Disaster Utopianism

Looking for paradise in catastrophic places

A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, by Rebecca Solnit, Viking, 353 pages, $17.95

It isn’t unusual for a TV reporter to get his facts wrong. It’s rarer for the images that accompany his dispatch to flagrantly contradict what he says. But on January 21, broadcasting in the aftermath of the earthquake that devastated Haiti, CNN correspondent Ivan Watson fretted about “chaotic crowds” as the camera showed people who were calm and patient. When Watson announced that we were watching a “chaotic scramble” onto a rescue ship, this was illustrated by a group of refugees carefully, methodically passing a baby onto the boat. Then, while more men and women peacefully loaded their luggage in the background, the reporter asked the ship’s owner his burning question: “Has anybody offered you any help with crowd control of these thousands of desperate people?”

Bizarre as the report was, it was only an especially egregious expression of beliefs that have taken hold in far more places than just CNN. The ideas are cultural truisms: that crowds are unruly and irrational, that people usually panic in an emergency, that disaster conditions are often marked by violence, theft, and other aggressive behavior. The assumptions are so ingrained that a Western reporter in Haiti can still see what he expects to see even as a different story unfolds right under his nose. (The fact that the crowd in question was poor and black may have influenced his assessment as well.)

Yet decades of empirical research have shown that the conduct captured by CNN’s cameras is much more common than the conduct described by CNN’s correspondent. The madness of crowds is an extraordinarily popular delusion: As New Scientist noted in a review of the literature last year, sociologists have found that mass gatherings “nearly always act in a highly rational way,” so much so that often “the best thing authorities can do is leave a crowd to its own devices.” Meanwhile, despite Hollywood’s clichés to the contrary, it is very rare for people to panic during an emergency. And the typical natural or technological disaster is followed not by a Mad Max war of all against all but by mutual aid in the rubble. Crime declines. Bottom-up cooperation flowers. Looting is rare, and when it does occur it usually amounts to scavenging, not theft. (If a store is half collapsed, the staff is nowhere to be found, and the food inside is going to spoil soon, is it really robbery to take some?)

After the quake, Haiti did see its share of murders, muggings, and rapes. It’s a high-crime country, and an earthquake isn’t enough to eradicate every gangster’s anti-social instincts. But the rumor mill magnified those incidents into something much more monstrous, as though it were impossible to walk outside after dark without being attacked by machete-wielding land pirates.

With time, as more people sent word from within the country, a much more positive picture emerged. “We wound our way through the camp asking for injured people who needed to get to the hospital,” the aid worker Sasha Kramer wrote in a dispatch for New American Media. “Despite everyone telling us that as soon as we did this we would be mobbed by people, I was amazed: As we approached each tent, people gently pointed us towards their neighbors, guiding us to those who were suffering the most.” At the hospital, a truck dropped off some food. “We braced ourselves for the fighting that we had heard would come,” Kramer recounted, “but in a miraculous display of restraint and compassion people lined up to get the food and one by one the bags were handed out without a single serious incident.”

Inigo Gilmore of The Guardian painted a similar portrait, concluding that “any violence is localised and sporadic; the situation is desperate yet not dangerous in general.” And in The New York Times, Damien Cave described a country that was benefiting not just from external assistance but from grassroots self-help. In Port-au-Prince, he reported, “small soup kitchens have sprung up with discounted meals, subsidized by Haitians with a little extra money.”

Yet those initial tales of rampant violence encouraged a centralized, militarized response to the crisis, erecting unnecessary barriers between the needy and outside help. The U.S. troops who occupied the country sometimes seemed to be putting security above food and medicine, with the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders seeing flights redirected to the Dominican Republic so the Pentagon’s planes could land in Haiti’s capital. The United Nations eventually asked the Americans to stop prioritizing military flights. But it was the U.N. whose rules insisted that aid workers couldn’t go out at night unless armed guards were present, a policy that prompted much protest from people who felt they could be doing much more to help the Haitians if their hands weren’t tied.

That’s the contrast at the heart of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, a flawed but fascinating book by the essayist Rebecca Solnit. On one hand there is the rich and inspiring record of communal self-help after devastating events. On the other hand there is the reaction of the people in authority. Some of them embrace the emergent order on the ground, but others act with paranoia, violence, and clumsy attempts to centrally plan the response.

Drawing heavily on firsthand accounts, Solnit describes cataclysms ranging from the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 to the Argentine economic collapse of 2001, waxing lyrically about the grit and generosity of the survivors. After the San Francisco quake, for example, the city quickly filled with makeshift shelters, clinics, and encampments, all bubbling over with both charity and good humor. One rapidly improvised soup kitchen fed 200 to 300 people a day while serving as a social center for the displaced, inspiring some visitors to put up a sign identifying it as the Palace Hotel, “naming it after the burned-out downtown luxury establishment that was reputedly once the largest hotel in the world.” Nearby, “a few women ran ‘The Oyster Loaf’ and the ‘Chat Noir’—two little shacks with [the first name] in fancy cursive. A shack in Jefferson Square was titled ‘The House of Mirth,’ with additional signs jokingly offering rooms for rent with steam heat and elevators.”

