mounts a spirited argument that this pessimistic view of how people respond to catastrophe is fundamentally wrong. Instead, she argues, disasters are far more likely to bring out the best in people -- there is a natural desire to help one another, which is actually easier to put into action, given the relaxation of social barriers that often prevails in the wake of a disaster. You might go for years just nodding at that neighbor across the street, but after the earthquake/fire/blackout the two of you may just end up having a real conversation.
Solnit grounds her argument in five specific case studies:
* the San Francisco earthquake of 1906
* the 1917 explosion of the munitions ship Mont Blanc in Halifax, Nova Scotia
* Mexico City's 1985 earthquake
* the World Trade Center attacks of 2001
* Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.
There were instances where a bad situation was made worse when those in power, through fear or panic, resorted to extreme and unwarranted measures (General Funston's imposition of de facto martial law following the SF quake, where soldiers were given license to shoot to kill anyone who did not cooperate satisfactorily; FEMA's and law enforcement's response after Katrina, where citizens were treated as likely criminals rather than people who needed to be helped). The fear-mongering narrative of barely contained pandemonium often finds traction with the media, but is rarely accurate. By detailed examination of the five case studies, Solnit makes an extremely convincing argument that the "natural" response to disaster is increased cooperation, a sense of solidarity and future possibility, indeed a degree of exhilaration among most survivors.
All five examples are interesting, but her discussion of the WTC attacks and Hurricane Katrina stand out as exceptionally measured, thoughtful and thought-provoking.
This is an extraordinary, wonderful book, which I recommend to everyone.
Solnit draws most of her examples from four disasters and their aftermaths, each recounted in detail: the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the 1917 explosion of an ammunition ship in Halifax harbor that destroyed the city, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, and the World Trade Center attack on 9/11 of 2001. Other earthquakes, hurricanes, bombings, and other disasters are cited for comparison and contrast. And here's what she reports, based on extensive research by multiple scientists into the actual first-hand accounts of people who lived through disasters:
During a disaster, heroism is not particularly rare. Before a disaster, most people predict that they will panic, will react selfishly, will be cowards. It turns out not to be true. Most people don't run away from a disaster, they run towards it to see if they can help. Most people don't trample others to get away, they stop to pick each other up and help each other along. We keep being surprised by the fact that in an actual disaster, we are nearly all better people than we are in our daily lives. Disasters bring out the best in almost all of us. This is the book's single most important finding. It is extensively documented, and that's important, because most people will find it to be the most surprising.
Disaster survivors do not panic. Actual examples of people succumbing to helplessness and going catatonic, or of rushing around destructively in panic, are seldom if ever found. When people self-evacuate, they almost 100% consistently do so calmly, in an orderly fashion, and spontaneously cooperate, even at their own risk, to carry out the wounded and the disabled. Crowds of people have trampled to death the injured and the fallen in the past -- but not in disasters. And once evacuated, rather than succumbing to grief and shock, the overwhelming majority of them move purposefully about, driven by the overwhelming urge to find something useful to do. More of them do find something useful to do, within the first half a day or so, than you would imagine. Those who find something useful to do, however briefly or however little it is, consistently report feeling overcome by joy, not panic or fear or depression or any other madness.
Disaster survivors generally do not rape, loot, murder, or rob. Crime rates go down during disasters, not up. There are almost no documented examples, anywhere in human history, of people taking advantage of a disaster as an opportunity to commit crimes. Two specific examples of things that are called looting have been reported. First, if people need things from inside a home or a store to survive the first several days of a disaster and there is no one there to sell it to them or share it with them, they do take those things; but actual eyewitness accounts of disasters reveal that they are more likely to overpay, to leave money on the counter to cover what they took, than they are to steal. And secondly, there are accounts of people going into buildings that were about to be destroyed by fire or flood to take valuables out. Does it really count as stealing if someone takes a case of expensive cigars from a cigar store that is about to burn to the ground, or takes a flat screen TV out of a building that's about to go under water? Technically, yes, but that's the only extent there is of any documented "looting" in disasters.
