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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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Before the Second World War, the Ministry of War confidently predicted what would happen when London was bombed from the air by Nazi planes. There would be, they warned, "a mass outbreak of hysterical neurosis among the civilian population". For every one person injured, there would be dozens who lose their morals or lose the plot. They would howl and they would loot and they would rape. Humans couldn't take it. They would break. They would turn on each other.

The same predictions are made about every disaster – that once the lid of a tightly policed civilization is knocked off for a second, humans will become beasts. But the opposite is the case. It sounds grotesque to say we should see reasons for hope as we watch in real time while the earth is shaken six inches on its axis, tsunamis roar, and nuclear power stations teeter on meltdown. But it is true. From this disaster, we can learn something fundamental about our species. It should guide how the Japanese authorities behave today – and kill off right-wing ideologies based on the belief that humans are inherently selfish tomorrow.

The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organise spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. When the social scientist Enrico Quarantelli tried to write a thesis on how people descend into chaos and panic after disasters, he concluded: "My God! I can't find any instances of it." On the contrary, he wrote, in disasters "the social order does not break down... Co-operative rather than selfish behaviour predominates". The Blitz Spirit wasn't unique to London: it is universal.

On 18 April 1906, San Francisco was levelled by an earthquake. Much of the city collapsed, and the rest began to burn. Anna Amelia Holshouser – a middle-aged journalist – was thrown out of bed, and felt her house collapse around her. She wandered the streets, and found herself sleeping that night in the park. But then the daze wore off, and she did what almost everybody else did: she began to look after the people around her. She knitted tents out of old clothes to house all the children who had lost their parents. She set up a soup kitchen, and the local shop-keepers handed over the goods for free. Hundreds of people gathered there, as they were gathering around similar people across the city. Anna put up a sign that said: "One Touch of Nature Makes the Whole World Kin."

In San Francisco that week, the city's plumbers began – unpaid – to fix the broken pipes, one by one. People organised into committees to put out the fires with buckets and anything they could find. The philosopher William James, who watched, wrote: "Everybody was at work... and the discipline and order were practically perfect." It had been an incredibly divided city, prone to race riots against Chinese immigrants. But not after disaster struck. San Fransicans handed out food and clothes to astonished Chinese people. A young girl called Dorothy Day watched her mother give all her clothes to survivors, and wrote: "While the crisis lasted, people loved each other."

They hated what had happened, but loved what they had become. In her gorgeous book A Paradise Built In Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise In Disaster, Rebecca Solnit shows how this is how almost everybody responds to disaster, across continents and across contexts. This is so cross-cultural – from Haiti to New Zealand to Japan – that it is probably part of an evolved instinct inherent to our species, and it's not hard to see why. We now know that 60,000 years ago, the entire human race was reduced to a single tribe of 2,000 human beings wandering the savannahs of Africa. That was it. That was us. If they – our ancestors – didn't have a strong impulse to look out for each other in a crisis, you wouldn't be reading this now. Yet there are a few examples stubbornly fixed in the popular imagination of people reacting to a natural disaster by becoming primal and vicious. Remember the gangs "marauding" through New Orleans, raping and even cannibalising people in the Super-Dome after Hurricane Katrina? It turns out they didn't exist. Years of journalistic investigations showed them to be racist rumours with no factual basis. Yes, there was some "looting" – which consisted of starving people breaking into closed and abandoned shops for food. Of course human beings can behave atrociously – but the aftermath of a disaster seems to be the time when it is least likely.

 
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