Rebecca Solnit

A Paradise Built in Hell

“The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it.”

“We are withdrawing from networks of reciprocity that once constituted our communities” argued sociologist Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone, his groundbreaking analysis of American social organizations during the second half of the 20th century.1

The touchstone of social capital is the principle of generalized reciprocity – I’ll do this for you now, without expecting anything immediately in return or perhaps without even knowing you, confident that down the road you or someone else will return the favor.

From Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community

This erosion of social trust and reciprocity can lead to what Pema Chödrön called the worst of humanity, when “people become poisoned by self-doubt; what Toni Morrison called the “othering” of society.

Rebecca Solnit (born 1961), a writer of sharp self-consciousness and precious world-awareness diagrams similar dissolution of society in A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster.

Solnit explains the forces that compound social selfishness:

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, then we have been expelled from paradise, a paradise of unbroken solidarities.

The book narrates five astoundingly destructive disasters, including the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and yet Solnit details that a society can be reawakened to its most compassionate self, to an inexpressible brotherly love.

In brotherly love there is the experience of union with all men, of human solidarity, of human at-onement. Brotherly love is based on the experience that we all are one. The differences in talents, intelligence, knowledge are negligible in comparison with the identity of the human core common to all men. In order to experience this identity it is necessary to penetrate from the periphery to the core.

From Erich Fromm’s The Art of Loving

The consequence of these massive events, argues Solnit, is the proliferation of such love:

The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm, most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones.

[…]

But belief lags behind, and often the worst behavior in the wake of a calamity is on the part of those who believe that others will behave savagely and that they themselves are taking defensive measures against barbarism.

Charlie Mackesy's illustration for "The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse" featured in the Examined Life post "Hands Outstretched and Met."
In Charlie Mackesy’s work simple, elegant drawings tell the story of support between unlikely friends. Each vulnerable and in need. Courtesy of The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.

Solnit finds disruptions to society’s physical structures is mirrored in disruptions of its social stratifications, which creates an indelible equality: “Nearly all shared an uncertain future – though because they were all in it together.”

San Francisco, August 2020. Featured in Rebecca Solnit's "Paradise Built in Hell" in the Examined Life Library.
San Francisco, August 2020. The city changed color from dust and smoke from nearby forest fires. Photograph by Vivian Creasy.
Solnit concludes the feeling of “we are all in it together” is something unique, wholly powerful, energizing and most surprisingly, likely to cultivate positive actions.

We don’t even have a language for this emotion, in which the wonderful comes wrapped in the terrible, joy in sorrow, courage in fear.2 We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.

Given it is the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and how grieved many of us continue to feel towards that event, I pulled out some of the most precious, personal examples of post-disaster altruism that Solnit found during that particular event.

Zaheer Jaffery, a polio survivor from Pakistan, worked on the sixty-fifth floor of one of the towers and remembers the long journey down the stairs: “We had to stop several times during our descent because of injured people being brought down. For example, you would hear ‘Move to the right, move to the right’ and everybody would move to the right, so that the injured could be taken down. And this happened, three, four times. People in a groove and then they had to reposition themselves. And people would actually: ‘No, no, you first.’ I couldn’t believe it, that at this point people would actually say, ‘No, no, please take my place. It was uncanny.” Eventually he got to the bottom of the stairs. “I was walking, very, very slow by now because I could barely walk. In the concourse level I was going so slow that two or three times people offered to carry me and I said, “No, no, maybe someone else needs help.”

San Francisco, August 2020. Featured in Rebecca Solnit's "Paradise Built in Hell" in the Examined Life Library.
Wildfires near San Francisco, 2020. Does this fit the criteria for a disaster? What if people are shuttled into their homes rather than from them, how does that change post-disaster feelings and actions? Photograph by Vivian Creasy.

And the blood donations continued anyway-half a million donors, by one count, 125,000 gallons of donated blood, though far more people volunteered than donated. The Red Cross urged the White House’s inhabitants to donate, and so they did, and so did many U.S. politicians, and even Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, in a symbolically compelling and utter useless gesture. (Blood is carefully screened, the United States has strict criteria than many nations, and donations from abroad did not meet the standards.) People offered this stuff from their own bodies as though such a deep gift of life could somehow mitigate all that death. At St. Vincent’s Hospital in the West Village, the lines of would-be donors wound around the block and eventually crowded the surrounding streets, becoming yet another way people passed the first hours and days out in public.

People helped however they could, the landslide of giving, kindness and caring matched the ruinous tumble of steel, concrete and earth.

Joe Blozis, an investigator for the police department, recalls, “Something else that I won’t forget is that the civilians, the pedestrians on the streets and sidewalks, were actually directing traffic to help us get through. Not only us, but all emergency vehicles. Streams of people, lines of people, were stopping other pedestrians and clearing traffic ways to get the emergency vehicles in. If it weren’t for the pedestrians doing this, it would have been a nightmare getting emergency vehicles down to that site.

In the breakdown of traditional systems, new grassroots groups began to form in locales close to but not immediately next to Ground Zero.

Solnit writes:

Temma Kaplan, a historian at Rutgers University who had participated in the civil rights movement’s 1964 Freedom Summer, recalls, “Everybody wanted to respond. I went back to my block and some of my neighbors were on a street corner raising money; we didn’t know what [for) but they thought that people would need things, and so they started raising money.” They raised about sixteen thousand dollars from passersby in a few hours. She stayed out-of-doors, among the people who were almost all outside together. “By afternoon, Amsterdam Avenue had become like a river. People covered in dust were walking up the avenue-up Broadway, Amsterdam and Columbus avenues. It was as if they were getting as far away from the World Trade Center as possible and just walking north. It was a very warm day, like a summer day, but everybody was mourning, and people were in shock. The afternoon went on and on like a series of sequences of people trying alternately to comfort each other and get information about where people were and what we could do. Word would go out: rescue workers needed boots and they needed masks. Signs went up listing things workers needed and where, at what church, you could drop them off. Then a sign went up about cough drops. The rescue workers were choking on the smoke. Everybody cleaned out all of the drug store. People set out as if on a treasure hunt to find things.”

She concluded, “On 9/11 I just needed to reaffirm that there was left a community, that people believed in things that were good, that we could go on and that there would be a going on. I felt that everybody was holding on to each other in order to try to brace and embrace each other, and it was both a horrible and wonderful experience at the same time.”

The complexity and duality of emotions and the pure power that comes from human fear/joy is the heart of this book. Solnit captures the nuances – and beauty – of life, society and the human soul quite beautifully, as she always does.

Many fear that in disaster we become something other than we normally are – helpless or bestial and savage in the most common myths – or that is who we really are when the superstructure of society crumbles. We remain ourselves for the most part, but freed to act on, most often, not the worst but the best within. The ruts and routines of ordinary life hide more beauty than brutality.

Read more on human unity and disunity in Toni Morrisons The Origin of Others, James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots and building society reciprocity in Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking and Hands Outstretched and Met.

Or treat yourself to Solnit’s other work that enlightens our most shadowed, beautiful bits The Faraway Nearby and A Field Guide to Getting Lost.