A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit Part 1

When disaster strikes, many people believe all hell breaks loose and it’s every person for themselves, but in her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit makes the case that people actually pull together and become more altruistic than normal in the wake of catastrophe.

San Francisco

She starts with a description of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, arguably the worst disaster to happen in 99 years. Author Jack London reported that there was no screaming, crying, or panicking like we’d expect from watching disaster movies. People remained calm. While the city was in ruins, many poor people received aid for the first time in their lives, so for some people, it was a step up. Neighbors pooled their resources and helped each other out.

Solnit acknowledges rich people and out-of-towners did indeed act selfishly and only looked out for themselves. Some people profited from the disaster. Some meat packing companies gave their meat away to people in need, but other meat packing companies let their meat rot instead. So we get both altruism and selfishness in the wake of disaster. Most of the evidence Solnit gives to support her theory is anecdotal, but that may be the only evidence available for most disasters.

The government at the time treated the earthquake victims as criminals, making the whole situation even worse. The military took over the city, kicked people out of their houses, and used them as forced labor. General Funston believed his job was to protect the city from the people. The mayor authorized lethal force to prevent looting. Property was valued more than lives.

The soldiers made matters worse by accidentally starting several fires. Also, they looted themselves. In one instance, they shot a man digging through the rubble because they thought he was looting when in reality, he was trying to rescue someone. In another case, Mormon elders who were told to get supplies from a grocery store before it burned down accidentally went to the wrong store and one of them was killed for it.

How people act in a disaster depends on whether they are optimistic or pessimistic about human nature. If you think the worst of your fellow humans, you’ll assume they’re looting when they aren’t. And if you think property is more important than human lives, you’ll kill them for it.

People who experienced the quake firsthand, like the philosopher William James, were more cheerful and optimistic while people far away, like his brother, the author Henry James, were certain everything was horrible. Tragedy is easier to handle when it’s shared. This is why people who experience disasters are more upbeat than people who experience private suffering. Disasters also give people two of the things required for happiness: purpose and social connection. Putting out fires, helping the injured, and gathering supplies gives people a purpose and a sense of community they don’t usually have in their day-to-day lives. This is why disasters can ironically create a paradise for those who band together, even if the elites in power assume the worst and treat the disaster victims like criminals.

There was a moment in this section where Rebecca Solnit goes off on a preachy tangent about how she doesn’t own a TV because TV shows are stupid (and thus implying that anyone who watches TV is stupid). Not sure why she felt the need to include that here, but whatever.


In Halifax in 1917, a ship loaded with explosives as part of the war effort, accidentally blew up in the harbor killing 1500 people. It was the biggest explosion before nuclear weapons. One heroic railroad dispatcher, Vincent Coleman, sacrificed his life by rushing back to the telegraph office near the harbor to warn an approaching train with three hundred passengers to stay out of the area. “Hold up the train. Ammunition ship on fire making for Pier 6 and will explode. Guess this will be my last message. Goodbye boys.”

In the aftermath of the disaster, people worked together like they did after the San Francisco earthquake. There were rumors of people stealing rings from the dead, but Solnit tells us this didn’t happen. (I wonder how she could know this. How can you prove something didn’t happen?)

She tells us that once again only the authorities behaved badly while the common people were all good. She says bad behavior is the exception to the rule… but there do seem to be a lot of these exceptions.

In the Great Kano Earthquake in Japan in 1923, Koreans were blamed for starting fires and polluting the wells. About six thousand Koreans were killed by vigilante groups with the military and police sometimes joining in. So Solnit’s point isn’t that disasters bring out the best in everybody, rather, some people become more altruistic in the face of disaster while others don’t. She seems to be telling us that people are naturally cooperative except when they aren’t.

She quotes Thomas Paine who claimed America was a paradise after the American Revolution before the government took over. She tells us the French Revolution was paradise until it wasn’t. She asserts a lot of things without providing data. She relies on anecdotal evidence of people being good, and downplays or reinterprets the anecdotal evidence of people being bad.

She makes a good point that no society is entirely capitalistic since there are always cooperative and charitable organizations required to make any society work.

She seems to be a fan of anarchy and claims hunter gatherers are more bound together and cohesive than modern people. (I guess she hasn’t examined the data Steven Pinker presented in The Better Angles of Our Nature which shows 14 percent of hunter gatherers die a violent death compared with only one percent of people in state societies.)

Wealthy people tend to weather disasters better than the poor because society is built for them. In disasters, firefighters tend to let poor urban areas burn while protecting the remote affluent areas. She makes a good point that movies about disasters usually don’t make sense. Should meteorologists not tell people about hurricanes to keep them from panicking? In reality, the elites are the ones who panic, afraid the general public will act as selfishly as they themselves do.


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