Disaster Optimism

A review of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell

(Author’s note: A good companion piece to this book is Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, recently published by PM Press.)

Review originally published at

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 generation’s activist lexicon. It is true, as she documents, capitalists have perfected the art and science of opportunism presented by disaster. Whether this practice is unique to neo-liberalism is still open to debate.

The expectation that human beings will behave at their worst without the market and the state is buttressed in today’s popular culture such as the The Hunger Games, Walking Dead and The Road.

Author Rebecca Solnit’s book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, offers another take on calamity. She documents the ways in which everyday communities have responded to disaster with a flood of mutual aid, resiliency and even joy. Originally published in 2009, Paradise’s shelf life has been extended through the San Francisco Public Library’s “One City, One Book” program.

Solnit provides ample evidence of the strength communities can muster in disaster. From the survivor camps of the 1906 to Common Ground’s radical relief in New Orleans she shows that human nature doesn’t have to take a right turn during disaster. Even the most optimistic might find surprises in the wealth of human solidarity found when the chips were down in Mexico City, Chernobyl, and Managua.

Solnit is a politically savvy thinker, but she never weights her vision down with ideological rigidity. She didn’t write her book as a handbook for political organizing, yet her take on human potential should cause Community Organizers to reconsider some sacred cows. It is deeply subversive as it wrecks the assumption that disaster must always bring out the catastrophe in the human personality. She provides evidence that our condition at least temporarily improves as the walls fall down around us.

Modern-day organizing draws from two main approaches: Deficit-Demand and Asset-Based. Organizers following the first current dutifully catalogue the problems a community faces, and catalyze demands to at least partially solve them. Necessary work to be sure, but hewn with the danger of constantly transferring what little power a community already has to a policy maker who can “give the community what it wants.”

Asset-Based organizing can lead towards another cliff. Taking stock of a community’s existing strengths and resources, and redirecting them towards building alternative economic development is essential. This model has many faces ranging from liberal small business development to radical minded neighborhood projects. But building a new world in the shell of the old often hits the wall of old-fashioned power relationships embedded in the unholy trinity of real-estate, poverty and racism.

Today’s organizers would do well to mine Solnit’s book for creative ways to move beyond our self-imposed limits. History has shown too many examples of political revolutions won; only to be sunk as few of society’s backwards practices were challenged. Likewise, all of the prefigurative magic of a community garden is rendered null and void underneath a bulldozer. There are no easy answers here, just guideposts linking the politics of mutual aid with the task of building a better world.

What Solnit gives her readers is a glimpse of human potential larger than our states and market places. She notes that these are simply glimpses, and more often than not fail to provide permanent transformation. She resists the temptation to speculate on what is to be done, but perhaps provides something more profound—the tools to recognize the power of what lays unharnessed in our world.

One thought on “Disaster Optimism

  1. Its such as you learn my thoughts! You appear to know
    so much about this, such as you wrote the e book in it or something.
    I think that you could do with some p.c. to force the message house a bit, however instead of that, that is great blog.

    An excellent read. I will definitely be back.

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