Books: A Paradise Built in Hell

Four years after Katrina, Rebecca Solnit looks at the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster.

Let our journalists help you make sense of the noise: Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily newsletter and get a recap of news that matters.


Disasters,” writes Rebecca Solnit, “are, most basically, terrible, tragic, grievous…not to be desired.” Obviously, but don’t stop reading: Nearly every other sentence in A Paradise Built in Hell will challenge what you think you know about catastrophes, starting with the idea that they bring out the worst in people.

Take panic, for instance: Most of us expect incivility after crises, and worry about rioting, rape, murder, and mayhem. This belief, fueled by sensational media coverage, shapes our reactions. Hunker down or help thy neighbor? Send in food or federal troops? From the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to Hurricane Katrina, officials have often presumed that the survivors were dangerous, not endangered, doubling the damage by emphasizing a paramilitary response over a humanitarian one. In New Orleans, police infamously stopped residents trying to evacuate, and charged the poor with looting when they scavenged to survive their confinement in the drowning city.

Through this people’s history of five natural and man-made disasters—Katrina, earthquakes in San Francisco and Mexico City, a giant ship explosion in Halifax, Canada, and 9/11—Solnit shows that emergencies can bring out the best in us. Catastrophe survivors are often joyous, even ebullient, because they’ve been liberated from the constraints of everyday life. She argues that the extraordinary civility that follows disasters such as September 11 suggests that utopia is possible, if only we recognize how good life can be when the state breaks down.

However, A Paradise Built in Hell exaggerates the joyousness of conditions in places like Mexico City, where at least 10,000 people died and 250,000 lost their homes. Yes, disasters break down social structures, but Solnit’s own stories show that these structures also determine who lives and dies in the first place. Emergency planning, such as securing levees, can help protect the vulnerable. Yet state-sponsored projects don’t fit into Solnit’s picture of spontaneous, anarchic recovery, so they get little attention here. Nonetheless, this is a bracing, timely book.

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

SIX TRUTHS

Reclaiming power from those who abuse it often starts with telling the truth. And in "This Is How Authoritarians Get Defeated," MoJo's Monika Bauerlein unpacks six truths to remember during the homestretch of an election where democracy, truth, and decency are on the line.

Truth #1: The chaos is the point.

Truth #2: Team Reality is bigger than it seems.

Truth #3: Facebook owns this.

Truth #4: When we go to work, we're in the fight.

Truth #5: It's about minority rule.

Truth #6: The only thing that can save us is…us.

Please take a moment to see how all these truths add up, because what happens in the weeks and months ahead will reverberate for at least a generation and we better be prepared.

And if you think journalism like Mother Jones'—that calls it like it is, that will never acquiesce to power, that looks where others don't—can help guide us through this historic, high-stakes moment, and you're able to right now, please help us reach our $350,000 goal by October 31 with a donation today. It's all hands on deck for democracy.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate