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

Photo by courtesy of Rob Woodcox

In her book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster1 Rebecca Solnit investigates disasters and reveals a fleeting, purposeful joy of public life that fills human beings in the aftermath of a disaster. Nobody wishes for these events to happen, yet the startling thing is that they “bring out the best in us” and “provide a shift away from an everyday diet of trivia to major questions about life, death, politics, and meaning”.

Solnit presents a perception of humankind so distinct from the prevalent and still profoundly dominant Hobbesian and capitalist models of individualism and competition. She replaces this constructed image of a ‘singular and universal concept of the human nature’ with the reality of the plurality of human natures: “The study of disasters makes it clear that there are plural and contingent natures — but prevalent human nature in disasters is resilient, resourceful, generous, empathic, and brave.”

Disasters interrupt the continuity of everyday life and create a transcendent situation of illumination, a clearing in which the possibility of a new future becomes visible and, therefore, can become a reality. It is a future defined by community, purposefulness, altruism, solidarity, and mutual aid. From this point of view, Solnit recognises the similarities between disasters and revolutions and how these events bring about civil society.

With this selection of my Favourite Quotes, I genuinely wish to motivate you to read the book and to get inspired by this different view of humanity. Solnit’s book offers the necessary hope that, indeed, together, we can change all that urgently needs to be changed. Especially in these times of climate emergency. A time that already confronts us with disasters and many more to come.

The crisis of disaster and the joy of public life

“Who are you? Who are we? In times of crisis, these are life-and-death questions.”

“What you believe shapes how you act. How you act results in life or death, for yourself or others.”

“Horrible in itself, disaster is sometimes a door back into paradise, the paradise at least in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and are each our sister’s and brother’s keeper.”

“We cannot welcome disaster, but we can value the responses, both practical and psychological.”

“When I ask people about the disasters they have lived through, […] it was the joy on their faces [and in their words] that surprised me. […] It should not be so, is not so, in the familiar version of what disaster brings, and yet it is there, arising from the rubble, from ice, from fire, from storms and floods. The joy matters as a measure of otherwise neglected desires, desires for public life and civil society, for inclusion, purpose, and power.”

“[The] point is not to welcome disasters. They do not create these gifts, but they are one avenue through which these gifts arrive. Disasters provide an extraordinary window into social desire and possibility, and what manifests there matters elsewhere, in ordinary times and in extraordinary times.”

“[Disaster] drags us into emergencies that require we act, and act altruistically, bravely, and with initiative in order to survive or save the neighbours.”

“[The accounts of disaster survivors] demonstrate that the citizens any paradise would need — the people who are brave enough, resourceful enough, and generous enough — already exist. […] 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.”

“The word emergency comes from emerge, to rise out of, the opposite of merge, which comes from mergere, to be within or under a liquid, immense, submerged. An emergency is a separation from the familiar, a sudden emergence into a new atmosphere, one that often demands we ourselves rise to the occasion.”

The old order and the brief moment of utopia

“In the moment of disaster, the old order no longer exists and people improvise rescues, shelters and communities. Thereafter, a struggle takes place over whether the old order with all its shortcomings and injustices will be reimposed or a new one, perhaps more oppressive or perhaps more just and free, like the disaster utopia, will arise.”

“Imagine a society where money plays little or no role, where people rescue each other and then care for each other, where food is given away, where life is mostly out of doors in public, where the old divides between people seem to fall away, and the fate that faces them, no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world.”

“It is by its very nature unsustainable and evanescent, but like a lightning flash it illuminates ordinary life, and like lightning it sometimes shatters the old forms. It is utopia for many people, though it is only a brief moment during terrible times.”

“This utopia matters, because almost everyone has experienced some version of it and because it is not the result of a partisan agenda but rather a broad unplanned effort to salvage society and take care of the neighbours amid wreckage.”

“Utopia is in trouble these days. Many no longer believe that a better world, as opposed to a better life, is possible, and the rhetoric of private well-being trumps public good.”

Social utopias and plurality

“These remarkable societies suggest that, just as many machines reset themselves to their original settings after a power outage, so human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful, and imaginative after a disaster, that we revert to something we already know how to do. The possibility of paradise is already within us as a default setting.”

“Most utopian visions nowadays include many worlds, many versions, rather than a coercive one true way.”

“[Disaster] throws us into the temporary utopia of transformed human nature and society, one that is bolder, freer, less attached and divided than in ordinary times, not blank, but not tied down.”

“Finding the balance between independence and fellowship is one of the ongoing utopian struggles.”

“Elites and authorities often fear the changes of disaster or anticipate that the change means chaos and destruction, or at least the undermining of the foundations of their power. So a power struggle often takes place in disaster — and real political and social change ca result, from that struggle or from the new sense of self and society that emerges.”