The government, meanwhile, was being deeply destructive. The forms that destruction took should be familiar to anyone who watched the botched official response to Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. In San Francisco, the authorities effectively (and illegally) imposed a state of martial law. The occupying forces conscripted residents into forced labor, prevented people from fighting fires (even as the Army used highly flammable gunpowder to make firebreaks, thus spreading rather than blocking the blaze), and shot civilians sifting through the rubble. At one point troops killed a man who had been trying to rescue someone trapped in the debris. The soldiers had assumed he was a looter.

Solnit paints the communities that blossom amid this wreckage and repression as little utopias—not deliberate efforts to build a better world, but “the temporary utopia of a transformed human nature and society, one that is bolder, freer, less attached and divided than in ordinary times.” These utopian impulses inform the political commentary that runs throughout her book. Sometimes this philosophizing runs off the rails, usually when Solnit decides to go off on a rant about consumerism or the exurban lifestyle. (For someone who tries to be attuned to forms of social cooperation that aren’t always visible to outsiders, Solnit seems surprisingly incurious about the ways such bonds might manifest themselves in a suburban subdivision.) But she is also making connections that were always implicit in the sociological literature but are rarely spoken aloud. 

Solnit is right: There are parallels between the mutual aid that follows an earthquake and the mutual aid celebrated by anarchists, between the civil society that bursts into view after a hurricane and the civil society that bursts into view during a popular uprising, between the rupture from everyday life that comes with a tsunami and the rupture from everyday life that comes with Carnival. If mainstream social scientists are reluctant to look at what one set of experiences can tell us about the others, then it’s good to see someone else exploring those connections.

That said, a political perspective can blind as well as illuminate. Solnit’s account of Katrina is curiously skewed, for example. Not content to point out that the media relayed false rumors of violence, that a fair amount of the “looting” was really scavenging, and that there was ultimately more social cooperation than social disintegration on the ground, she sometimes writes as though the only civic disorder after Katrina involved lawless cops and white vigilantes. But even if the press and the authorities exaggerated them wildly, there were credible reports of violence and theft in the aftermath of the storm. At the time, having noticed the break with the usual pattern described by scholars, I interviewed the sociologist E.L. Quarantelli, one of the founding fathers of disaster studies. He pointed out that there had been just three comparable cases in the U.S. since modern disaster research began, each in a place and time marked by severe class distinctions, a serious crime problem, and a police department that was “ineffective, corrupt, and full of nepotism.” What happened, Quarantelli hypothesized, was the intrusion of another sociological pattern: the riot.

The riot model would help explain the one form of grassroots disorder that does attract Solnit’s attention: vigilantes who murdered blacks during the chaos that followed Katrina. These deaths didn’t get much coverage in the mainstream press, but Solnit, drawing on reporting by the investigative journalist A.C. Thompson, makes a plausible case that several such slayings occurred. Similarly, the urban riots of the ’60s were marked not just by angry Afro-Americans burning stores but by white gunmen acting in what they took to be self-defense by firing willy-nilly at anyone with the wrong skin color. (As one National Guardsman put it during the Detroit riot of 1967, “I’m gonna shoot at anything that moves and is black.”) The parallels with Hurricane Katrina should be obvious.

Note, however, that just as you need to distinguish looters taking advantage of the breakdown of order from “looters” grabbing survival necessities at a moment when the cash economy has disappeared, you also must distinguish vigilantes engaged in racially motivated murders from “vigilantes” patrolling their neighborhoods at a moment when the police have disappeared. The former is a form of crime. The latter is another example of the mutual aid that Solnit celebrates, even if she doesn’t recognize it as such. It may be true, as she writes, that some armed civilians in the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers Point murdered people. That does not mean they all did.

According to press accounts, the Algiers Point patrols began in response to a real crime—a carjacking—and were aimed at preventing trouble, not causing it. “Other residents who had stayed during the storm were armed and taking turns checking on neighbors, some of them elderly, who remained in their houses,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported at the time. “It was decided that everyone would keep an eye on his block, sharing essential supplies.” Think back to Solnit’s description of the 1906 quake. The sentries’ self-organization is closer to the spirit of the Oyster Loaf, the Chat Noir, and the House of Mirth than to that of the troops who occupied San Francisco.

