A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster was the one Rebecca Solnit book that I hadn't gotten around to reading yet; but with a global pandemic unfolding, I decided that this might be the appropriate time. Despite loving all of her other books, I admit I hesitated over this one because it sounded . . . well, depressing. It turns out that I needn't have worried, and nor should anyone else: A Paradise Built in Hell is engrossing, surprising, and ultimately both hopeful and inspiring.
Solnit's aim is to dispel the misconception that disasters (whether natural or man-made) bring out the worst in people, reducing "the masses" to brutish, selfish behaviour in the scramble for survival -- when in fact, as the historical record makes clear, it generally does just the opposite: bringing out the best in the vast majority of us, providing a forum in which our most compassionate, co-operative, community-oriented selves emerge and flourish. This truth has been affirmed over and over by historians and sociologists who have studied disasters all over the world. Yet the tenor of media coverage of disasters tends to perpetuate the darker myth -- as do most fictional representations. (Think of virtually every disaster movie you have ever seen.) In reality, the shared experience of calamity serves to pull people together, not drive them apart. It summons the better angels of human nature, as we see around us every day during the current pandemic. The "fights for loo roll" tutted over in the media are a minority reaction to the emergency at hand, when in fact people all over the world are responding to the crisis with good sense and thoughtfulness, while inventing ways to ease its strain constructively and creatively.
"In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic," Solnit writes, "urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbours as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressive savage human beings in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behaviour in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the [North American] continent and around the world, have demonstrated this. But belief lags behind, and often the worst behaviour in the wake of calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will act savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism. From earthquake-shattered San Francisco in 1906 to flooded New Orleans in 2005, innocents have been killed by people who believed or asserted that their victims were the criminals and that they themselves were the protectors of the shaken order. Beliefs matter."
"Today Cain is still killing his brother proclaims a faded church mural in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which was so devastated by the failure of the government levees," Solnit continues. "In quick succession, the Book of Genesis gives us the creation of the universe, the illicit acquisition of knowledge, the expulsion from Paradise, and the slaying of Abel by Cain, a second fall from grace into jealousy, competition, alienation, and violence. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain asks back, 'Am I my brother's keeper?' He is refusing to say what God already knows: that the spilled blood of Abel cries out from the ground that has absorbed it. He is also raising one of the perennial social questions: are we beholden to each other, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself?
"Most traditional societies have deeply entrenched commitments and connections between individuals, families, and groups. The very concept of society rests on the idea of networks of affinity and affection, and the freestanding individual exists largely as an outcast or exile. Mobile and individualistic modern societies shed some of these old ties and vacillate about taking on others, especially those expressed through economic arrangements -- including provisions for the aged and vulnerable, the mitigation of poverty and desperation -- the keeping of one's brothers and sisters. The argument against such keeping is often framed as an argument about human nature: we are essentially selfish, and because you will not care for me, I cannot care for you. I will not feed you because I must hoard against starvation, since I too cannot count on others. Better yet, I will take your wealth and add it to mine -- if I believe that my well-being is independent of yours or pitted against yours -- and justify my conduct as natural law. If I am not my brother's keeper, than we have been expelled from paradise, a paradise of unbroken solidarities.
"Thus does everyday life become a social disaster. Sometimes disaster intensifies this; sometimes it provides a remarkable reprieve from it, a view into another world for our other selves. When all the ordinary divides and patterns are shattered, people step up -- not all, but the great preponderance -- to become their brothers' keepers. And that purposefulness and connectedness bring joy even amid death, chaos, fear, and loss. Were we to know and believe this, our sense of what is possible at any time might change. The astonishing gap between common beliefs and actualities about disaster behavior limits the possibilities, and changing beliefs could fundamentally change much more. Horrible in themselves, disaster is sometimes a back door into paradise, the paradise at least in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and each are our sister's and brother's keeper."
Solnit chronicles the spontaneous communities that spring up in disaster's wake, as neighbour helps neighbour and strangers band together, casting aside rigid divisions of class, gender, and ethnicity, to feed and tend and nurse one another, sharing labour, resources, and a common sense of purpose. Survivors' accounts, both historic and contemporary, tell of loss, hardship, and tragedy, yes, but also of laughter, fellowship, and joy. The latter is referenced over and over. "This book," writes Solnit, "is about that emotion, as important as it is surprising, and the circumstances that arouse it and those that it generates."
She adds that these things matter "as we enter an era of increasing and intensifying disaster. And more than that, they matter as we enter an era when questions about everyday social possibilities and human nature arise again, as they often had during turbulent times."
"The existing system is built on fear of each other and scarcity," she writes, "and it has created more scarcity and more to be afraid of. It 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, in a sense, because in an emergency these skills and ties work while fear and divisiveness do not. 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 when it's absent from the stage.
"A world could be build on that basis, and to do so would redress the long divides that produce everyday pain, poverty, and loneliness and in times of crisis homicidal fear and opportunism. 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 we were meant to do."
The pictures in this post were taken on Dartmoor on a cold, crisp day. Walking a labyrinth, according to local folklore, helps to set the world back on its rightful path. Here's Howard, doing his folkloric duty, dreaming a new world into being.
The passages quotes above are from A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit (Viking, 2009). The poem in the picture captions is How We Became Human by American Poet Laureate Joy Harjo of the Muscogee/Creek Nation (W.W. Norton & Co., 2004). All rights reserved by the authors.