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  • Dan Connors

Do disasters bring out the best in us?

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

“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.”

“It's tempting to ask why if you fed your neighbors during the time of the earthquake and fire, you didn't do so before or after.” Rebecca Solnit

Disasters- both natural and man-made, are things that we'd all like to avoid at all costs. They bring death, infirmity, chaos, and uncertainty as they rip up the fabric of people's lives. But is there a silver lining to these disasters that shows the more noble sides of the human race?

Every generation has to endure some sort of destructive, and unavoidable disasters like 9/11, Katrina, or The San Francisco Earthquake. Did these events reduce humanity to bloody patches of survivalists, or did they inspire selfless cooperation that the survivors still remember fondly? That is the question about this thought-provoking book, Paradise Built In Hell. Author Rebecca Solnit takes a look at what happened during and after several real-life disasters and compares them to popular Hollywood disaster movies.

Many people believe that humans are at heart selfish animals that need to be tamed by laws and law enforcement lest they destroy each other. Without the institutions to tame the beasts within each person, society could not function, even temporarily. So the theory goes that during a disaster, it's safest to assume that looting, murder, and worse will run rampant through the streets, making necessary a strong militaristic response to clamp down on society before that can happen.

The alternative view, however, is that at heart humans are good and cooperative, and will do what is needed during a disaster organically, with our without the help of the civic institutions that may or may not be functional. This is an ancient debate that goes back to philosopher Thomas Hobbes, (a human nature pessimist) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, (a human nature optimist) Given a true disaster situation where people are in danger and institutions are invisible, what do people do?

According to this book, the people are good side wins handily. Solnit covers the aftermath of the San Francisco Earthquake, 9/11, Katrina, and the German Blitz of London to tell stories of people in the worst situations acting bravely and selflessly to put out fires, give comfort to each other, open pop-up kitchens for survivors and rescuers, and venture into unsafe spaces to rescue people.

In New York City, amidst the shock and tragedy of 9/11, people came together like never before in a spirit of unity and brother (and sister) hood. In London, for eight long months, the citizens were bombed by German airplanes in an attempt to break the British spirit, but it turns out to have had the opposite effect. Citizens of London were more united and determined than ever. After the San Francisco Earthquake bucket brigades put out fires and impromptu cafes popped up to feed people.

The more depressing part of this book covers the Hobbesian overreaction by elites during all of these disasters. Fearing that their cities would be overtaken by unruly mobs, governments called in the military and treated the citizens with suspicion, fearing that they could turn violent at any moment. (According to the author that doesn't happen). The media plays into this hysteria by looking for the most sensational stories that will drive the best ratings. Rumors fly about people, especially minorities, looting, raping, and pillaging through all the chaos- with no basis in reality.

During the San Francisco Earthquake, civic leaders feared the first so much that they resorted to dynamiting buildings to create a fire break. This resulted in spreading the fires even further and making the burning of the city more of a disaster than the actual earthquake. City leaders failed after 9/11 by telling people in the North Tower to stay put, advice that they thankfully ignored. Mayor Guilani, who benefited the most from the disaster, was later panned for ignoring air quality concerns, moving the city's disaster response center to the WTC before the attack, and not improving fire department communications systems- leaving those up in the buildings with no way to communicate with each other.

Because of the Hobbesian fears that pre-disaster controls will fall apart, the elites and leaders during these chaotic situations tended to panic and overreact. Property became more important than people to some, and people were to be feared. The most depressing stories came from New Orleans after Katrina, when helpless, poor citizens were left behind in a flooded city with minimal help for days after the hurricane had passed. Katrina was compounded by racial animosities, as those left behind were predominantly black, while those able to escape were white. Black residents were kept at gunpoint and not allowed to leave in some areas, and those who went into the wrong neighborhoods were shot by roving gangs of white vigilantes.

Hollywood loves a good disaster, and some of the biggest disaster movies show ordinary people behaving badly while the movie heroes- usually white and male, somehow manage to figure out how to save lives with stirring music beside them. Disasters spawn many heroes, but they usually come in all shapes and sizes and are rarely heard about. This book points to the simple acts of heroism and kindness that follow disasters and asks the important question- why can't we be like that all of the time? Why does it take a disaster to bring out the best in us?

Humans are social animals, hungry for connection, and given the chance in times of need they can act creatively, altruistically, and kindly toward each other. Times of need are all around us- we shouldn't need a flood or hurricane to bring that to our attention. That is something from this book that stays with me.

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Thomas Cairns
Thomas Cairns
Jul 06, 2023

Heaven & Hell is in the mind of men.

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