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

3.85 of 5 stars 3.85  ·  rating details  ·  650 ratings  ·  160 reviews
A startling investigation of what people do in disasters and why it matters

Why is it that in the aftermath of a disaster? whether manmade or natural?people suddenly become altruistic, resourceful, and brave? What makes the newfound communities and purpose many find in the ruins and crises after disaster so joyous? And what does this joy reveal about ordinarily unmet socia
Hardcover, 353 pages
Published August 20th 2009 by Viking Adult (first published January 1st 2009)
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Riku Sayuj
Mar 20, 2014 Riku Sayuj rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommended to Riku by: Worldwatch

What is the moral equivalent of war?

Solnit’s book is in many ways an extended argument (with examples) on William James’ essay on his famous question: “What is the moral equivalent of war?” - Based on the premise that war is an ennobling bringing-together of humans and that the experience is uplifting and necessary and an equivalent would be a wonderful thing to find.

Everyone from Hobbes to Hollywood filmmakers has assumed and showcased that when disaster strikes, society crumbles. They show thi
Dec 01, 2010 David rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone
Before reading this book I was not a fan of Rebecca Solnit. Upon the insistent recommendation of several friends who rarely steer me wrong, a few years ago I bought a copy of her earlier book about Eadweard Muybridge ("River of Shadows") and found it completely unreadable. I could sense that Solnit was smart, but it was as if she were speaking in tongues - wading through her prose was sheer torment. So I ditched it.

About a month ago I heard her speak about this latest book on a local radio progr
Jun 05, 2012 Richard rated it 1 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Nope.
Recommended to Richard by: SFPL
Many folks might enjoy this book, but I'm not one of 'em.

There are two principle reasons for this, one of which is forgivable, the other is not.

The first is that this is a very personal book. No, it isn't TMI about the author, but her opinions and biases are evident throughout the story. When I see a title like this, I'm expecting something like what Simon Winchester has done numerous times (for example, this or this or especially this, or this one that turns out wasn't by him). Even this topic
Jan 26, 2010 Dan rated it 4 of 5 stars
Shelves: 2010
not solnit's best book, but still pretty remarkable. it's tough not to think of naomi klein's the shock doctrine while reading it. in a sense, it's a correction to some of klein's assumptions about community response in the face of catastrophes. both writers are extremely skeptical about neoliberal "relief" efforts - as well as state power in general. but solnit's perspective is more optimistic about grassroots organization - as well as more directly simpathetic to anarchism than her earlier wor ...more
Lorianne DiSabato
A fascinating exploration of how people actually behave in the aftermath of disasters and why some disasters lead to an upsurge of community while others lead to social chaos. Solnit shows through sociological research and numerous anecdotes how the belief that the masses naturally panic during disasters is a myth created in large part by social forces trying to stay in power and fueled by media hype. If given the chance, Solnit suggests, strangers will go to extraordinary lengths to help one an ...more
Travis Todd
So, yeah, by the time I dragged myself across the finish line I was so oversaturated with Solnit's passion for community that I wanted to hole up in some remote mountain cabin with guns and ammunition and food and books as far away from human contact as possible. I didn't want to hug or look with warmth upon another human being ever again. I'm glad she presents examples of people acting with compassion and resilience under disastrous conditions, and is such an incorrigible optimist, but I couldn ...more
This book is pretty incredible, and I would recommend it to anyone. The argument builds from the 1906 San Francisco earthquake (and subsequent fire) to Hurricane Katrina, through many stops in between, showing how civilized society is a very thin veneer beneath which lies... community and familial love. Looting and panic and random hysterical violence is largely a hyperbole of the very frightened elite. So the touchpoint, throughout, is that the real disaster is a society which keeps people apar ...more
A challenging book, causing one to think whether the author's case is convincing or slightly askew. Perhaps the balance between good and evil depends on how important for the long term are the benefits to the local civilization in terms of spirit, morale, sociability, economic vigor, and spiritual strength. Yet how can the sum of those be weighed against the physical tragedy, the personal suffering, the days and months of effort lost? -- this is weighing the sum of two types of conditions, one a ...more
I am a big fan of Solnit’s and consider her River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West one of my all time favorites. For the first two thirds of A Paradise Built in Hell, however,I found the repetition of the author's main point that quasi-utopian communities often, or even almost always, arise during disasters a bit tedious. Most interesting to me were the details of the particular disasters themselves. I appreciated the accounts rather more than the theorizing. Solnit ...more
Read this for our latest book club selection. My first book read on a Nook. (When I really got into the story, I kept forgetting how to turn the pages at first!) This reads like a sociology text book where the author is attempting to prove a theory. Her basic theory is as I quote Anne Frank "because I still believe, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart." She wants to prove that in times of disaster, people's instincts are intrinsically better than what movies and the gener ...more
Brent Neal
Solnit's thesis is that the ordinary folk tend to not act like animals when the poop starts flying. Well and good. She has gathered a mountain of research on the subject, which I love to see. My own inclinations (and personal experiences) tend to support her thesis.

