A Paradise Build in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster is a historical account of five devastating tragedies throughout the world.
Author Rebecca Solnit describes the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, a 1917 ammunition ship explosion in the harbor of Halifax, Nova Scotia, the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, The World Trade Center attack on 9/11 2001, and the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005 to illustrate how tragedy opens up the possibility for utopia.
[It] sometimes wipes the slate clean like a jubilee, and it is those disasters that beget joy, while the ones that increase injustice and isolation beget bitterness-the “corrosive community.” That it is to say, a disaster is an end, a climax of ruin and death, but it is also a beginning, an opening, a chance to start over…and renders people amenable to social and personal changes.
Solnit argues that the elite groups of society will react to a potential shortage of resources caused by tragedies by salvaging their possessions with extraordinary measures. Solnit calls this reaction “elite panic,” and describes it as fear-mongering tactics used to maintain the status quo on public and private resources and to keep the common person in a state of subjugation. As an example when disasters strike, food shortages are immediate, which force people to take food from stores to survive. The elite deem the people looters out of fear of losing their possessions.
Solnit quotes the former political prisoner and later Czech president Vaclav Havel’s definition of “civil society,” to describe the duties of common folks in the community: “a society in which citizens participate in public life, in the administration of public goods, and in public decision.”
‘Only free people can care about slaves or prisoners and do something about slavery and prisons’
Solnit argues that we should opt for egalitarianism as opposed to utilitarianism by showing that when stripped bare, everyone under every circumstance really does live in a state of sameness, equality, and have similar chances for survival. A Paradise Build in Hell thus calls for equal access to public goods and equal opportunity, unlike the traditional western capitalistic power structure, which has historically generated few “haves” and a vast amount of “have nots.”
Solnit further argues that society’s reaction to collective human experience during disaster is essential to progress. When disaster strikes, an opportunity arises for a restructuring and reevaluation of current systems. Solnit illustrates this by describing the historical treatment of individuals with leprosy in “The Separating Sickness: How Leprosy Teaches Empathy,” Harpers magazine, as she writes, “Leprosy is really two diseases: the physical effects and the social response to them.” She explains how people changed their attitude toward lepers “…when doctors realized that leprosy, contrary to long-standing belief, is very near the least contagious disease on earth. Ninety-nine percent of us are naturally immune to the disease, and the rest have a hard time catching it.” In other words, fear of the disease eroded.
Solnit wants us to stop fearing each other when something devastating occurs in our community.
How you behave depends on whether you think your neighbors or fellow citizens are a greater threat than the havoc wrought by a disaster or a greater good than the property in houses and stores around you.
Solnit’s point of empathy and egalitarianism is illustrated in her recent Orion article “Mysteries of Thoreau, Unsolved: On the dirtiness of laundry and the strength of sister: Only free people can care about slaves or prisoners and do something about slavery and prisons, which is why the project of liberating yourself is not necessarily selfish.”
In western societies, once a person becomes a slave or prisoner, they become powerless. The persuasive argument in A Paradise Build in Hell demonstrated throughout history, that individuals do not have to be powerless – no matter the circumstances.