February 26th 2019

Book Review: A Paradise Built in Hell

Due to the title and cover art, but perhaps more the current political zeitgeist and trends in publishing generally, I was expecting another somewhat predictable and pessimistic take on current affairs.

However, by describing various communities' responses to man-made and natural disasters, this book — subtitled The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster — actually paints a potential alternative vision of what society could be; one far more collaborative and local, less authoritarian and fearful. Through the 1917 Halifax Explosion, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake to 9/11, Solnit attempts to dismantle the idée reçue that communities affected by disaster need to be protected from rampaging hordes, requiring that government suppress panicked masses and save the day.

Unashamedly and really rather unexpectedly Rousseauian in her outlook, she argues that these Hobbesian beliefs are rarely true. No doubt it requires certain a kind of writing to make the argument that the victims of Hurricane Katrina were born free by the failure of the New Orleans flood protection levees, but somehow the point that genuine human connection is in chains on a day-to-day basis is well-argued without tedious apologies around the "benefits" possibly arising from the exigencies of a disaster.

Each story was certainly novel and interesting in itself (and it was worth a glance for this alone) but my hesitation in making a stronger recommendation is that I reached the conclusion feeling like I wanted something a little more. Indeed, argument constructed solely from anecdote can certainly be convincing, but there was little in the way of how we might proceed from the status quo to her Utopia.

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