What makes this book tough is that the writing is profoundly uncritical of the primary sources and while the examples chosen were chosen well, it is hard not to feel like confirmation bias had crept into the writing of the book. Even
A really interesting book. Made me think about disasters in an entirely new way and to be more optimistic about people's longing for community. This book seems to think communities can and do arise and that that can happen at precisely the moment which conventional wisdom tells us is when we are least able to care for ourselves and one another. Why, because civil institutions have our back under normal circumstances. But when those institutions are temporarily disabled after a disaster, conventi ...more
Solnit's theme is a most-timely one for those of us interested in up-ending current myths about how people experience and behave during disasters. She brings together extensive quotations from those who broke this ground: Henry James, Dorothy Day, Peter Kropotkin, and the sociologists of disaster studies. The only reason she hasn't got five stars is that her prose begins to tire somewhere in the middle. When she gets away from the people -- the first person narratives she gleaned from newspaper ...more
I have long believed that as a general rule, the vast majority of people handle disasters generously and altruistically. This books provides the evidence to back me up. It also talks about how the specter of looters or violence is useful for government agencies to invoke in order to more easily control the population, both before and after any kind of infrastructure breakdown. But in most cases, spontaneously arranged responses to emergencies are more effective than top-down organized responses, ...more
Sigrid Fry-Revere
This book is an analysis of how people work together in disasters. It is generally very critical of government responses and talks about elite panic as a contributing factor to having things go wrong in how disasters are handled. I knew a little about the Katrina disaster but what happened in earlier disasters such as the 1906 San Francisco earthquake / Fire and Halifax Canada explosion were new to me.

Whether or not you agree with the communalist anarchist tone of the book, the descriptions of
Martin Empson
A Paradise Built in Hell ought to be read widely. All the latest climate change science suggests that the world is going to experience increased extreme weather, from floods and heatwaves, to hurricanes and rising sea levels. Solnit's book is important for two reasons. The first is that the "extraordinary communities" that arise in disasters are going to occur more often. The second is that the response from those at the top of society is often the worst way to respond to disasters and reflects ...more
Michael Livingston
4.5 probably. This is a rare book that makes you fundamentally assess your view of humanity. Solnit uses the sociology of disasters to examine human nature, highlighting that hugely positive way that communities and individuals respond in times of stress. She highlights the breaking down of social barriers and the sense of purpose and almost joy that people report in the aftermath of earthquakes, floods and other disasters. In contrast to popular (and government) beliefs, people don't revert to ...more
Her thesis is that after disasters, ordinary people quickly find ways to help each other and come together in new communities of hope and optimism, despite loss. Authorities and elites are certain that there will be riots and chaos and come in to rule with a heavy hand - for instance, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, communal kitchens were quickly set up and neighbors helped each other fight fires, while the authorities drove off amateur fire fighting attempts and caused more damage, and ...more
the last third of this book is a winner, concerns the disasters of 9/11 in New York and Katrina in New Orleans. Concerning this latter it is amazing the optimism that comes from this book.
Angie Fehl
Having grown up around EMT workers, and now being a firefighter's wife myself, the topic of this book struck my curiosity. Unfortunately, I didn't love it. There were some points of interest for me here and there, but I was disappointed with the distanced, heavily journalistic tone of book. Yes, I understand it is non-fiction, but I've seen the "nonfiction written like a novel" done really well in other books and I feel like this topic would have been the perfect place to go that route. Too dry ...more
It's amazing to discover in this book that the actual events that ensue after many disasters like Hurricane Katrina are not characterized by mass looting and chaos but by the mutual aid and support shared by a wide cross-section of afflicted people. For the most part this altruistic response is carried out by those most affected by the disaster and not by the relatively unscathed elites. This is very different from the Hollywoodized version which depicts widespread lawlessness and societal break ...more
A wonderful, rich book that absolutely everyone should read. Would have given it 5 stars, but frankly, it didn't move me quite the way Solnit's Field Guide to Getting Lost did, so I give it 4 in order to save the 5.

