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 | Rebecca Solnit

Ancestral Night. Elizabeth Bear. Wanderer's Odyssey - Books 1 to 3. Simon Goodson. Too Like the Lightning. Ada Palmer. Red Sister. Six Wakes. Mur Lafferty.

Journal of Homeland Security and Emergency Management

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Interview with California Reads author Rebecca Solnit

Eric Thomson. But their panic is also inseparable from their own self interest, reflecting their need to justify the ongoing concentration of power in their hands. If the public is permitted to take control, and it succeeds, the bureaucracy and hierarchy on which elite power is based will be exposed as illegitimate. This principle holds true for the everyday functioning of society, but is especially true in times of disaster, when bureaucratic organizations like FEMA or the military are expected to perform with competence and agility to protect the public.

Solnit notes that in disaster, "They are being tested most harshly at what they do least well" p. These fears are justified: the past century featured many dictators and oligarchic regimes who met their downfall in large part as the result of their inability or unwillingness to address crises e. Solnit rightly emphasizes the central role of the corporate media in propagating disaster myths that justify intensified hierarchy, militarization, and repression.

The best example is again Katrina, when respected press outlets like CNN reported "rampaging gangs" and widespread "looting" in New Orleans based on little or no evidence, often mischaracterizing the necessary requisitioning of emergency food and medicine from flooded stores as "theft" especially when black men were photographed doing it. They uncritically reported the comments of the New Orleans mayor and police chief, who disingenuously told stories of "hooligans killing people" and "little babies getting raped" inside the Superdome sports complex in which thousands had taken shelter pp.

She is interested not just in the immediate aftermath of disasters, but also with "larger questions about how human beings behave in the absence of coercive authority and what kind of societies are possible" p. She is ultimately concerned with disasters for what they suggest about the everyday, arguing that "to recognize and realize these desires and these possibilities in ordinary times…without crisis or pressure is the great contemporary task of being human" pp.

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Obviously there is no magic recipe for doing so, though she does suggest that religious and activist groups can help foster the spirit of "beloved community" at the heart of strong grassroots movements and meaningful human existence in general. In this regard her work follows in the tradition not only of the disaster sociologists but of labor and business historians who have demonstrated the viability of non-bureaucratic forms of industrial organization in England and the US prior to ; as these scholars have proven, less-hierarchical forms of industrial production were eliminated in the nineteenth century not due to any inherent inefficiency but because of the power of factory owners and ascendant corporations who promoted the factory model and specific forms of technology in large part as a way of better controlling the workforce and raising profits [3].

Proving that more desirable alternatives are indeed possible—that there is nothing in human nature that consigns humanity to the misery, hierarchy, and oppression that characterizes so much of our current world—is no small contribution in a time when many in this country and around the world are so disillusioned that, as Solnit notes, they "do not even hope for a better society" p.

Convincing the excluded majority that alternatives are possible is also a key step in the process that scholars of social movements have called "cognitive liberation": in order to participate in a movement for change, cynical people must first become convinced that the current order is not inevitable [4]. I have just one minor quibble with the book. In similar fashion, elites around the world have co-opted indigenous discourses of autonomy to shirk their tax obligations to poorer regions.

I am sure Solnit would agree that for the time being the state must be held to certain responsibilities like providing social services to the general population and supplying material resources in times of disaster: she is very critical of the wave of privatization that followed Katrina, for example. But in a political culture like that of the United States where the right-wing, neo-libertarian vilification of "government" has become so widespread—while remaining almost silent with regard to the corporate interests that are far less democratic and do far more to undermine democracy—this caveat needs to be enunciated more explicitly.

However, A Paradise Built in Hell exaggerates the joyousness of conditions in places like Mexico City, where at least 10, people died and , lost their homes. Emergency planning, such as securing levees, can help protect the vulnerable. Nonetheless, this is a bracing, timely book.



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