A Paradise Built in Hell

The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.

Aparadise Builtin Hell

No one would argue that a disaster is a desirable occurrence. But as Rebecca Solnit illustrates in her new book “A Paradise Built in Hell” (Viking), disasters—both natural and manmade—often produce positive side effects.

Using the San Francisco earthquake (1906), Halifax explosion (1917), Mexico City earthquake (1985), 9/11, and Hurricane Katrina as case studies, Solnit demonstrates how people often like who they become in the wake of a catastrophe. Forced to live in an “intensely absorbing present,” they are stirred and motivated by a newfound sense of community and purpose, and find themselves wishing the feelings of joy they experience would continue even after disaster recovery is complete.

In the following interview with Failure, Solnit discusses the contrarian ideas presented in her book. She also explains why the social bonds developed in the wake of catastrophe are temporary, and analyzes how Hollywood movies and media coverage of disasters influence our expectations about how people behave in times of crisis.

How did you get the idea for “A Paradise Built in Hell?”

For me it began with the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989, which shook up San Francisco, shut down the Bay Bridge, collapsed the Nimitz Freeway, set the Marina district on fire and left people without power for up to three days. But more profoundly than that, I was drawn into this intensified present and no longer worried about remote things, the stuff we squander a lot of our energy on. And I noticed that other people were also feeling very connected and urgent; they had that feeling of being at the center of the world.

Then when 9/11 happened there was a similar kind of emotional intensity. So many people—particularly those who were there in New York—told me they were deeply moved by the way that people around them behaved. They felt compelled to try and participate and give, and had the best conversations of their lives about history, foreign policy, death, mortality and violence.

So in 2004, when I was invited to give the Raymond Williams lecture at Cambridge, I started to look into writing about the psychology of disaster. That talk turned into an essay that went to press [for Harper’s] the day Katrina hit, and when I saw the incredibly unnatural disaster Katrina became, I decided I had to do a book.

Conventional wisdom is that disasters bring out the worst in ordinary citizens, but your book illustrates that’s rarely the case.

The contrary is the case; disaster brings out the best in people. It’s not my opinion, this is based on 60 years of disaster sociology. Panic is vanishingly rare, except for “elite panic”—panic by people with a lot of power and institutional authority.

Looting is also very rare, enough so that it’s basically insignificant. People are incredibly resourceful, often altruistic, and capable of improvising some incredibly good temporary systems.

Why do so-called elites tend to panic during disasters?

First, you don’t become successful in our society by being the most communal, altruistic, forbearing creature. A lot of elites are selfish, venal, and competitive. And they see the world as being made in their image.

Another factor is that they believe they are incredibly necessary and that without them things fall apart. They assume that when the system collapses society collapses.

A third thing is that disasters are very subversive. A disaster often unfolds as if a revolution has taken place. The old regime is discredited, is superfluous, and people improvise with enormous power and agency they lack at other times. That doesn’t mean they have a whole new society that can run forever. You need power, water, and functioning hospitals. But it’s not a coincidence that revolutions and disasters bear a lot of resemblance to each other, and that the one sometimes arises from the other. There is often a lot of political destabilization and discrediting in disaster that can lead to powerful and often extremely positive political change.

So in one sense they panic because of their mistaken beliefs. On the other hand, they panic as they are called into question by the moment and because they may not survive as the regime in power.

How did elite panic manifest itself during the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 9/11, and Katrina?

The ’06 earthquake was amazing because the U.S. military became a hostile occupying army. There was the imposition of illegitimate martial law, incredible animosity towards the citizenry, and the refusal to let them become participants in fighting the fires that burned down a lot of the city. When you look at how it was handled it’s so close to Katrina it’s uncanny.

As for 9/11, the government employees, policemen, firemen and other service workers on the ground behaved incredibly well. The people around the towers didn’t panic at all, but conducted a very calm and brave evacuation, helping each other to safety.

But I feel very strongly that what most frightened the Bush Administration in the aftermath was not Al Qaeda, but this incredibly supercharged civil society in which people wanted to re-think democracy and foreign policy and our relationship to petroleum and OPEC and our energy policy. It particularly present on the streets of New York, and they hastened to shut it down. And it was one of the few victories that I’ll give Bush & Cheney from their eight years in power. They succeeded in putting an incredibly grotesque and repressive spin on what happened, and created an atmosphere of fear and patriotic obedience that helped a lot of the American media destroy itself in those years.

