Prelude of ‘A Paradise Built in Hell’ Argues for Altruism

Rebecca Solnit counters the dominant narratives around human behavior during disasters.

hurricane katrina

Who are you? Who are we?” So begins Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, which Alta Journal’s California Book Club will discuss on September 23 at 5 p.m. “In times of crisis,” she continues, “these are life-and-death questions.” As readers living in the midst of an ongoing emergency—the first pandemic in a century—these questions are deeply relevant. While they may sound philosophical, they serve practical ends: they immediately invite readers to regard themselves as not only individuals (“you”), but also part of a collective, the larger society (“we”).

The prelude to A Paradise Built in Hell gives readers a road map, a sense of where Solnit is headed and the route she’ll travel to get there, an investigation into human behavior in different disasters. In the popular imagination, communities facing catastrophe involve panicked crowds, screaming, people trampling over one another as they flee or rush to seize dwindling resources like food or water. This imagery has been peddled by governments, Hollywood, and much news media to great, often tragic, effect. By opening her book with two simple, existential questions rather than with a dramatic scene, Solnit lends gravitas to her subject matter.

Within the opening paragraphs, Solnit addresses the false narratives about brutishness and mayhem in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and how they compounded the disaster. These storylines encouraged government officials, police, and the National Guard to regard the vulnerable as the dangerous, turning the arm of the law against the very people who most needed help.

The prelude also recalibrates our expectations for disaster narratives. “In the wake of an earthquake, a bombing, or a major storm,” Solnit argues, “most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones. The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it. Decades of meticulous sociological research on behavior in disasters, from the bombings of World War II to floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, and storms across the continent and around the world, have demonstrated this. 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.”

The imagery of violent, chaotic masses we’ve been primed to expect is usually not only inaccurate but flat-out wrong. After Katrina, Solnit reminds us, most people cared for one another, providing protection even to strangers.

Bolstered by research, Solnit’s thesis is considered in one immersive anecdote after another. It’s all too easy, especially in a nation that we know is full of divisions and schisms, to believe we must fend for ourselves; indeed, American cultural messaging frequently focuses on the needs of the lone individual rather than those of the community. But if there’s something we can learn from disasters it is that in times of crisis, as Solnit argues throughout the book, most people are altruistic.

Our beliefs matter. If each of us individually believes that the collective will act badly, exploit our weaknesses, and abandon us to fend for ourselves, might we not act on that belief? In reality, no. Solnit directs our attention to evidence that when pressed up against our own fear and vulnerability, as well as that of others, most of us won’t betray our fellow humans. When strangers deeply need our assistance due to earthquakes or explosions, most of us will choose to give shelter and food and aid.

Few of us yearn for disaster. In fact, most of us probably fear it, especially in a media ecosystem that allows us to see the calamities taking place both near and far on any given day, beaming images of sooty-faced or drenched or exhausted survivors into our living rooms and onto our devices. Solnit asks us to look deeper, not in order to discount or reduce these images, for she does not romanticize disaster, but in order to recognize that there is more to the story. There is cooperation, compassion, mutual aid, and even exhilaration and a kind of joy.

Disaster, then, is the lens Solnit uses to explore and insist that we recognize our generous selves, our complicated and unexpected emotional landscapes, and, ultimately, the moving reality of our shared humanity.•

To join Alta’s California Book Club conversation with Solnit on September 23 at 5 p.m. Pacific time, click here.

We also invite you to join us and your fellow CBC members in the Alta Clubhouse for an ongoing conversation about A Paradise Built in Hell:


Ilana Masad is a fiction writer, a critic, and the author of the novel All My Mother’s Lovers.
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