Rebecca Solnit’s “A Paradise Built in Hell”

In times of disaster institutions are overwhelmed, authorities vanish or are unable to keep up, society itself is spun ajumble, and people must rely on their wits and each other. What happens next?

Perhaps you’ve heard that with the thin fabric of civilization ripped suddenly away from us, we become bestial and savage in our civic nakedness: “nature, red in tooth and claw” reemerges, in some Lord of the Flies or Mad Max way, and, until we can bring ourselves back under the protection of our authorities and institutions…

In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain… no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

―Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

Rebecca Solnit says this is all — Max, Baalzebub, Hobbes, and the rest — something of an urban legend. More typically, when civilization breaks down in the face of disaster, the survivors crawl out of wherever they’ve managed to ride it out and they come together to help one another. Not only is this typical, usual, and ordinary, but it’s also such a delight and a welcome surprise to people who participate in it that they often feel a warm nostalgia for the disaster they’ve survived and for the latent parts of their characters that the disaster allowed to shine forth:

Just as many machines reset themselves to their original settings after a power outage, so human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful, and imaginative after a disaster… [W]e revert to something we already know how to do.

Solnit gives us many examples, from her research of historical disasters and from her on-the-ground reporting of more recent ones, of this spontaneous grassroots organizing to cope with the aftermath of disaster, and of the delight people express when they recall what it felt like to be part of it.

She supplements this with summaries of the findings of the sociological subdiscipline of “disaster studies” — which finds that in times of disaster, the people on the ground who are most affected tend to cope with it creatively, generously, and cooperatively, while incidents of indiscriminate violence or panic are more likely to be found among the relatively safe members of the social and political elite, who are paranoid that unleashed mobs will threaten their authority and privilege.

“Elite panic,” indeed, is the term of art in the disaster studies community for this frequently-encountered phenomenon. “My own impression,” Solnit writes, “is that elite panic comes from powerful people who see all humanity in their own image. In a society based on competition, the least altruistic often rise highest.… Those in power themselves are often capable of being as savage and self-serving as the mobs of their worst fears.” These fears, in turn, help to justify the status and authority of these loathsome elites: just as Hobbes enlisted his nasty-brutish-and-short myth to justify the authority of royalty.

The elites eagerly deploy such myths because disaster can be particularly disastrous to authority. The Bush Administration’s response (and those of other state and local governments) to Hurricane Katrina is a familiar example.

“In the immediate aftermath of disaster, government fails as if it had been overthrown and civil society succeeds as though it has revolted: the task of government, usually described as ‘reestablishing order,’ is to take back the city and the power to govern… So the more long-term aftermath of disaster is often in some sense a counterrevolution.”

Solnit quotes Lee Clarke, one of the disaster scholars who coined the “elite panic” term:

Disaster myths are not politically neutral, but rather work systematically to the advantage of elites. Elites cling to the panic myth because to acknowledge the truth of the situation would lead to very different policy prescriptions than… that the best way to prepare for disasters is by following the command and control model, the embodiment of which is the federal Department of Homeland Security. Thus do panic myths reinforce particular institutional interests. But it is not bureaucrats who will be the first-responders when the next disaster… comes. It won’t even be the police or firefighters. It will be our neighbors, it will be the strangers in the next car, it will be our family members. The effectiveness of disaster response is thus diminished to the degree that we over-rely on command and control. This is another case where political ideology trumps good scientific knowledge about how the world works.

One of the themes of the book is that people do not just behave well in disasters, but extraordinarily well — a wellness that puts our ordinary lives to shame. Our ordinary isolation, selfishness, zero-sum competitiveness, and mutual suspicion seem to require a civilization to maintain them — when civilization is disrupted, we revert to our better, natural, undomesticated states. The state of nature, it turns out, is the opposite of of our solitary, nasty, and brutish civilized states. (Maybe Rousseau was right all along.)

The existing system is… mitigated every day by altruism, mutual aid, and solidarity, by the acts of individuals and organizations who are motivated by hope and by love rather than fear. They are akin to a shadow government — another system ready to do more were they voted into power. Disaster votes them in… Disaster reveals what else the world could be like — reveals the strength of that hope, that generosity, and that solidarity. It reveals mutual aid as a default operating principle and civil society as something waiting in the wings…

A world could be built on that basis… This is the only paradise that is possible, and it will never exist whole, stable, and complete. It is always coming into being in response to trouble and suffering; making paradise is the work that we are meant to do. All the versions of an achieved paradise sound at best like an eternal vacation, a place where we would have no meaning to make. The paradises built in hell are improvisational; we make them up as we go along, and in doing so they call on all our strength and creativity and leave us free to invent even as we find ourselves enmeshed in community. These paradises built in hell show us both what we want and what we can be.

Solnit interviewed a woman who had come through the 9/11 attacks who came to this conclusion: “People say it’s how people behave when things are bad that matters. But that’s easy. It’s how they behave when things are good.”

With this in mind, Solnit also considers how some people have managed to preserve these positive parts of their human nature even when civilization threatens it. Some of her examples are volunteers from groups like Habitat for Humanity, Burners Without Borders, the anarchist movement, and the Rainbow Gathering who have turned up at some of the disasters she’s reported on to help both in the immediate aftermath and during rebuilding:

The volunteers are evidence that it doesn’t take firsthand experience of a disaster to unleash altruism, mutual aid, and the ability to improvise a response. Many of them were part of subcultures, whether conservative churches or counterculture communities, that exist as something of a latent disaster community already present throughout the United States and elsewhere. Such community exists among people who gather as civil society and who believe that we are connected, that change is possible, and who hope for a better earth and act on their beliefs. They remind us that though disasters can be catalysts to bring out such qualities, disasters do not generate them; they are constructed by beliefs, commitments, and communities, not by weather, seismology, or bombs.