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Thu Nov 8, 2012, 11:31 PM

The Civilizing Power of Disaster

Researchers in disaster science have again and again debunked the idea that catastrophe causes social breakdown and releases the ugliest parts of human nature. Research from the past several decades demonstrates, as one report (pdf) put it, “that panic is not a problem in disasters; that rather than helplessly awaiting outside aid, members of the public behave proactively and prosocially to assist one another; that community residents themselves perform many critical disaster tasks, such as searching for and rescuing victims; and that both social cohesiveness and informal mechanisms of social control increase during disasters, resulting in a lower incidence of deviant behavior.” People become their best selves when crisis strikes.

The history of modern disasters entails a parallel history of people suddenly exhibiting communal, altruistic impulses. There were not enough lifeboats to save all 2,207 on board the Titanic. And yet, as a 2001 study confirmed, women and children, despite being physically weaker than men, were more likely to survive—suggesting that, in a nightmare scenario of scarce resources, many people chose sacrifice over self-interest. Likewise, a NIST report on the evacuation patterns of office workers in the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks told a story of order, cooperation, and selflessness, not mayhem or panic.

A growing body of research suggests that large-scale emergencies loosen social mores just enough to open up new spaces for human resilience, imagination, and compassion. Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, coined the term “disaster utopia” to describe how people band together after a crisis, suspending conflicts or differences to help one another. She cites the provisional, fleeting society that cropped up in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and firestorm, which destroyed more than 28,000 homes, businesses, and municipal buildings. Gathered in Golden Gate Park, the newly homeless started soup kitchens and stitched together sheets to build refugee tents. They sang for each other and got married at far higher rates than usual. A strange, almost joyous liberation animated the city, one that survivors would remember with nostalgia, just as the Polish émigrés Solnit interviewed half-longed for the bad old days under a vicious Communist regime, because the harsh conditions forged such close communities of resistance. “Imagine a society,” Solnit writes, “where the fate that faces [people], no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world.”

Why do we behave so well when our normal social structures vanish? Maybe we’re grateful that the crisis left us alive. Maybe doing good works gives us a sense of control or agency. Or maybe being kind just makes us happy. One of the oddest and trickiest parts of Solnit’s thesis holds that people are not only more generous to one another in the wake of disaster, but that they are happier, too. Or, to be more precise, they experience “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive,” a kind of fulfillment that comes with recapturing what Solnit describes as humankind’s natural state. She argues that Westerners have internalized certain value systems—capitalism, individualism—that in some ways contradict our social wiring. Disruptive events recalibrate us to a “default setting,” which is “altruistic, communitarian [and] resourceful.” Solnit does not seek to minimize the grief and suffering crises can cause. Yet she believes that dealing with extreme situations helps us access a satisfying depth of feeling. Perhaps that’s one reason why people farther from a disaster often are more terrified by it. (Another explanation may be that onlookers can spare the emotional bandwidth for fear, while those at the epicenter simply do what they must.)


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Reply The Civilizing Power of Disaster (Original post)
Earth_First Nov 2012 OP
Gregorian Nov 2012 #1
marasinghe Nov 2012 #2

Response to Earth_First (Original post)

Thu Nov 8, 2012, 11:54 PM

1. I have such strong feelings about this subject.

Communities form when people need each other. I hear people talking about "community", and it makes me ill. I don't see community anywhere. I see imitation community. And some good neighbors. But true community hasn't existed for a long time in America. I see it in Cuba and Kenya, and places where people are poor and need each other for survival.

There is an opposite situation from that in the article. When civilizations have it too easy, things get ugly.

I was having a discussion on this topic a few days ago, and the consensus was that the human race needs some big disasters. It would certainly shake a few conservatives out of their selfish stupors.

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Response to Earth_First (Original post)

Fri Nov 9, 2012, 12:30 AM

2. this works, when the community is of the human species.

but, judging by the GOPers reaction to their election loss, i don't think they belong in that genus.

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