A Paradise Built in Hell

The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

Starting with the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, Solnit tours through one disaster after another, including the Halifax explosion, Mexico City’s earthquake, 9/11 in New York, and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In each, and in many other smaller disasters, she counters the popular myths that permeate our culture: the ones that say that when in a crisis, people behave like animals, out only for themselves. Instead, she finds mutual aid, solidarity, spontaneous soup kitchens, amateur fire brigades, and successful rescue missions—nearly always more effective than the official bureaucratic responses. She also finds elite panic and disaster capitalism, borne out of a desire to consolidate power as well as in response to those presumed mythical dangers. The comparisons to our present situation are both obvious and not-so, as this disaster runs slower and more globally than any before it. There’s a lot in here to feel hopeful about; there’s also a lot to be ready to fight over.

Reading notes

Tend and befriend

Among the many things that Solinit’s A Paradise Built in Hell makes clear are the dozens of embedded myths about humanity’s bestiality and frailty which patriarchal capitalism must perpetuate in order to defend itself:

Three hundred and fifty years after [Thomas] Hobbes, the biobehavioral scientists Shelley E. Taylor and Laura Cousino Klein concluded that contrary to the longtime assumption about how human beings respond to danger, women in particular often gather together to share concerns and abilities. They conclude that “this ‘tend-and-befriend’ pattern is a sharp contrast to the ‘fight-or-flight’ behavior pattern that has long been considered the principal responses to stress by both men and women.…” In other words, crises and stress often strengthen social bonds rather than breed competition and isolation.

Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, page 92

The fight-or-flight metaphor is so insidious I’ve used it to describe my own behavior, without criticism. How many other stories are buried in my brain which work the same way?

The radical economists J.K. Gibson-Graham (two women writing under one name) portray our society as an iceberg, with competitive capitalist practices visible above the waterline and below all kinds of relations of aid and cooperation by families, friends, neighbors, churches, cooperatives, volunteers, and voluntary organizations from softball leagues to labor unions, along with activities outside the market, under the table, bartered labor and goods, and more, a bustling network of uncommercial enterprise.

Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell, page 94

Also below the waterline: motherhood, without which capitalism would collapse but which is rarely rewarded or counted (even less so, these days).

Solnit notes here and elsewhere that the fight over a better world is as much about ideas and stories as it is about policy: policies are the consequences of beliefs, not creators of them. There is a story, today, of millions of people staying home, in solidarity for one another—tending and befriending from afar. What is the best way to tell it? And who will try to bury it under other, false, stories?