This book is nominally about disasters and the social-psychology of what happens to regular people when they happen. But I think it is actually an extended, gentle argument for anarchism more generally. Her repeated theme is that when good things happen out of bad situations, it is be
SOOOOO excited to start reading this! My favorite writer by far. She's always giving me concrete reasons to try to reform my cynical, curmudgeonly ways.. a very hard task, but she is just so darned smart and charming. And superbly honest about difficult subjects, which is really what wins me over. Looking forward to being inspired once again!

About halfway through:
I'm kinda disappointed! I don't feel like the book has really started yet, more gone through the motions of introducing a string of ex
It's a joy to read scholarship that is affirming and challenges conventional thinking about human nature. Solnit's basic thesis is that although we believe that disasters lead to looting, violence, and social chaos, in reality the vast majority of people step up and engage in mutual aid and social organizing for community support and survival. Though there are always a few looters and opportunists, the majority of social chaos in disasters comes from "elite panic": governments, police/military, ...more
Stephie Jane Rexroth
Rebecca Solnit describes the many things that matter in disaster—as in everyday life: beliefs matter, ties, networks and connections matter, empathy matters, altruism, mutual aid and solidarity matters, community matters, purpose, usefulness and meaning matters, civil society matters, hope, love and joy matters, people matter.


"The ruts and routines of ordinary life hide more beauty than brutality."

"This is how disaster and revolution come to resemble each other. In some ways a disaster m
Aspen Junge
This book is a love letter to the better angels of human nature. In our worst moments, when disaster strikes and everything you have is gone, people's instincts are invariably to help one another in whatever way is needed.

Forget the idea of panicked people running through the streets trampling over one another is mindless frenzy. That's only in the overheated imaginations of authoritarians and Hollywood film makers. The stereotype is so unlikely that sociologists who have studied disasters canno
James Tracy
Here's a review I wrote, reposted from Organizing Upgrade:

Review of Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster

Disasters have always punctuated history. The types of events once considered generation defining are now tailed by new catastrophes—short years, months and often weeks. The past decade offers a catalogue of woe—hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes.

The politics of Disaster Capitalism, as detailed by Naomi Klein are hardwired into this
David Carr
This is the book I am taking with me to recommend when I speak to library and museum groups, and it is one that I would ask my students to study. It is a fine reading experience, and it causes the reader to want more of Solnit's other diverse writings. This is not fiction, but the book has a compelling narrative, telling sequential stories of disasters -- floods, earthquakes, terrorist attacks, monstrous explosions -- from the humane, constructive side, where experiences are rarely recorded. And ...more
Richard Conlin
Feb 21, 2010 Richard Conlin rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Everyone
Recommended to Richard by: Washington Post Book World
Don't be put off or confused by this title! Rebecca Solnit writes a gripping and engrossing account of how people and communities respond to disasters by working together to help each other, why community response can make all the difference in changing the course of a disaster, and how fear, the media, and poorly thought out top-down responses can hurt, rather than help, these efforts.

Solnit examines a range of disasters from the San Francisco earthquake a hundred years ago to Katrina, and tell
Virginia Bryant
This book is an really good argument for community empowerment and positive actions that highlight most peoples’ innate desire and competence to assist each other in disasters, rather than the top down dominator savagery that authorities use through bureaucracies to control, and more often than not, harm populations with the execution of the worst violence and injustices. The main thesis is that civil society is what is best at saving and aiding afflicted populations, rather than top down contro ...more
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Rebecca Solnit (b. 1961) is the author of numerous books, including Hope in the Dark, River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, Wanderlust: A History of Walking, and As Eve Said to the Serpent: On Landscape, Gender, and Art, which was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award in Criticism. In 2003, she received the prestigious Lannan Literary Award.
More about Rebecca Solnit...
Men Explain Things to Me A Field Guide to Getting Lost The Faraway Nearby Wanderlust: A History of Walking River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West

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“The possibility of paradise hovers on the cusp of coming into being, so much so that it takes powerful forces to keep such a paradise at bay. If paradise now arises in hell, it's because in the suspension of the usual order and the failure of most systems, we are free to live and act another way.” 4 likes
“This is a paradise of rising to the occasion that points out by contrast how the rest of the time most of us fall down from the heights of possibility, down into diminished selves and dismal societies. Many now do not even hope for a better society, but they recognize it when they encounter it, and that discovery shines out even through the namelessness of their experience. Others recognize it, grasp it, and make something of it, and long-term social and political transformations, both good and bad, arise from the wreckage. The door to this ear's potential paradises is in hell.” 3 likes
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