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Why Disasters Make the Vast Majority of Us Better People

Let's debunk the myth of the panicking disaster victim since the evidence proves that most people behave in the aftermath of disaster as altruists.

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This information is essential for knowing how to respond to disasters. There is a fear the Japanese government is withholding information about the dangers of the nuclear meltdown because they don't trust the people to react sensibly and calmly. There is no way of knowing, yet, whether this is true. But understanding this crucial history should guide the government to tell the truth. As Solnit puts it: "If you imagine that the public is a danger, you endanger the public." They are the allies of public safety, not its enemy. After the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, nearly 150,000 people were evacuated. The government was not in charge. Ordinary people spontaneously co-ordinated it themselves, without panic.

In a disaster, very few people are on-yer-bike individualists grabbing for themselves, and they are regarded as incomprehensible by everybody else. After the 2005 tsunami, the Ayn Rand Institute – set up by the philosopher-queen of the American right – issued an appeal entitled: "US Should Not Give Help to Tsunami Victims." Even the people who every day take this callous view of victims within our own societies – the poor, the homeless, the ill – felt the need to distance themselves from this sociopathy. It's often implied that kindness and generosity are naïve, idealistic fictions that will always be trumped by self-interest and greed. This is at the core of a particular kind of right-wing ideology that has been ascendant for 30 years now. But when the stakes are highest, the opposite is the case. When everything else is stripped away, when the buildings fall and the seas rise, we remember all that really matters is caring for each other.

This raises an obvious question. Can we hold onto this impulse after the disaster passes? Can we spread it? Dorothy Day never forgot how her mother behaved that week in San Francisco – and it inspired her to set up a radical movement to house and empower the poor. Can we do the same?

This is likely to be a century of ecological disasters, since each year we destabilize our climate more, in the face of plain scientific warnings. It's hard to extract any hope from the picture this fact presents us with. But there is some. Alongside this impulse to denial and self-destruction, there is something fundamentally good in us. We are humans. We care about each other. We will – at the most crucial and final moment – sacrifice for each other, like the technicians who are trying to prevent the nuclear plant melting down, knowing this is probably personal suicide. That's something to hold onto. Normally, in northern Japan, the night sky is blocked out by the yellow-orange haze of light pollution. Tonight, huddled together, the people there can see the stars.

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