Survival and Disasters–A Contrary View

Recently I was introduced to Rebecca Solnit’s book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. Intrigued, I decided to read it and review it here.

Rebecca Solnit is an award winning author who has written several books. This one is a must read for preppers because her provocative information and ideas are contrary to what we’re led to expect from disasters. We would do well to consider what she presents. I’ve made it a DestinySurvival Pick.

You’ve heard the chatter about zombies and a zomby apocalypse. I loathe such talk and shared a few thoughts on it here. But if you’ve watched the headlines in recent months, you know that even our government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has gotten in on the act of talking about zombies.

Are they trying to be funny or clever? Are they merely being trendy and playing up to the masses? Or does this represent an established pattern of thought and behavior from officials?

What if those in power desire to keep us fearful of one another? What if they see us as raging brutes to be controlled. Or are we seen as fragile victims in need of specialized trauma care? Solnit’s book gives us food for thought.

We’ve all heard about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and how FEMA was late to the party. But what if the chaos and savagery after Katrina was exaggerated by officials and the media? What if the police and military were more of a threat than one’s neighbors?

Let’s step back and take a look at the bigger picture.

What if people generally pull together after disasters in an altruistic way? What if we actually have a need to help one another after a crisis? What if a sense of solidarity in the moment makes us more sympathetic and even joyful when we’re helping each other?

Does that sound too idealistic? What if there’s sociological proof that the answers to the questions in the above paragraph is yes?

Solnit explores these and other questions in A Paradise Built in Hell. In it she discusses the aftermath of major disasters. The focus is primarily on the 1906 San Francisco and 1985 Mexico City earthquakes, 1917 Halifax munitions blast, the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

By nature we’re self centered beings. But we also have the capacity to do good to one another. In times of trouble we have a sense of self preservation that brings out the best in us.

Solnit says in essence that we get a glimpse of paradise in the midst of the hell that is disaster. In a peculiar way, it’s an enchanted time with parallels to the other worldliness of a carnival. Strangers become friends and collaborators while simultaneously holding on to grief and joy.

Adversity can foster positive social bonds and leave lasting impressions on those affected. Individuals often find purpose, meaning and resolve.

Somehow there’s an ability to bring order out of chaos when the old order breaks down and is no more. The local society plays by new rules. Choices are clear cut, as opposed to the entangled complications of everyday life.

Cooperation replaces conflict and competition when survival is on the line. The usual barriers that divide us–economic class, race, etc.–are set aside. Resourcefulness and generosity take over.

Business owners freely share their supplies and services.

Individuals share what little they have left.

Money becomes irrelevant and is replaced with bartering or expedient local currencies.

All of this may not last long after the worst of the catastrophe has passed, but it plays an important role during the darkest time of the crisis.

It doesn’t mean there aren’t thieves and opportunists. It doesn’t mean there can’t be unruly crowds. But these are dwarfed by the unreported acts of mutual aid and charity performed by so many.

The spark of altruistic behavior Solnit describes isn’t a new concept. For example, the late Paul Harvey regularly made it a point to highlight the good deeds people do for one another in times of trouble. And “Reader’s Digest” still carries articles on hometown heroes who rescue crime victims and pull people from burning car crashes.

Could it really be true that the knuckle dragging mouth breathers won’t be as prevalent after a collapse as many of us have been led to believe? I wouldn’t want to suggest it won’t happen at all.


As Solnit points out, it’s not until the police and military intervene to impose their brand of order that the trouble starts. Anxiety and mistrust of the common people guides their actions. The public is treated as an enemy that must be controlled.

That’s when residents are mistreated, brutalized and even killed. Looting and pillaging by officials is sanctioned as necessary.

Authorities often withhold information, such as in the aftermath of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. They fear how the public will react if they knew what was really happening. Solnit says the elite panic and endanger the public because they imagine the public are the danger.

Disasters are a challenge and threat to governments because their weaknesses and failures become evident. Charitable organizations and other long standing institutions experience this, too. The aftermath of Katrina is a poignant example.

In a disaster’s aftermath, people govern themselves. It’s as if the government has been overthrown, or at least exposed as irrelevant. Thus, the compulsion by authorities to restore or preserve governmental power.

Does any of this sound familiar? Think of DHS and other government agencies buying millions of rounds of ammunition in recent months.

What are they not telling us? What are they expecting to happen? What do they think you and I will do?

Our government is exhibiting a lack of faith in us.

Nonetheless, I can’t help but wonder how much of this we bring on ourselves. Don’t we buy into the hero worship of firemen, police and the military in the wake of 9/11? Aren’t we minimizing the countless acts of individual heroism on that fateful day?

I admit that we do seem to have a growing distrust in politicians and the media. And maybe that spills over to other authority figures. But will we cultivate a new spirit among ourselves and come through as a better nation? Or will we yield to the conditioning that trains us to fear and fight one another?

These are important questions to ponder, especially if we’re planning to build community among preppers.

How does a long term economic collapse differ from an earthquake or other natural disasters? Solnit spends time discussing the ramifications of the economic downturn in Argentina in 2001.

Will we experience such a collapse here in the U.S. Are we going through it now? Will the results after a long term event be different than the kind of relatively short term disasters Solnit discusses?

While solnit brings to light ideas I find fascinating, I think her overall world view is idealistic and too optimistic. Too much talk of utopia. I find this to be a turn-off. A little less pontificating and fewer diversions, please.

Still, her book is worth the read. It may help you sort things out in a contradictory atmosphere where FEMA sets aside a month to tell us to get prepared while DHS locks and loads.

Get your copy of A Paradise Built in Hell by clicking on its title wherever you see it linked in this post. You’ll be taken to the page where it’s featured. Add it to your cart to start the order process.

I’m interested in your thoughts. Are you worried about a zombie apocalypse? Or do you anticipate that the best in people will prevail in time of trouble? Or will it be something in between? Feel free to leave a comment below.


Author: John Wesley Smith

John Wesley Smith writes and podcasts from his home in Central Missouri. His goal is to help preppers as he continues along his own preparedness journey.