Solnit begins her 2009 book discussing the essential nature of humanity. Not an easy task, Solnit’s argument is framed around critical disaster theory and personal experience and interviews that Solnit herself did while visiting the ad hoc disaster relief agencies after the Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. Solnit argues that, despite the moral touchstones within Western society that demand humans are inherently self-serving or selfish beings, something arises that looks like altruism when disaster strikes. In her Prelude, Solnit discusses disaster’s ability to level any socioeconomic divide by quite literally leveling any property or means of centralized aid. Where altruism arises, Solnit argues, is between neighbors–no matter how diverse.
Mainstream media portrayals of selfish violence in times of disaster appear, Solnit argues, as early as Genesis. Solnit points out, “when God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain asks back ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’” (3). Cain calls to mind one of the most important questions about human nature: “Are we beholden to each other, must we take care of each other, or is it every man for himself?” (3). What Solnit argues, of course, is that the question of taking care of one another is fundamentally tied to situations of disaster. What disaster shows is not a commitment to one’s own desires, beliefs, or economic circumstance but rather the ability to find common ground and shape a future that is beautiful, safe, and sturdy. The rupture of everyday life causes community enjoyment, “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive” (5).
Disaster can even help facilitate something like assimilation, Solnit argues, offering a story about a Native American who was trapped by dense tule fogs that overtook California’s Central Valley had ended up feeling for the first time “a sense of belonging” (4). It is disaster that forms a different touchstone–one of community, Solnit argues. Out of the ashes and dust of mourning and grief comes new relationships with those who participate in disaster relief and between different organizations that may have been founded on adversarial belief systems (or at least partly made-up of people who have adversarial belief systems). The grief and tragedy surrounding connotations of the word disaster are not in their intrinsic or immediate manifestation but rather in what follows. In other words, one can (and perhaps must) decide to change the grief into solidarity, beauty, and love. From this, Solnit arrives at her title: A Paradise Built in Hell. The paradise arises out of the hell of disaster–both in its material tragedy and in the denial of its representation in media that insists humans’ selfish nature. This concept of disaster, Solnit notes, can be revolutionary.
Recent history has blocked solidarity and moves toward communal paradise through intense privatization, something Solnit addresses early to discuss the fallout of W. Bush’s popularity but takes up more specifically in her discussion of New Orleans mayor post-Katrina. Though privatization has an economic connotation, Solnit notes, no “consignment of jurisdictions, goods, services, and powers–railways, water rights, policing, education–to the private sector” (9) can happen without also privatizing imagination and desire. The operation of disasters is in undoing this privatization, sending decision-making and impromptu life-saving to community, giving each citizen (which she defines) of that community “participation, agency, purposefulness, and freedom” (9). These “flashes,” as she calls them, of altruism and community building occur through disaster.
In her chapter named after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theory of “beloved community,” Solnit goes through several different organizations that begin post-Katrina disaster relief uniquely, fit in with each particular community uniquely, and then follows them through to their afterlives. Her first example of happiness from grief is provided by the mother of an American soldier killed in the Iraq War, Cindy Sheheen, who moved herself to protest the war at Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas to create Camp Casey (named after her son). In the improvised protest camp, Sheheen said it was the most amazing thing that had ever happened to her, something which Solnit notes seemed to prove “grief had hollowed out all usual needs and left her nothing but a purity of purpose” (285). King’s “beloved community” accomplishes just this: an emptying out of adversity that is filled with good social change.
Solnit argues what is so perfect about King’s “beloved community” is King’s commitment not only to vast systemic change, the end of apartheid in America, but in community-building based on breaking down adversarial barriers, something perhaps much more difficult to accomplish. The disaster provides the perfect environment for the “beloved community” to come into fruition because it requires that centralized institutions work well in tandem with grassroots relief organizations, that each side is utilized for its different strengths and that in their cooperation, their nature as adversaries take a backseat. “Antiwar, environmental, social justice, human rights, and other movements generate new communities, often transcending old divides, and in the process bringing something of that urgency, purposefulness, suspension of everyday concerns, fellowship, and social joy also found in disaster,” Solnit says (286). Thus, communities are built by the neighbors that run grassroots organizations and with the wide-encompassing scope of more centralized institutions. This, Solnit’s book argues, is most capable after disasters– when the fundamental human nature is discovered as being compassionate, loving, and neighborly. We are, indeed, our brother’s keeper.
Different organizations that may have been built around opposing ideologies, who may have in everyday life become enemies of one another accomplish solidarity in times of disaster, Solnit argues. She lists two very good examples of these between organizations like Common Ground, whose founding came out of the same message as well as at least one member of the Black Panthers militant group of the 1960s, and the Rainbow Family, which derived from the hippie counterculture and LGBT rights advocacy movements. Common Ground found solidarity amid the huge socioeconomic racial divide in New Orleans and amid the racist portrayals of looters and criminals in the Katrina aftermath on news media worldwide. The Rainbow Family likewise found solidarity with evangelical Christians in the disaster relief community. Barriers break down and adversarial drawbacks dissolve in the service of fellow citizens when disaster strikes.
Decentralized decision-making and democratic community-building arrive to us, Solnit argues, through the material devastation of disaster. By providing disruption to everyday life, the ruins of disaster have revolutionary potential to thwart privatization and elitist fear. Joy from disaster, love from desperation, paradise from hell has been the major preface to what Solnit throws back out to the readers in her Epilogue. Solnit leaves us with this: “it is poverty and powerlessness that make people vulnerable” (308). As climate change accelerates and inflates disaster, the elites will panic and try to privatize. One’s job, then, as moral citizen is to see disaster as an opportunity rather than a damnation.