A Paradise Built in Hell

The extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.

A Paradise Built in 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.

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