A Paradise Built in Hell

by Rebecca Solnit

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Publisher: Penguin
Copyright: 2009
Printing: 2010
ISBN: 0-14-311807-2
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 319

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A Paradise Built in Hell is a book with an agenda. Solnit's goal is to convince the reader that nearly everything we're shown in movies and popular culture about human behavior during disasters is wrong. Not only is destructive mass panic unusual verging on nonexistent, spontaneous cooperation and acts of startling courage and resourcefulness are commonplace. The heroes that we hear about afterwards are more the norm than the exception. Disasters are far more likely to bring out the best in people than the worst. They break down barriers and form spontaneous human communities that survivors remember for a lifetime. Rather than natural disasters leading inevitably to an exacerbating human crisis in the absence of strong authority, Solnit argues that they are an amazing human opportunity, and that the most negative and destructive human behavior during crises is not from untrained victims but from the panic of the elites who are supposedly responsible for protecting the public.

I think her analysis and presentation is both deeply appealing and deeply flawed. The flaws involve extrapolation and generalization beyond the applicability of her research, and I'll say more about that in a moment. But the appeal is still surprising and satisfying, and I think there's a lot of truth in this book despite its one-sided presentation.

I like to tell people, half-jokingly, that I'm an anarchosyndicalist. It's my political alliegance of the heart: the political structure that I know would never work, but that matches the world I want to live in. (I suspect much of the belief in libertarianism is of this form.) Now I have a book to point people at when they ask what the appeal of anarchosyndicalism is. The sense of spontaneous community, of bonding, of reaching out to other people to do something necessary, together, that Solnit describes here in the aftermath of a disaster matches that vision of a world without imposed economic authority, where people spontaneously collaborate to solve problems.

A Paradise Built in Hell is structured by disaster, providing a tour of major disasters and their aftermath interspersed with extended musings on what the human reactions mean and how disaster communities functioned. The major disasters discussed are the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Halifax explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina. Solnit moves through them in chronological order, closing the book with Katrina, which had (at least for me) the most infuriating and uplifting mixes of community bonding and elite panic. But both of those factors are present from the beginning in the 1906 earthquake: spontaneous human organization that (from multiple first-hand accounts) transformed people's lives mixed with a military reaction and elite panic that possibly did more damage to the city than the earthquake did.

Elite panic is the dark side of Solnit's celebration of human altruism and spontaneous community organization. The primary picture she paints is of ordinary people responding with great courage and creativity and finding, in their reaction, a transformative experience and a sense of purpose that often becomes the most powerful and positive experience of their life. But this is at odds with a deeply-entrenched elite belief in mass panic, in the necessity of keeping information from the public to suppress their reaction, and in the need to re-establish "order." And with that, Solnit is absolutely scathing, and with some justification. Along with detailed accounts of these major disasters, Solnit also gives the reader a tour of the research literature on disasters, research that has shown that the panic and chaos that is at the center of practically every disaster movie ever made is essentially a myth. Mass panic in disasters is not only rare, it's close to non-existent.

As you might expect, the handling of Katrina by both the government and by neighboring white communities is the subject of the harshest attacks. The material on Katrina presented here is enough to make anyone want to throw out the current playbook on how we react to disasters (and lest one think Solnit is unfair, her research matches very closely with other research and journalism on Katrina that I've seen from a wide variety of sources). But Solnit shows that this is a pattern: the combination of our media-driven belief in how people will react to disasters combined with the elite need to re-establish control plays out in many major disasters, and almost always negatively. Even in 9/11, the official response in some cases hampered and undermined an already-effective unofficial response. This is very interesting and has concrete implications for public policy around disasters. But where Solnit moves onto thinner anarchosyndicalist ice is the story that she tells about disasters as dramatic upheavals of the established social order that could point to a revolution in how we interact with each other.

Solnit is deeply inspired by human altruism during disasters, and her enthusiasm is somewhat contageous, but it was useful to read this book shortly after Bruce Schneier's Liars and Outliers. I think Solnit, in her understandable eagerness to find a way to extend disaster behavior to general life, does not understand the relationships between what Schneier terms moral, reputational, and institutional pressures. And that's the core of why we need to both enable spontaneous human response in disasters and have organized first responders and supporting infrastructure, and why disaster communities will break down when extended beyond the disaster.

When I first mentioned A Paradise Built in Hell to my mother, her first reaction was dubiousness due to her memory of the 1977 New York City blackout. There was a disaster that resulted in widespread looting and destruction, rather than the positive reaction Solnit describes. Solnit does have a cogent argument for why looting is poorly analyzed (we don't, for example, distinguish between breaking into stores to get desperately needed supplies and doing so for personal gain) and should not be a priority in a life-threatening disaster. But it's not completely convincing; in some disasters, particularly ones like the 1977 power outage that were not particularly life-threatening, the looting has been the most destructive part of the disaster.

Schneier provides what I think is the missing piece, both to this and to why the wonderful behavior during disasters doesn't last into everyday life. During a life-threatening disaster, moral pressures are massively increased. Nearly all of us have self-images and moral beliefs that provide very strong incentives to help others and collaborate in the face of life-threatening emergencies, incentives that override other motives and lead to the sort of behavior that Solnit celebrates. But moral pressures have inherent limitations. That moral reaction applies most strongly to small groups (such as bands of survivors), and will start to break down as larger society re-establishes itself. And disasters, like a power outage, that are not immediately life-threatening will not provoke the same intensification of moral pressures: we don't have strong moral beliefs and internal stories about staying quietly at home during power outages the way that we do for saving people from burning buildings or pulling them out of rubble. Once larger communities have reformed and that short-term emergency reaction has dissipated, the need for institutional pressures (police, law, and formal authority structures) will return.

I wish Solnit had been able to read Schneier's book before writing hers. I think his analysis structure provides a healthy dose of realism and perspective to her desire for a self-organizing communal world, and might have blunted her enthusiastic but somewhat unrealistic hopes for finding some key to a revolution in human organization in the heart of disasters.

But if A Paradise Built in Hell is unlikely to lead to a radical change in how we organize societies, it should at least provoke a radical rethinking of some of our unnecessary pessimism about our fellow humans. The evidence is substantial and compelling: crisis brings out the best in people, not the worst, and the ordinary people who happen to be around are capable of becoming some of the most amazing disaster response teams that we can imagine. This has numerous mundane implications for social policy. We should consider simple training for the general public, for example, to strengthen that reaction, should allow for it in legal structures and training of first responders (around looting, for instance), and should do everything we can to kill the destructive myth that people cannot be trusted in disasters or that mass panic will be as much of a threat as the disaster.

But the best part of this book is that it provides a concrete, well-documented, and well-defended reason to let go of some of our cynicism and to extend a bit of trust to our fellow humans. There sadly aren't earth-shaking implications for everyday society, but there is a wealth of evidence that shows that we're better people in the crunch than we believe we are, or that we expect of others. And the more that we can embrace the dissolution of boundaries and social hierarchies in the middle of disasters, the more we are likely to be surprised by deep human connection and a sense of shared, focused purpose.

Solnit is a bit long-winded with her agenda, but that bright hope has stuck with me. Recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2012-12-24

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21