San Francisco Public Library

A Paradise Built in Hell Discussion Questions

  1. The book begins and ends with the questions, “Who are you? Who are we?” How did the book help you reflect on the dividing line between individual and community? What does the individual owe the community? What does the community owe the individual?
  2.  Have you yourself experienced a moment (on a large or small scale) when disaster is a path to a place “in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and are each our sister’s and brother’s keeper”?
  3.  How do you think contemporary social protests such as the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring rebellions fit into Solnit’s rubric?
  4.  What do you think of this claim by Solnit: “The elite often believe that if they themselves are not in control, the situation is out of control, and in their fear take repressive measures that become secondary disasters.” Does this seem valid?
  5.  In her epilogue, Solnit quotes Nietzsche: “Man… does not deny suffering per se: he wants it, he even seeks it out, provided it can be given a meaning…He who has a ‘why’ to live for can bear almost any ‘how’.” Do you agree or disagree? What gives our lives meaning?
  6.  Disaster researcher Enrico Quarantelli is quoted as saying, “Most of the disaster funding, even to this day, is based on the notion of how can we prevent people from panicking or engaging in antisocial behavior…they just assumed the real problem was the citizens and the people at large, even though the studies from the beginning argued against that.” Is there any way we can encourage our civil agencies to refocus disaster planning on how to harness the power of the public, rather than treating the people as “the real problem”?
  7.  During the press coverage of Hurricane Katrina, CNN pointed out that many news photographs of African Americans gathering necessities were captioned “looting,” while whites doing the same thing were “gathering supplies.” Why do you think this happened? What does it reveal about racial attitudes in America?
  8.  What did you think about the press coverage of Hurricane Katrina as the disaster was unfolding? What do you think the role of the press is in a disaster? In a democracy?
  9.  Solnit and others have characterized 9/11 as a missed opportunity on behalf of our nation, given the “spirit of brave resolve and deep attention” that was allowed to slip away. Solnit posits that “people yearning to sacrifice” could have been asked to make personal and societal changes that would have, for instance, lessened American dependence on foreign oil. Do you agree?
  10.  In the section on 9/11, Solnit quotes a financier who escaped the World Trade Center, “If you want to make us stronger, attack and we unite. This is the ultimate failure of terrorism against the United States. The very moment the first plane was hijacked, democracy won.” What do you think about that statement? How does it square with civil liberties that have been restricted by the Patriot Act and other policies?
  11.  The Halifax chapter criticizes Hollywood filmmakers, among other media alarmists, who repeatedly show disasters producing terrified mobs prone to looting, murder– even cannibalism. Does mass entertainment have any responsibility to counter conventional wisdom or stereotypes about disasters?
  12.  The Reason review of the book called Solnit’s treatise “disaster utopianism” and said that she was naïve about human nature. Do you agree or did you find her arguments persuasive?