“The future holds many more disasters because of such factors as climate change and the likelihood of large earthquakes on long-dormant or semi dormant faults, as well as increases in the vulnerability of populations who have moved to coasts, to cities, to areas of risk, to flimsy housing, to deeper poverty, shallower roots, and frailer support networks.”

The social self and the plurality of human nature

“[A] king is not his country, and a government is not the people.”

“Much self-interest is more often about amassing future benefit than protecting present comfort.”

“The individual, the isolated self was dead. The social self was regnant.”

“Many would not consider property crimes significant when lives are at stake — and the term looting conflates the emergency requisitioning of supplies in a crisis without a cash economy with opportunistic stealing. Diaster scholars now call this fear-driven overreaction elite panic.”

“At stake in disaster is the question of human nature. The term itself has fallen out of fashion. It implies a fixed essence, a universal and stable inner self, but if you concede that there are many human natures, shaped by culture and circumstance, that each of us contains multitudes, then the majority of human natures on display in disaster may not suggest who we are ordinarily or always, but they do suggest who we could be and tend to be in these circumstances.”

“There are at least two tendencies in disasters, [the] fear that [breeds] conflict and [the] solidarity that [generates] joy. The response to disaster depends in part on who you are — a journalist has different duties than a general — but who you become is also an outgrowth of what you believe.”

“The struggles of our times have been as much to change beliefs — about gender, about race — as to change policy, for the policy changes are largely an outcome of changed belief. Ideas matter.”

“[Civic temper] suggests social engagement not just as a duty but also as an appetite and an orientation.”

Worldliness: love of the world

“Conventional therapy, necessary and valuable at times to resolve private crises and suffering, presents a very incomplete sense of self. As a guide to a range of human possibility it is grimly reductive. It will help you to deal with your private shames and pains, but it won’t generally have much to say about your society and your purpose on earth.”

“Nor will it ordinarily diagnose people as suffering from social alienation, meaninglessness, or other anomies that arise from something other than the familial and erotic life. It more often leads to personal adjustment than social change.”

“Such a confinement of desire and possibility to the private serves the status quo as well: it describes no role for citizenship and no need for social change or engagement.”

“What if a vision for a better world or just, say, a better transit system is a legitimate passion? What if your sense of self is so vast that your well-being includes these broad and idealistic engagements.”

“We have most of us a deep desire for this democratic public life, for a voice, for membership, for purpose and meaning that cannot be only personal. We want larger selves and a larger world.”

“The largeness of the world is one of the balms to personal woe, and each of us enlarges the world by idealistic pasion and engagement. Meaning must be sought out; it is not built into most people’s lives.”

Solidarity, not charity

“Mutual aid means that every participant is both giver and recipient in acts of care that bind them together, as distinct from the one-way street of charity. In this sense it is reciprocity, a network of people cooperating to meet each others’ wants and share each other’s wealth.”

“People [prefer] to care for each other rather than to be cared for by strangers or governed by other.”

“Altruism and charity are distinct if not in the acts themselves at least in the surrounding atmosphere: altruism reaches across with a sense of solidarity and empathy; charity hands doen from above. The latter always runs the risk of belittling, patronising, or otherwise diminishing its recipients in underscoring the difference between this who have and those who need. It takes away a sense of self while giving material aid.”

“Giving is itself the gift, and there can be deep mutuality between giver and recipient in the horizontality of altruism rather than the hierarchy of charity. More complex exchanges take place in the arts: is it the writer or singer who is giving the work, or the reader or listener who brings the gift of attention, or are they knit together in a mutuality whose give-and-take is complicated? Seen in a larger context, continual exchanges knit together a society, from the conversation of which it is made.”

“Capitalism’s fundamental premise is scarcity, while a lot of tribal and gift economies operate on a basis of abundance. Their generosity is both an economic and an ethical premise.”

“Cooperation rather than competition can be the key to survival.”

“Any configuration of humanity in disaster needs to include altruism as well as solidarity.”

“[In] taking care of others such altruists are taking care of their sense of self, their ideals, and their hopes for society.”

“[We] need meaning and purpose in order to survive, and need them so profoundly we sometimes choose them over our survival.”

“Disaster, along with moments of social upheaval, is when the shackle of conventional belief and role fall away and the possibilities open up.”

The interruption of disaster that opens possibilities

“Near-death experiences and encounters with one’s own mortality are often clarifying, tools with which to cut away inessentials and cleave to the essence of life and purpose. Illness and accidents can produce the same reinvigorated gratitude and appetite.”

“[Charles E.] Fritz’s first radical premise is that everyday life is already a disaster of sorts, one from which actual disaster liberates us. He points out that people suffer and die daily, though in ordinary times, they do so privately, separately. And he writes, “The traditional contrast between ‘normal’ and ‘disaster’ almost always ignores or minimises these recurrent stresses of everyday life and their personal and social effects. It also ignores a historically consistent and continually growing body of political and social analyses that points to the failure of modern societies to fulfil and individual’s basic human needs for community identity.”

“Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions, and anxieties associated with the past and future because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs within the context of the present realities.”

