Before reading this book I was not a fan of Rebecca Solnit. Upon the insistent recommendation of several friends who rarely steer me wrong, a few years ago I bought a copy of her earlier book about Eadweard Muybridge ("River of Shadows") an ...more Before reading this book I was not a fan of Rebecca Solnit. Upon the insistent recommendation of several friends who rarely steer me wrong, a few years ago I bought a copy of her earlier book about Eadweard Muybridge ("River of Shadows") and found it completely unreadable. I could sense that Solnit was smart, but it was as if she were speaking in tongues - wading through her prose was sheer torment. So I ditched it.
About a month ago I heard her speak about this latest book on a local radio program and she was so incredibly smart and passionate and articulate, and her thesis was so appealing, that I felt compelled to give her another chance. A Paradise Built in Hell was well worth it. It's an extraordinary book -- fascinating, thought-provoking, and ultimately persuasive in supporting Solnit's thesis. And although her style is still somewhat undisciplined, and the material could have been more tightly organized, I found these aspects less annoying than in the previous book, probably because they seemed to be primarily a manifestation of her infectious enthusiasm for the material.
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.