Rich people, politicians, and soldiers, on the other hand, consistently do panic, loot, and murder, specifically out of fear that poor people will. This happens so consistently that disaster sociologists have a term for it, "elite panic." Because they fear that temporarily ungoverned people will rape, murder, loot, and rob they send in soldiers under orders to shoot to kill, and shoot to kill they do. Having been instructed to think of the survivors of the disaster as little better than animals, many soldiers abuse the survivors on little or no provocation. In particular, the US Army's reaction to disasters, foreign and domestic, turns out to be execrable, by contrast to the US Coast Guard, the only military unit reported on in the whole book that never succumbs to elite panic, no matter how much political pressure they are put under to do so. Why not? Because disasters are a big part of what the Coast Guard does for a living, which means that the Coast Guard's experienced officers are just about the only "elites" we have who have enough first-hand experience with disaster survivors to know, first hand, what the disaster sociologists had to find out through scientific research.
Even when they don't panic, "leaders" are mostly useless in a crisis. Each disaster is unique. In the first several days after a disaster, society's leaders, governors, rulers, and experts don't know who lived and who died. Among the living, they have no idea who has what skills that can be used. They don't know what resources are still available inside the disaster zone and they don't know which resources inside the zone were destroyed. They don't know what infrastructure still works and what infrastructure has failed. From roughly the 2nd hour of the disaster until at least the third day, maybe later, the only people who know these things are the disaster survivors themselves, and that's why during those first three days, ad hoc gatherings of random survivors do a better job of organizing relief kitchens, digging sanitary latrines, distributing any supplies that are available, and improvising temporary shelter than any top-down disaster response community can be.
If elite panic focuses on a single ethnic group, the result can be particularly disastrous slaughter. It doesn't have to be. San Franciscans stood up for the ethnic Chinese in 1906, and there was no slaughter. But Ray Nagin, in particular, gets singled out for the most personalized and individual hatred by Solnit; his palapable and vocal fear that his fellow black New Orleaners would descend into savagery, and his constant acceptance of and passing along of every rumor to that effect that he heard, resulted in the mobilization of multiple white racist militias who killed harmless black people who were just trying to evacuate or survive, who posed no threat to anyone, and so far the killers have gone unpunished; a similar disaster befell the Korean-ancestry residents of one Japanese city after their earthquake, when that city's local mayor, like Nagin, whipped up fear of and hatred towards them.
For many of society's outcasts and downtrodden, the disaster is not the worst day of their lives, it's the best. For the first 72 hours or so of a disaster, you don't have to worry about losing your job. You don't have to worry about whether or not you have any money. You don't have to worry about what you're going to do with the rest of your life. And a lot of people who've lived on the fringes of society, whether fringe religious groups or outcast Vietnam veterans or the homeless, are people who've accumulated the hard way an awful lot of the skills needed to cope with the sudden loss of everything. For example, after 9/11 one of the most important and popular places for mourners to gather was organized by a handful of rave promoters, assisted by a nearby Buddhist temple, and managed by a dozen or so local homeless guys who used to live in nearby alleys; in hurricane stricken southern Mississippi, one of the most important relief kitchens and disaster response centers was co-organized by a group of Christian missionaries and a group of Rainbow Family volunteers who happened to get there at about the same time. What all of those people felt was tremendous gratitude that someone finally needed the skills they happened to have.
Those are just the findings that jumped out at me the hardest, after a single reading, and Solnit is absolutely right that everybody in the world needs to hear these things, needs to know these things, needs to respond to disaster based on how people actually act, not how we're afraid they're going to act. This is a very, very important book ...
