Disasters bring out the best, not worst in people

Fort McMurrayites’ altruistic reaction to wildfire ‘normal’ human behaviour

“Goodness goes viral as Canadians respond to Fort McMurray wildfire,” reads a May 4 Toronto Star headline.

“In times of crisis, Canada truly comes together — like one big small town,” reads a May 6 headline in the Globe and Mail.

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“When disaster hit, the people of Fort McMurray showed their better natures, not the instincts of ‘survivalists,’ Macleans magazine offered.

Two CTV anchors remarked on their news team’s terrifying exodus out of Fort McMurray. “It astonishes us how all of you stopped and shared your stories with grace and courage,” one anchor pronounced, before thanking the residents for helping them get the story out.

In The Tyee, Crawford Kilian opined that the people of Fort McMurray “dropped their individualism and went communist.” (“Not Bolshevik communism — more like the Christian communism of Alberta’s Hutterites,” Kilian helpfully added.)

The subtext of these reports is that people caught in a natural or man-made disaster shouldn’t be expected to behave in an orderly and altruistic manner. You might even get the impression that workers from Fort McMurray upended the History Channel’s Disaster Week expectations of the Canuck commentariat.

In fact, when faced with natural or man-made disasters, human beings are more likely to behave, not with mutually destructive behaviour, but with socially creative — even joyous — engagement. This is the thesis of Rebecca Solnit’s 2010 book A Paradise Built in Hell: The

Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster.

The author examines a number of historical disasters, including the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, the 1917 harbour explosion in Halifax, the 1985 Mexico City earthquake, 9/11 in Manhattan and 2004’s Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

The testimony she uncovers from survivors runs counter to Hollywood narratives of screaming citizenry running madly off in all directions.

The American philosopher William James reported witnessing widespread cooperation and goodwill in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco. It was his brother on the opposite coast, Henry James the novelist, who imagined the worst by mail — “mangled forms, hollow eyes, starving bodies, minds insane with fear.”

Nearly a century later, writer Stephan Doheny-Farina remarked on the counterintuitive responses to the 1998 ice storm that paralyzed much of Quebec. “As the power grid fails, in its place arose a vibrant grid of social ties — formal and informal, organized and serendipitous, public and private, official and ad hoc.”

This flow of social capital into destroyed spaces is not unusual, Solnit argues. Ironically, it’s the lockdown mindset of officialdom (predicated on the notion of impending social chaos) that often makes things worse.

The author resurrects an obscure sociologist, Charles E. Fritz, to explain the phenomenon. “Disasters provide a temporary liberation from the worries, inhibitions and anxieties associated with the past and future because they force people to concentrate their full attention on immediate moment-to-moment, day-to-day needs within the context of present realities.” Fritz observed.

“Disaster provides a form of societal shock which disrupts habitual, institutionalized patterns of behaviour and renders people amenable to social and personal change,” he added.

This doesn’t make disasters good. But if institutional mechanisms of social cohesion vapourize in catastrophic circumstances, the response is more likely to be freely chosen cooperation over Thomas Hobbes’ “war of all against all.”
In fact, the feelings of liberation reported by people in disaster situations highlights an unfortunate truth: modern market economies are engineered to shape people into isolated consumers rather than engaged citizens. When the atomizing lid is removed, people become tremendously excited by their own sense of agency and capacity to bond with their fellows.

So it’s a bit galling when our national press applauds Fort McMurrayites and the rest of us for uber-Canadian “goodness,” as if what happened earlier this month was a national outlier. In what must be the biggest snoozepaper non-sequitur so far this year, the Globe and Mail’s Marsha Lederman used the story as a pro-Canadian bludgeon against Americans who support Donald Trump. That’s not even apples and oranges — it’s 20-storey truck tires and gold cuff links.

It’s something of a category error to applaud the people of Fort McMurray and beyond for being cooperative Canadians when they were just behaving like normal human beings. That’s the good news about all this: it’s bigger than us.


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