Author: Rebecca Solnit
Title: A Paradise Built in Hell
Publication Info: Viking Adult (2009)
Previously Read by the Same Author: Wanderlust
Summary/Review: Solnit’s book is built on the hypothesis that times of disasters bring out the best in humanity as people band together to help one another to survive. It’s an optimistic view that runs counter to the usual narrative of self-interest and mob violence but one Solnit illustrates with examples from history including the San Francisco Earthquake, the explosion in Halifax harbor, the London Blitz, the Mexico City earthquake and Hurricane Katrina. In all of these cases ordinary people responded to help one another and build community. The response of governments and authorities in these scenarios is depicted as at best too slow to mobilize to respond to the immediate needs of communities in distress and at worse too ready to treat citizens as criminals through policies such shooting “looters.” Solnit introduces the interesting concept of “elite panic” where the wealthy and power expect chaos and anarchy and thus respond with force where none is needed. Solnit details how this negative view of human nature misinforms public policy in response to disaster and leads to greater suffering. Hurricane Katrina is a particularly horrifying account as authorities were ready to arrest and imprison people rather than offer rescue and relief. Armed white people were able to get away with slaughtering poor black people because of the belief that they were criminals rather than survivors in need of compassion. This book is a must read to gain a better understanding of human nature in both its best and worst elements.
Recommended books: The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim Defede and Zeitoun by Dave Eggers