A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster by Rebecca Solnit (New York: Viking Press, 2009. 368 pp)

Based in San Francisco, Rebecca Solnit has authored thirteen books on art, landscape, public and collective life, ecology, politics, hope, meandering, reverie, and memory. A product of the California education system, Solnit attended San Francisco State University as an undergraduate and the University of California, Berkeley where she received a Masters in Journalism. She is a contributing editor to Harper’s and often contributes articles to Tomdispatch.com. During her career, Solnit has earned a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Literary Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award in criticism, and a 2004 Wired Rave Award.

Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish, and Short

In his groundbreaking work, Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes famously states, “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Describing life outside of a political institution, Hobbes believes that humanity resorts to a chaotic competition for scarce resources. Under this assumption, Hobbes argues for the existence of social contracts and, ultimately, the importance of an absolute sovereign.

A Selfless Humanity

With A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit offers a discourse contrary to this Hobbesian state of nature. For the critical thesis of the work, Solnit suggests that the gracious and altruistic actions of communities encountering disaster provide evidence for a selfless humanity.
In this tome, Solnit outlines the aftermath of five disasters in the past century. These events are:
  1. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906;
  2. The Halifax Explosion;
  3. Mexico City’s Earthquake; 
  4. 9/11;
  5. And Hurricane Katrina.

The Influence of Hollywood

While Hollywood mimics the Hobbesian state of nature in its disaster movies, Solnit’s sociological work suggests that horrific disasters function as a unifier rather than a divider. She writes,

“Near death experiences and encounters with one’s own mortality are often clarifying, tools with which to cut away inessentials and cleave to the essence of life and purpose” (103).

The Classical Form of Anarchy

For Solnit, these actions in the wake of catastrophes illustrate a classical form of anarchy. Of course, the term “anarchy” in today’s age carries significant baggage; it conjures tattooed punk rockers citing the term while destroying property and people’s lives.
Anarchy in a classical sense, however, denies the necessity of ruling institutions. Its etymology comes from Greek: “An” means “without” and “archy” means “ruler.”  In other words, classical anarchists believe that humanity contains the capability of living in harmony without an authority.

What about Looting?

At this point, I assume the objection, “what about looting” pops into your mind. Solnit recognizes this point early in her argument. She claims with much backing evidence that fears of looting and disorder begin with a panic of the elite. Those in power have the most to lose when the status quo is interrupted.
Thus, after a disaster, the common citizens unite and the elites seek to reassert authority. As such, people in authority seek property over life. What is the difference between looting and raiding a store for life-saving supplies? Why do we consider looting horrible while such actions are, more often than not, performed with altruistic intentions? For the elite, preserving property is more important than preserving life.

Utopian Society

Ultimately, Solnit uses these extraordinary examples to make a case for a classical form of anarchy and an attempt at creating a utopian society. For her, these disasters prove that humanity is capable of noble self-governance. Yet, she sadly admits,

“The conundrum we call human nature readily rises to the occasion of a crisis and as readily slacks off when the living is easy” (119).

It Takes One Bad Apple to Ruin a Pie

This admission sums up my problem with this book. Written in an unwavering style, it is clear from page one that Solnit has a distinct purpose for writing the book. She wants to convince her readers that elites ruling under the form of a government are unnecessary.
As such, her disaster stories feel cherry picked. Of course good people engage in altruistic actions during heinous acts of nature. This fact, however, does not guarantee that humanity on the whole is capable of acting well at all times.
It takes one bad apple to ruin a pie. Likewise, government often functions for the one bad apple more than it does for the rest of society. Of course, civic leadership is capable of making atrocious mistakes and I am not arguing for a business-as-usual government. I am only contending that Solnit’s thesis might be too simplistic. Institutions can serve a purpose just as much as they can be the problem. Likewise, common citizens can perform good deeds just as easily as they can act poorly.
Therefore, I have a hard time recommending A Paradise Built in Hell. Rebecca Solnit tells intriguing stories about people acting selflessly in the wake of horrible disasters. As such, it is important to know that humanity outside of its government boundaries does not act brutishly like Thomas Hobbes suggests. However, the existence of these stories does not necessitate the promotion of anarchy over common forms of government.



2 Comments Leave a comment
  • Sam

    It's an interesting idea. I know some biologists like Richard Dawkins argue that humans can be intrinisically selfless and there might be a genetic explanation if acts benefit the group as a whole, especially if you are related to group members.

  • Donovan Richards


    Solnit certainly hints at that connection in the book. However, she argues more strongly for the misuse of social Darwinism by the elites to justify their remaining in power at all cost during disaster.

    Thanks for the comment!

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