Rebecca Solnit argues that disasters bring out the best in humanity in A Paradise Built in Hell

Not long after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989, San Francisco writer Rebecca Solnit felt a strange, surprising sensation. It was, she writes, “that sense of immersion in the moment and solidarity with others caused by the rupture of everyday life, an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive.” Solnit, whose habit is to produce great books whenever she gets to thinking about things, has been thinking about that emotion ever since. She stayed alert to it during subsequent disasters, and searched for it in studies of previous ones. It's a common feeling, she noticed, yet one for which we have no adequate language. It's like schadenfreude turned inside out, but grander than that and also more intimate. And it's something people often discover in themselves, and in others, by living through disasters. That's why Solnit's new book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster, argues that it isn't such a strange sensation after all and shouldn't be surprising. It is socially useful and politically profound.

“The image of the selfish, panicky, or regressively savage human being in times of disaster has little truth to it,” Solnit writes. Of course, even a little truth goes a long way, and that troublesome image has been prone to magnification and distortion — mostly, she contends, by the elites to whose advantage it often works. As she puts it, “It is often the very few in power rather than the many without who behave viciously in disaster.” But the rest of us, with the playing field sometimes literally leveled, default to altruism.

Solnit makes her case by exploring the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906, the Halifax Harbour ammunition ship explosion in 1917, the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, the attacks on New York City in 2001, and the impact of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast in 2005.

While lucidly profiling exemplars of both “fear that bred conflict and solidarity that generated joy,” Solnit had no trouble finding people for whom these disasters were in fact miraculous. Thus, even the truly “appalling calamity” of Katrina, whereby authorities “decided to regard victims as criminals and turned New Orleans into a prison city,” does not outweigh smaller, older stories of selfless cooperation — the woman who improvised a San Francisco soup kitchen, say, or the injured soldier who made 23 trips to the Halifax hospital, carrying other wounded people in his arms. Solnit determines that “the citizens any paradise would need — the people who are brave enough, resourceful enough, and generous enough — already exist.” How strange to think that what's missing apparently is extreme misfortune — without which, so far, our brief glimpses of paradise cannot be sustained.

This wouldn't be so, Solnit suggests, except that ours is an era in which the meaning of citizenship has deteriorated into a toxic compound of privatized consumerism and self-propagating civic disenfranchisement. Our daily life is “already a disaster of sorts, from which actual disaster liberates us.”

It's no stretch to imagine a fictional (or factual) black comedy about a government whose explicit purpose is the generation of disasters, on the grounds that they maintain social stability. Solnit's cultural critique is more earnest: “The problem with bureaucrats during crises may be the only thing disaster movies get right,” she writes.

To some readers, all of this might rankle and sound like some kind of half-cocked left-coast utopianism. But Solnit's fans prefer deeper reading, and she smartly obliges them. For one local journalist in 1906, disaster brought a reprieve from “the old permanency” of class barriers and other ceilings on opportunity. For another, more than a century later, it brings insight, and hope for a new permanency of human progress.

Rebecca Solnit reads from A Paradise Built in Hell on Thursday, Sept. 10, at City Lights Books, 261 Columbus (at Broadway). 7 p.m., free; 362-8193,

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