Defining our paradise

The aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Picture credit:

It’s the weekend, and I am up the coast of Vietnam, on An Bang beach, enjoying ocean scenes, blue skies and the lazy movement of palm.

A paradise of sorts.

I brought with me Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell – a fantastic read: with its insightful and brilliantly constructed chapters, many of which seek to dispel long held preconceptions about what ‘makes us all tick’. And, in particular, how people cope with, are affected by, and grow from the impact of natural and man-made disasters.

I’ll want to quote some of Solnit’s beautiful prose at the end of this blog – for the posterity of one day re-reading this – and I am sure to post again about many of the perspectives her narrative offers up: indeed, my own organization, CARE International, like many of our peers, is heavily invested in learning from our experiences of intervening before, during and after crises.

For now, poolside, and warming my feet on the scorched tiles, this is merely a momentary toe in the water of something I am sure will consume me time and again.

Solnit makes a variety of thought provoking points in her novel.

Some of the most compelling centre around our own philosophizing about what we want to get out of life, how we want to live it, and who we want to live it with?     

Such generational musing has, gradually, shifted many parts of our society away from how things used to be. Away from the existence of ‘hunting and gathering’, away from poverty, from isolation, depression, and loss. In modern times, instead, a growing sense of the importance of comfort, security, and luxury is taking hold in many societies. On all continents of the world – and across much of South East Asia, in particular – these changes are playing out before us.

Whilst we might be aware of these new ways of existing, all too often we fail to recognize how they truly make us feel. Which ends up enabling them to take control over far too much of who we are, what we do, and who we do it with.

These new ways are also what make us become all too insular, selfish, and blinkered.

Solnit’s call to action focuses around the inspiring actions and behaviours, documented over centuries, that communities take on in the face of disaster (many are referenced in her book, including the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, the Blitz, and the Vietnam war).

Wind forward from these historic dates and events, and disaster is everywhere today.

Conflicts rage in countries around the world, protracted crises paralyse others (some spoken about on these pages) and a large percentage of communities still face the threat of extreme hunger, access to clean and affordable water and sanitation, maternal mortality – the list is a long one and by now you, the informed reader, know more about these inequities and social injustices than at any time before.

Last week, I was ranting about Brexit, and asking if it could be the UK’s liberation, as opposed to the opposite? Many are calling it a ‘disaster in the making’ – if true, and taking a leaf from Solnit’s propositions, does the fallout from Brexit need to be all negative?

What does seem crystal clear, however, is that, in striving for fairness and equality, we cannot pretend that there won’t be some pockets of society not on board. We can have a set of 15 year Sustainable Development Goals, that use appropriate cajoling words to describe the future we believe is best, but we’ll never have everyone bought into these commitments.

Unless, perhaps, they themselves are affected by crisis, by a disruption in the market, by such an economic or social fluctuation that they have no choice but to pivot, re-calibrate, reframe, and re-evaluate what it means to be alive.


“We devote much of our lives to achieving certainty, safety, and comfort, but with them often comes ennui and a sense of meaninglessness; the meaning is in the struggle, or can be, and one of the complex questions for those who need not struggle for basic survival is how to engage passionately with goals and needs that keep such drive alive…there are good reasons we left behind that [hunter-gatherer] existence, but we left behind with it something essential, the forces that bind us to each other, to the moment, and to an inherent sense of purpose. The recovery of this purpose and closeness without crisis or pressure is the great contemporary task of being human”.

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell

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