by Jesse Walker @ Reason Magazine
When Hollywood shows you an earthquake, an eruption, or a towering inferno, you see mass panic, stampeding crowds, maybe a looting spree. When sociologists study real-life disasters, they see calm, resourceful people evacuating buildings, rescuing strangers, and cooperating nonviolently. How cooperative can people be? “At a convenience store in one battered coastal prefecture,” The Washington Post reported shortly after the Sendai quake, “a store manager used a private electric generator. When it stopped working and the cash register no longer opened, customers waiting in line returned their items to the shelves.”
These patterns shift somewhat from culture to culture, and if a disaster coincides with certain conditions—severe class distinctions, a serious pre-existing crime problem, a police department that’s especially corrupt—a post-disaster riot may break out. But that’s the exception, not the rule. On Monday, Ed West of the London Telegraph asked with awe, “Why is there no looting in Japan?” A better query would be, “When people do loot, what prompted the plunder?”
So it shouldn’t be a surprise to see survivors keeping their heads, sharing food and other resources, and doing all they can to contain the damage. That’s what usually happens after an earthquake. It’s just that most Americans haven’t read about, say, the Kobe quake of 1995, when the disaster researchers Kathleen Tierney and James D. Goltz reported that “Spontaneous volunteering and emergent group activity were very widespread throughout the emergency period; community residents provided a wide range of goods and services to their fellow earthquake victims, and large numbers of people traveled from other parts of the country to offer aid.”
Last year, I read a trilogy of young adult novels which detailed the aftermath of a catastrophic astronomical event (those books are reviewed here if you’re interested), and one of the things that irked me the most about the series was the author’s seriously warped portrayal of human nature, which closely resembled the Hollywood movies Walker mentions above. It’s good to see that my instincts have actually been confirmed by sociological research.