Then with Katrina, mayor [Ray] Nagin and the police chief were both terrified of the population, willing to believe any rumors, unfamiliar with how much rumor infests every disaster. They helped spread the stories of savagery and barbarism. The supposedly barbaric, marauding, underclass hordes turned out to be figments of their overheated imaginations.

Now there was some looting in Katrina, but I think the term needs to be abandoned because it conflates a completely legitimate requisitioning of necessary stuff—in a situation where there is no other way to get it—with theft Along with panic, it is one of those magic, incendiary words that gets people worked up about disasters.

In the book you discuss the idea that people wish that some aspects of disaster would last. What do you mean?

When you ask people, Would you like to be in a society where people feel very connected to each other, where most of the social boundaries that divide us seem to fall away, where you can ask people for help and know you’ll receive it, where you have meaningful work, a strong sense of purpose, and empathy and solidarity? Everyone would say, Hell yeah. You get those things, in circumstances you can’t possibly wish for, but [disaster] brings out these deep desires that we don’t talk about much and barely have language for.

Why doesn’t that atmosphere endure?

It’s easy to shake someone awake, but they have to keep themselves awake through a lot of effort. In some sense I think we fall asleep again, and some of it is understandable. I’ve had these extended periods of selflessness in disaster and similar political moments of great urgency, but there is a certain moment when you’re tired of being in the streets with crowds of people and being home alone is incredibly attractive.

At the same time, it’s not either-or. And when you look at what our everyday society is like, you see that some of this is present all the time. Not enough, there could be more, but a lot of people are empathic and are working hard against the culture of a capitalist and competitive society. If they weren’t we’d be in far worse shape.

That was one of the things I came to understand more deeply than before. We often talk as though we need to start doing good things. And this book made me recognize that a lot of people are already working to counter the capitalistic nature of our society. This counter force is with us all the time, but in times of disaster it is suddenly amped up. So the question isn’t really why doesn’t it exist, but why can’t we amplify it?

Everyone is familiar with post traumatic stress disorder. What about post traumatic growth?

One of the things that is fundamental to the way that the media and Hollywood movies treat disasters is that they see human beings as frail and readily damaged. People definitely get shook up and have nightmares and feel grief and fear when something terrible happens to them, but a lot of people rise to the occasion and find a sense of strength in themselves that they didn’t know was there. A lot of people find support from the community and a sense of connection that might not have been there before. In some sense, a situation like that demands that you rise to the occasion, and in so rising people find out who else they can be. They find qualities and resources in themselves and the people around them that weren’t tapped into before, and that can be a very positive experience. There is also a sense when something really terrible happens to you, you are no longer freaked out by trivial things. Your worst case scenario is a lot worse.

Also, people have wildly different experiences in disasters. I was fascinated to learn that the language of PTSD was coined during the Vietnam War, and suggested that war was an inherently awful experience that damaged everyone more or less equally. In fact, the way you experience something like a war or disaster often has to do with who you were before that event transpired. If you were already a frail, damaged, fearful, anxious person a disaster may augment that. If you’re strong and well grounded you may cope well and become stronger.

How do Hollywood movies and media coverage of disasters influence our expectations of how people behave in the wake of a disaster?

I watched a bunch of disaster movies—like Earthquake and Panic in the Streets—as part of my research for this book. They were action-packed but kind of predictable and boring.

The basic premise [of most disaster movies] seems to be: Human beings are frail, fragile, stupid, fearful, panicky, hysterical creatures. They are a bunch of sheep and heroes are the shepherds who will herd us to safety. So there is a funny way in which they require us to be pathetic so that heroes can be heroic. And the heroes are always manly men like Charlton Heston or Harrison Ford; they are kind of uber mensches. They know more and are smarter and make better decisions. The idea is that unexceptional people are not adequate to the situation.

So Hollywood movies are where a lot of us get these deeply ingrained images of stampeding, panicking, selfish, looting hordes—in ways that have nothing to do with reality. But if a 100-story building is collapsing next to you, running away really fast is a smart thing to do. But the media will look at groups of people who are running and say: Look! The panicking hordes are stampeding wildly. It may look chaotic but it’s exactly the right thing to do.

Is the U.S. any different from other countries in terms of how people respond to disasters because our societal connections are comparatively weak?

Although I talk about how much beliefs matter and how people’s beliefs may cause them to behave badly, a lot of people behave extraordinarily well despite their beliefs. My sense is that the immediate response is not so different; people see what needs to happen and do it.

Have you considered how might a service like Twitter play a role in the next disaster?

As someone who has never had anything to do with Twitter, the short answer would be no. But I know that anything that decentralizes communications is incredibly valuable.