A similar myopia marked the mainstream media’s coverage of crime in Haiti. We were treated to reports that Haitians had been killed “execution-style” and left in the street, where passers-by nonchalantly let them rot. Such stories take on a different flavor if you know that in parts of Haiti where police protection is effectively absent, such exhibitions are a longstanding community practice; the dead men are criminals caught in the act, and they are being displayed as a warning to other would-be crooks. You needn’t approve of such tactics to recognize that they reflect social problems that predated the quake, not a dog-eat-dog chaos that appeared only after it.

While riots are rare after disasters, there is another sort of opportunistic violence that often appears in a crisis, when influential institutions attempt to grab yet more power and resources. After the earthquake of 1906, for example, the committee overseeing the reconstruction of San Francisco attempted to seize Chinatown and relocate its residents. More recently, the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington unleashed a host of new police powers. Just last year, swine flu fears provided cover for Russia and China to erect trade barriers and for Egypt’s Islamic government to destroy the livelihood of the country’s Christian pig farmers.

Yet the same ruptures that allow those power grabs from above can also unleash people-power rebellions from below. At such times, the grassroots cooperation that emerges after a disaster does not disperse but expands into other spheres. The classic example is the quake that hit Mexico City in 1985. Neighbors mobilized to block bulldozers; workers extracted back pay from employers attempting to skip out on their debts; residents whose sewage systems had been destroyed won the right to use composting latrines; barrios persuaded the government to adopt their homegrown reconstruction proposals rather than ideas dreamed up by distant planners. As civil society came alive, it “created something like an alternative government,” the Mexican writer Gustavo Esteva tells Solnit. “Suddenly we saw that the people themselves were having real agency. In the late 1980s they were doing marvelous things.” It’s as though someone took the “disaster capitalism” invoked by the left-wing polemicist Naomi Klein and stood it on its head.

Speaking of Klein: In the aftermath of Katrina, one of her articles invoked those Mexico City rebellions. Yet to judge from some statements that Solnit cites, Klein doesn’t seem to have absorbed the appropriate lessons. While promoting her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, for example, Klein declared that in disasters “we no longer know who or where we are. We become like children, we look for daddies.” Such sentiments, Solnit says, are “the apparent product of assumptions rather than research.”

For all that, there’s a danger in taking too utopian a view of society during a disaster, and not just because it seems insensitive to celebrate anything associated with so much death and destruction. If you aren’t careful, that train of thought can lead you to dubious conclusions.

As Solnit notes, the 1906 earthquake came while the philosopher William James was composing his famous essay on “The Moral Equivalent of War.” The cooperation he saw in the devastated city helped shape his ideas about the ways the martial instinct might be transformed into something more constructive than destructive. But James’ alternative was driven by centralization and compulsion; he proposed “instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature.” James believed a world without war would still require “martial virtues” as “the enduring cement,” arguing that “intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built.” This is the national greatness conservatism of the left, and it is no less ugly to anyone who prefers small, concrete affiliations forged freely from below over big, abstract schemes imposed from on high. Yet Solnit cites James warmly.

Solnit’s disaster utopianism doesn’t have to lead to the Jamesian vision. That same quake inspired the young Dorothy Day, who drew on her positive memories of the event—“while the crisis lasted,” she later wrote, “people loved one another”—when founding the decentralist Catholic Worker movement. While James’ essay directly influenced the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Day opposed the New Deal, which she saw as “the taking over by the state of all those services which could be built up by mutual aid.” Solnit quotes that statement, but she doesn’t acknowledge the enormous gulf between Day’s vision of voluntary action and James’ willingness to impose a collective purpose by force.

If an appreciation for the little platoons that emerge in an emergency can devolve into a more authoritarian ideal, it’s also true that the collective fervors that take hold in wartime carry traces of that smaller sort of social harmony. If 9/11 sparked a nationalist fever, a historical moment so mad that even a phrase as innocuous as “French fries” could come under suspicion, it also set off a surge of solidarity and cooperation of the kind that inspired Day. In one of the best sections of her book, Solnit revisits New York’s reaction to Al Qaeda’s attacks, from the spontaneous flotilla of boats that evacuated hundreds of thousands of people from Manhattan to the volunteers who converged on the city to help the rescue effort. When people invoke the spirit that befell the country after September 11, they are—or should be—referring to these warm-hearted, enthusiastic acts of assistance along with everything else.

In that period right after the attacks, as Americans rushed to aid both neighbors and strangers, even the most navel-gazing elements of the media managed to see what was happening. While those ships carried those thousands of New Yorkers to safety, not a single reporter that I’m aware of thought it pertinent to ask a captain, “Has anybody offered you any help with crowd control of these thousands of desperate people?”

Managing Editor Jesse Walker (jwalker@reason.com) is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).

