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A Paradise Built in Hell: Book Club Recap

by Stephanie Madden

This post discusses the November 2011 Book Club meeting.

For the past two months, my life has been all about disasters. No, I don’t mean that in a melodramatic way. I recently started a position working on a grant to develop more effective risk communication trainings for local leaders to better prepare communities before, during, and after disasters. I was excited that this month’s book club selection, A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit, could provide further insight into my job, as well as raise important issues that will become increasingly salient in a world where climate change is a reality (check out September’s book club selection Merchants of Doubt to learn more about the history of climate change denial).

Our discussion of the book focused around the utopian societies that Solnit describes arising out of disasters, where resourceful and resilient citizens must take control of saving each other and their communities, while those in power suffer from “elite panic” over the thought of losing controls built into many societies that allow often crumble when disasters strike. However, we were left wondering if it is something special to large scale disasters that can form these types of communities, or if even the disasters of everyday life, such as being diagnosed with cancer or suffering from addiction, can also bond people as they face these challenges together.

While Solnit uses natural disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and intentional disasters, such as 9/11, as case studies to debunk the idea that disasters turn people into panic driven mobs, Solnit also brings up the idea of economic disasters. In our current economic climate that has seen the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, Solnit’s principles of disasters leading to the impulse for social change seem to be represented each day on the news.

Solnit writes, “The real question is not why this brief paradise of mutual aid and altruism appear but rather why it is ordinarily overwhelmed by another world order.” If the worst events can bring out the best in people, why can’t this impulse be sustained in everyday life?

In a world where natural disasters are becoming more prevalent, Solnit challenges us to think about what we think we know about disasters, and I think an even larger challenge for us is to also figure out how to best prepare for these disasters before they happen, which seems to begin with fostering a community spirit well before the next disaster strikes.

Interested in becoming more involved in disaster preparedness in your community? Check out these resources:

Citizen Corps helps coordinate volunteer activities that will make our communities safer, stronger, and better prepared to respond to any emergency situation. It provides opportunities for people to participate in a range of measures to make their families, their homes, and their communities safer from the threats of crime, terrorism, and disasters of all kinds.

Community Emergency Response Teams Program educates people about disaster preparedness for hazards that may impact their area and trains them in basic disaster response skills, such as fire safety, light search and rescue, team organization, and disaster medical operations.

Gender and Disaster Resilience Alliance, a virtual network committed to transparency, an inclusive approach valuing difference, shared leadership, and a social justice approach to disaster reduction. is a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) intiative helping communities be informed (what to do before, during, and after an emergency) and make a plan (prepare, plan and stay informed for emergencies.)



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