... even though, frankly, it keeps getting tiresome. It took me a long time to read this book, because of one tooth-grindingly awful flaw, and that's Solnit's personal politics. Solnit chooses to read these findings, about how people react in the first 72 hours after a city-wide disaster, as "proof" of her anarcho-communist politics, proof that what we ought to be doing is finding some way to eliminate government, eliminate money, eliminate private property, so we can all self-organize our daily ordinary lives with the joy, purpose, and improvisational brilliance that disaster survivors consistently show. I remain unconvinced, and probably so will you, which makes it increasingly wearying when, every 3 or 4 chapters, she stops talking about disasters and starts talking about some future utopia or about how we should be living our daily lives according to her. My advice is to do what I did, do what you do when anybody with an equally weak grasp on reality starts ranting about politics: smile and nod, and move along. Skim the political rants about the wonders of anarcho-communism until you get back to the meat of the book, the actual useful disaster sociology. It is absolutely worth reading past the dreary fantasy-based leftist anarchism to get all this juicy science-based sociology and psychology in one very readable place. If you aren't already susceptible to anarcho-communist utopian arguments, they're not going to infect you against your will like some disease, but the rest of the book will infect you with something you do need: the realization that in any disaster, with the exception of a handful of us who have clawed their way to the top, the rest of us are all, pretty nearly without exception, better, kinder, and more useful people than we would ever have imagined in advance.
You should buy it if you think people are opportunists who will riot at any chance they get. It will open your eyes to an alternate truth. Just be prepared for one perspective only.
A number of reviewers of this book throw around the term "utopian" as a self-evident critique and to brand Solnit's political position as naïve or unrealistic. However, as I will discuss below, this is a rather thoughtless cheap shot that masks more than it reveals. The term "utopian" is being used here like the word "terrorist:" they are both terms that reveal more about the positional bias of the speaker than about the content of the thought or actions referred to.
The political problem of how to decentralize jurisdictional power so that people have more control over their own affairs (as anarchists would have it) while protecting those same people against the predatory actions of more centralized entities (like corporations or nation-states with armies) is fundamental and not answered to my satisfaction by Solnit. But this problem does not mean that the anarchist impulse toward decentralization or away from hierarchical forms is marginal or unrealistic. In fact, the state of California is currently poised to devolve a major swath of jurisdiction to local municipalities and Spain has done this over time at the national level since the return of democracy in 1976. (Just 18% of public spending in Spain now goes through the national government.)
As to the "pie-in-the-sky" overly imaginative imputation to utopianism, it must be pointed out that all human organizational entities are party enacted and partly imagined (and any sociologist since Durkheim should be aware of this). The nation-state with its sacred symbols and rituals such as flags, anthems, pledges of allegiance, holy constitutional documents, etc, is nothing if not utopian in that it is founded on an imaginary community (our actual transactions and communications are with a tiny fraction of the population) and imaginary goals that will never be fully achieved ("justice" "fraternity" "happiness" etc). Dominant ideologies such as economic neoliberalism are highly utopian: their supporters claim that free trade and deregulation of businesses will somehow trickle down to benefit all of us but decades of such policies have resulted in the greatest disparity of wealth since the Great Depression. The Obama administration's extension of Bush tax cuts for the very, very wealthy was naïve, unrealistic and had no basis in verifiable evidence but I did not hear anyone call it utopian. Democracy itself is extremely utopian and moreover, perhaps more of a delusion than we would like to think as political scientist Jodi Dean has recently argued.
I suggest greater care to these writers. One of the central aspects of Modernity is the sense that the world is open to human intervention and can be changed. This is also the premise of utopia, with the added quality that the world can be changed for the better. If you mean to say that you disagree with Solnit (or anyone's) proposal for how to improve society, say so and explain why. If you mean to say that Solnit's ideas have less popular support than Neoliberal utopianism and therefore have a serious challenge ahead of them, you'd be right, but also stating the obvious. Why not ask why people assume the inevitability and preferability of a central state? Does it really provide the greatest good for the greatest number of people as promised? How do you reconcile the state's mission to guarantee equality and the (as per John Locke) central function of the state (particularly the legal apparatuses of courts, congressional lawmaking, armed police, and mass incarceration) to defend existing property relations that are highly and devastatingly unequal? If you want to argue that anarchy is bad, you have to demonstrate why hierarchy or centralization is good and you'd have a lot of contradictory evidence to account for.
As for reviewers who wrote that the book would be better without Solnit discussing the political implications, I completely disagree. Had the book remained purely descriptive, it would have been much less interesting or generative of debate. I reject the implication that being "apolitical" is even possible since to be silent is to accept and endorse the political status quo. I'm not convinced by everything Solnit argues but I wish more writers had the courage to present "naïve," "utopian" proposals to improve society because the status quo is the real disaster.