“[Fritz’] essays hint that disaster is relatively easy, at leas in knowing what to do and who to be. It is everyday life that is hard, with its complications and ambiguities, its problems to which no easy solution can be found, its conflicts between people because of economics and ideologies that become relatively insignificant in crisis.”

“Disasters without redemptive moments raise the question of redemptive moments, without disaster.”

“And then there’s religion. Congregations in temples, synagogues, churches, and mosques form a tangible community of sorts, reaffirmed weekly. Whatever one’s beliefs, regular attendance can convey both a sense of membership in that human society and a support network in times of crisis.”

“Disaster encourages non attachment to material goods as well as to past and future, or rather less attachment to abstractions and objects and more to other beings and states of being.”

“Transcendence sneaks in everywhere as a survival response.”

“The awareness of mortality that hheightens a sense of life as an uncertain gift rather than a burdensome given also recalls religious teachings, and it is often shared by survivors of individual traumas.”

“Life takes on a new meaning and one’s own life is often reprioritised. In [the psychological] work with survivors of life-threatening diseases, crimes, and accidents, men and women frequently reported that only now can they truly enjoy life because they no longer take it for granted.”

“Disaster shocks us out of slumber, but only skilful effort keeps us awake.”

“[In] disaster we need an open society based on trust in which people are free to exercise their capacities for improvisation, altruism, and solidarity. In fact, we need it all the time, only most urgently in disaster.”

“At large in disaster are two populations: a great majority that tends towards altruism and mutual aid and a minority whose callousness and self-interest often become a second disaster.”

The appearance of civil society in disasters and revolutions: the power from below

“Utopia itself is rarely more than an ideal or an ephemeral pattern on which to shape the real possibilities before us.”

“In finding a deep connection with one another, people also [find] a sense of power, the power to do without the government, to replace its functions, and to resist it in many ways. […] When what had long been the status quo [is] found to be unbearable […], change follows.”

“[Václav Havel] defines civil society as “a society in which citizens participate — in many parallel, mutually complementary ways — in public life, in the administration of public goods, and in public decisions … The functions of the state and of its structures in such a society are limited only to that which cannot be performed by anyone else, such as legislation, national defence and security, the enforcement of justice, etc.” You could say that civil society is what unimpaired mutual aid creates; or that civil society is the condition and mutual aid the activity that produces it.”

“[The] success of civil society can be measured by how effectively it shapes government to its needs and desires.”

“A revolution not only removes a regime but also tears away its justification for governing. So does a disaster.”

“This is how disaster and revolution come to resemble each other. In some ways a disaster merely brings the existing tensions, conflicts, and tendencies in a society and its government to light or to a crisis point.”

“Often in disaster, the government is at least inadequate to the crisis, not infrequently, it s so disarrayed as to be irrelevant or almost nonexistent.”

“In the absence of government people govern themselves. Everyone from Hobbes to Hollywood film-makers has assumed this means “law of the jungle” chaos. What in fact takes place is another kind of anarchy, where the citizenry by and large organise and care for themselves.”

“In the immediate aftermath of disaster, government fails as if it had been overthrown and a civil society succeeds as though it has revolted.”

“Of course a government that is reasonably popular and responds reasonably well faces a very different situation.”

“Increased pluralism, social mobility, political opportunity, and, in the end, democracy are the most important and enduring.”

“The relationship between disaster and revolution has seldom been explored, though it crops up throughout the history of revolutions.”

“[The] resemblance and ties between disaster and revolution matter. If a revolution is a disaster — which many who opposed them would heartily endorse — it is so because a disaster is also a utopia of sorts; the two phenomena share aspects of solidarity, uncertainty, possibility, and the upending of the ordinary systems governing things — the rupture of the rules and the opening of many doors.”

“We could think of revolutions as carnivals, for whatever good they create in the long term it is only in the moment that they create the sense of openness to each other and to possibility that is so exhilarating. That is imagined as moments of renewal and reinvention rather than attempts to secure some good permanently, we could see the ephemeral utopia they create with new eyes.”

“Disaster’s message that any thing could happen is not so far away from revolution’s exhortation that everything is possible.Revolutions beget a similar moment when the very air you breathe seems to pour out of a luminous future, when the people all around you are brothers and sisters, when you feel an extraordinary strength. Then the revolutionary moment of utter openness to the future turns into one future or another. Things get better or they get worse, but you are no longer transfigured, the people around you are no longer quite so beloved, and private life calls with its small, insistent whisper.”

“The ordinary and the extraordinary need each other, or rather everyday life needs to be interrupted from time to time — which is not to say that we need disaster, only that it sometimes supplies the interruption in which the other work of society is done. Carnival and revolution are likewise interruptions of everyday life, but their point is to provide something that allows you to return to that life with more power, more solidarity, more hope.”



  1. Solnit, Rebecca. A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. New York: Penguin, 2010.Print.
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