Rebecca Solnit Considers Disaster Utopias

A Paradise Built in Hell asks people to show the same cooperation in everyday life that they demonstrate in a catastrophe.

1906 san francisco earthquake
Bettmann

Always look for the helpers,” Fred Rogers’s mother told him when he was young and frightened by graphic images of disaster on the news. “There’s always someone who is trying to help.” While Rogers’s folksy quote, dating to his newspaper column in 1986, can feel pat and unearned as wildfire evacuees empty into Lake Tahoe streets, it is also surprisingly timeless. We’re willing to look out for one another more than most in popular culture and politicians would have us believe. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, the September pick of Alta Journal’s California Book Club, builds toward well-researched revelations that most of us are the “helpers.”

What sets Solnit’s book apart is her marshaling of surprising images and facts in service of her arguments. Early in the book, for instance, she disarms us with the story of a blackout in New York City in 2003 that revealed the Milky Way, long hidden from view by light pollution. Far from serving as a source of panic, the blackout becomes a metaphor for the brief utopias that bloom after disaster, showing humans what they could be to one another. Solnit explains that the current social order is “something akin to this artificial light: another kind of power that fails in disaster.” She doesn’t see our hierarchical, stratified social order as inevitable; it’s human-made, which means we can unmake it too.

And one of many unfamiliar requests Solnit makes is that we understand everyday life as the true disaster of postindustrial life. Often, the love strangers demonstrate toward one another during a crisis like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake or the Halifax maritime explosion of 1917 is tremendous. If people know how to strengthen the social fabric with moral action in such instances, why is it so challenging to create a society in which we make sure neighbors are given shelter and food and civic love predominates?

Social change, in Solnit’s view, depends on how selflessly we believe our neighbors will act. We’re capable of engaging in activism that would protect less fortunate neighbors, she reasons, but we’re constrained by a minority elite who assume the vulnerable will behave selfishly.

Solnit’s vision for a new social order might seem radical at first, but it germinates from well-established ideas about fraternity and politics. Political philosopher Hannah Arendt rarely wrote on love, which she saw as inherently private, but argued for a relationship between friendship and public life that roughly coincides with Solnit’s ideals of community.

Our relationships with others, in Arendt’s view, constitute the basis for political activity and what it means to be human. She wrote in The Human Condition, “No human life, not even the life of the hermit in nature’s wilderness, is possible without a world which directly or indirectly testifies to the presence of other human beings.”

Like Arendt, Solnit sees a good society as one in which we stay aware of ourselves not as lone actors, but as collaborators working in relation to others. Both strangers and neighbors are frequently referenced as she elucidates a concept of a “love” that could undergird community. She points out instance after instance of makeshift communities that flourished briefly after serious disasters. For instance, the first day after the San Francisco earthquake, a grocer supplied a neighborhood with tea, coffee, sugar, butter, and canned goods. Dairymen dropped off 10-gallon cans of milk. People joked in the face of calamity, even as tragedies mounted.

Solnit asks us to recast our sense of what’s possible, to incorporate into our social planning evidence of how humans form communities even in dire circumstances. She believes we can translate human engagement in “disaster utopias” to our daily lives when intense conditions are absent. Her essential book is a profound inquiry into the relationship between what we think, how we relate to one another, and the larger common world we build together.•

Be sure to sign up for the upcoming California Book Club gathering with Solnit on September 23. As you continue to read A Paradise Built in Hell, we invite you to talk about the disasters and the altruism it explores with the California Book Club community in the Alta Clubhouse:

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