This year’s One City One Book is about disasters. If there ever was an apt choice for a book to recommend to the Bay Area, Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is probably it.
After all, it’s surprisingly easy to fall into a spiral of anxiety when it comes to disasters. When I first moved to California, my idea of researching and preparing for disaster sent me into the wee hours in a caffeinated/sleepless state where $400 for an Emergency Preparedness Kit seemed not only sensible but necessary. It had provisions for four people (we are only two in my household, but I wanted to provide for others) and my cat got a separate kit of her own (cat food, water, and first aid kit). It only made sense to add four emergency sleeping bags because they were tested and developed by NASA. I think my mouse hovered over emergency shelter and portable toilet at check-out for a full five minutes before I was able to muster enough presence of mind to decline those items. We don’t hear too much about the findings of anthropologists and sociologists regarding our behavior during disasters. This book changes that. I promise this book will help you weather it all.
“Who are you? Who are we?” Thus opens A Paradise Built in Hell. The thesis of the book sounds a little bit like the setup of a physics problem: does society in the absence of authority implode? Does it degenerate into monstrosity (as Hobbes believed), driven by selfish desires to secure food and shelter and by personal gain (looting, raping, and plundering)? Or does society in that vacuum undergo an altruistic transformation?
To Solnit, disaster is such a vacuum, a “rupture of everyday life” providing a moment where we find ourselves both physically uprooted and psychologically unmoored. The catalyst for this book is Solnit’s personal experience of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, of being thrown into an “intensely absorbing present. I was more surprised,” she writes, “to realize that most people I knew and met in the Bay Area were also enjoying immensely the disaster […]–if enjoyment is the right word for that sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others […] an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive.”
A Paradise Built in Hell is an inquisitive and dazzling search for this deep connection to community in five big disasters spread throughout history (the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the explosion in Halifax in 1917, the 2001 earthquake in Mexico City, 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina). Solnit weighs facts, historical accounts, and interviews, laying out a pattern of altruism in the majority, selfishness by the few, and panic in the powers that be.
Solnit is crisp and thoughtful, building a case for paradise. That the majority of people behave altruistically in the aftermath of a disaster is proof enough that the citizens of paradise, “the people who are brave enough, resourceful enough, and generous enough — already exist. The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being, so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep paradise at bay.”
The Hobbesian notion that we regress to a savage state during times of disaster produces very dire consequences in actual disasters. Solnit references “elite panic,” a term coined by disaster sociologist Kathleen Tierney, which is behavior on the part of those “who believe that others will act savagely and that they themselves are taking measures against barbarism.” When the media, the government, and the affluent show signs of elite panic, a social disaster occurs on top of a natural one. “Belief in [public] panic,” Solnit writes, “provides a premise for treating the public as a problem to be shut out or controlled by the military. Hollywood eagerly feeds those beliefs. Sociologists, however, do not.”
While Solnit fizzles in some parts of the book (mostly when she arrives too quickly to ideas — for example, when she delves into the tradition of carnivals, which she argues are like revolutions, which in turn, she argues, are like disasters), the chapters on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina are absolutely riveting.
The personal accounts of 9/11 are moving, and the height of failure of governmental response to Hurricane Katrina is infuriating. The rumors, circulated by the media and echoed by the mayor and governor of a murderous community, of the rape of children in the Louisiana Superdome, of (black) mobs looting (white) property, obscured what was actually happening on the ground for everyone in the nation, and created a dangerous version of elite panic in New Orleans. Solnit suggests that social breakdown is not caused by lack of authority, but rather when “the most powerful prevent aid and evacuation[.]”
A Paradise Built in Hell is infectiously optimistic, striking a balance between commiserating the terrible consequences of disaster while praising the extraordinary communities that rise out of the chaos. “In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic and urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them.” Solnit is an emergency responder in her neighborhood. Come the next Bay Area earthquake, you may expect her helping hand.
Rebecca Solnit will discuss A Paradise Built in Hell with SF Fire Chief Joanne Hayes-White on October 11, 6 pm, at the Main Library’s Koret Auditorium. For more information, visit sfpl.org.