A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster

Rebecca Solnit, Author . Viking $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-0-670-02107-9

Natural and man-made disasters can be “utopias” that showcase human solidarity and point the way to a freer society, according this stimulating contrarian study. Solnit (River of Shadows ) reproves civil defense planners, media alarmists and Hollywood directors who insist that disasters produce terrified mobs prone to looting, murder and cannibalism unless controlled by armed force and government expertise. Surveying disasters from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, she shows that the typical response to calamity is spontaneous altruism, self-organization and mutual aid, with neighbors and strangers calmly rescuing, feeding and housing each other. Indeed, the main problem in such emergencies, she contends, is the “elite panic” of officials who clamp down with National Guardsmen and stifling regulations. Solnit falters when she generalizes her populist brief into an anarchist critique of everyday society that lapses into fuzzy what-ifs and uplifting volunteer testimonials. Still, this vividly written, cogently argued book makes a compelling—and timely—case for the ability of ordinary people to collectively surmount the direst of challenges. (Sept.)

Reviewed on: 04/27/2009
Release date: 08/01/2009
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