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  • Brian Sorgatz||

    I have a question for anyone who can answer it: What accounts for the ironic difference between peaceful behavior after a major disaster like the Haiti earthquake, and violent behavior after a relatively minor disaster like the Montreal police strike of 1969? Witnessing the event as a teenager, future cognitive neuroscientist Steven Pinker was forced to adopt a less utopian view of human nature than he had previously held. He tells this personal anecdote in The Blank Slate. Does Pinker overstate the level of mayhem during the police strike, or is there something in human nature that inspires brutality in some opportunities but not all? If so, what's the difference that makes the difference?

  • Brian Sorgatz||

    Or did I not RTFA carefully enough to notice when Jesse answered my question?

  • .||

    The second one?

  • ||

    "If so, what's the difference that makes the difference?"

    The existence of a civil society outside government. The places where chaos breaks out after a disaster are nearly always places that have huge welfare dependency and big government. Big government crowds out and destroys civil society. So that when big government fails, society fails with it. But where you have a strong civil society, people band together and take care of themselves and chaos doesn't break out.

  • robc||

    So explain NO and Katrina. Huge welfare dependency and chaos didnt break out.

    Did you RTFA?

  • ||

    Chaos did break out in New Orleans to some degree just not to what was portrayed in the media. To the extent that it did break out, it broke out in inner city big government New Orleans as opposed to places outside of New Orleans that had less dependence on government.

    And saying that when it does it does in places of big government is not the same thing as saying that chaos always breaks out in places of big government.

  • robc||

    I know very little about Montreal, are you saying it is a huge welfare dependency?

  • ||

    Quebec is very French and thus very socialist.

  • ||

    The 1969 Montreal police strike is not really relevant to this discussion. That was a period when Anglo-French tensions were at an all time high in Montreal. The violent behavior was in many cases actual conscious rebellion, not a simple breakdown of society.

  • Mike||

    John, the Quebecois are not particularly socialist, do not align themselves politically with France, and are much more "in tune" with their most recent 300 years (+/-) of "Acadianness" than with any particular fondness of thier ancient French nationalism.

  • ||

    There's no evidence for your assertion. There's actually evidence the opposite may be true. I was always amazed by the extent to which civil society stayed in place in Russia in the early 90s even when no one was getting paid and the government had seemingly abdicated. Trams ran on time, people tried to help their neighbors. When the economy got better people's behavior actually got worse.

  • Untermensch||

    Good morning Suki.

  • Mad Max||

    If it's all the same to you, I'll drive that tankah.

  • Ayatollah of Rock and Rolla||

    What a puny plan.

  • Jesse Walker||

    Brian: All sorts of events can precipitate a riot, if the social circumstances are right. It's just that disasters usually aren't one of those events.

  • AT||

    Not everything has an explanation in the statist/non-statis paradigm. Just sayin'.

  • Rick||

    As someone in the food logistics field, I've always watched disaster responses closely, and have formed some crude theories.

    I believe that success or failure, post-disaster bears a close correlation to how robust the logistics chain is in both goods and services. Where there is deep government control or monopoly of services, is where the worst things happen. Where there is less government, or the underground economy is already strong, the outcomes are better.

    Natural disasters are first and foremost, logistics crises. Someone, I believe at Mercatus, did a wonderful paper on this subject. (wish I could find a link). I corresponded with the author briefly.

    The flow of goods around the disaster area of Katrina happened almost flawlessly and immediately in the private sector because of decentralized communication and action. No, top down, centralized government response can ever match what thousands of people can do.

    We should abolish FEMA, or at the very least, let WalMart manage it :)

  • ||

    Agreed, at the time of Katrina, I was a warehouse supervisor for a large grocery distribution chain in IL. We had trucks on the road from 18 divisions delivering bottled water and food before you could pick up the paper to read about it. We also effectively split up distribution of the Mississippi division among the other divisions before morning. In all we sent 8 trailers of supplies within 24 hours, well before any gov't action, and we were certainly not alone.


    Does this mean we can't eat the rich?

  • Chicago S. Zombie||

    It means you have to get together with all the other survivors on your block and make eating (the brains of) the rich a communal project.

  • CAB||

    I can see it now: A guy who looks like Dennis Hopper chewing a cigar takes control of some U.S. disaster area gathering outlaws and bandits and claiming a title like USRFFPP (United States Revolutionary Front Fighting for Peace and Power). They would murder those who oppose and dream about absolute power - while claiming that they shall be the builders of a new utopian society. Alas, a Kevin Costner-esc guy sees the ill in all of it, and after one man vs. an army gun battles and heated debate, the USRFFPP falls at the hands of the little guy, peace and righteousness prevail. All because of big government - see government you screw everything up without even trying.

  • ||

    Yeah...just deliver the fucking mail.

  • CAB||

    I already did man, lighten up.

  • Jimmy 'Crack' Corn||

    Main Stream Media, the pieces of s***!

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  • Irresponsible Hater||

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