Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

“A Paradise Built in Hell” by Rebecca Solnit

Posted 23 Mar 2011 / 0

Rebecca Solnit’s 2009 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster is a book about recent human history. But for those interested in human evolution, this history is essential reading.

The primary idea of the book is that our dramatic portrayals of how people react to disaster are wrong: rather than allowing their self-interest to drive them into chaos, most people respond to natural disasters by banding together with strangers in mutual aid. Using a wide range of historical accounts, Solnit effectively shows how the disabling of police, fire, and even medical services does not prevent impacted communities from responding to help those in need. In fact, the historical accounts provided suggest rather strongly that government action during disasters more often harms than helps affected communities. Using broad surveys of historical accounts of two earthquakes, a massive explosion, and a hurricane, Solnit shows how pro-social behaviors dominate communities facing disaster (irrespective of where, when, and in what culture the disaster occurs). The book provokes the reader to ask “why do we hold onto the belief that disasters bring out the worst in people?” and “why don’t we treat each other so well in everyday life?”.

We can also wonder: if people are actually more altruistic towards one another during disasters, why is it that both the news and entertainment media prefer to portray the brutal minority of human behaviors in response to these disasters? Why did the news media focus on so-called “looters” during the disaster caused by poor civil planning prior to the arrival of Hurricane Katrina? Why does every disaster movie show people running chaotically through the street in every direction with no regard for the welfare of others? Perhaps it is because we choose to consume media that helps us prepare for the ‘worst case scenario’. But maybe these media just reinforce a prevalent-if-not-accurate cultural idea that is essential to maintaining our current political and economic system: that in the absence of the state and its corporate allies, humans cannot be trusted to take care of one another.

Altruism, Books, Cooperation, Cultural Evolution, Ethics, Evolutionary Psychology, History, Human Evolution, Human Nature, Mismatch theory, Reciprocity

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