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Human Nature and Disaster

February 14, 2011

Rebecca Solnit presents a sort of silver lining for moments of disaster in her essay “The Uses of Disaster: Notes on bad weather and good government”. She suggests that the attitude of victims who go unscathed is often not of despair but instead a strange euphoria. Perhaps this euphoria is the product of a realization of life or as Solnit suggests a momentary escape from the normal pull of life. Regardless the natural attitude of disaster victims is not what one would expect.

What’s more, victims seem to become best friends with total strangers and a willingness to help seems to grow exponentially. My question to you is this: does disaster bring out human nature or does it skew it? In other words, is it human nature to be friendly, helpful, kind, and optimistic?

I would venture to say yes. But then why is it that this natural tendency comes out only in moments of crisis? Perhaps it is daily life, competition, long work hours, bills, obligations, intensive schooling, that clouds human nature. When we are busy participating in a world that is not so natural (in fact very manufactured) it seems likely that we forget and leave our natural tendencies behind.

So we live in a world filled with unnatural stresses that take over and become the center of who we are and what we do. But then something happens to shake the world we have created and it falls to the ground in pieces. It is almost as if we are reborn. Our focus is on nothing but the now and this allows us to claim our natural instincts once more. Disaster strips us of everything but life allowing us to focus clearly on what matters; the people around us and life itself.

Times of crisis seem to be a helpful reminder to almost everyone that what is important is not the money earned or status reached. Happiness does not come from a powerful job or multiple cars. Instead it comes from the people around us and the joy of living life.

Two women work together in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

  1. Emily Slaga permalink
    February 15, 2011 10:35 AM

    I agree with you, I think disaster does bring out human nature. You bring up a great point that we live in such a superficial world that how we actually live is what skews human nature. Technology makes life so impersonal that we interact with people much less than we used to. Commonly, phone bills show you talk on the phone for about an hour a month, and send 5000 texts. We can talk to people, but it’s so much easier to throw out the personal contact, even if just with voice, away to make our lives easier and less busy. When all of this is taken away in disaster, we have no choice but to rely on each other. When we start interacting with one another again, the characteristics of human nature appear again. I think we’re almost imprisoned by our unnatural lives that when disaster hits, we are free from those constraints on how society has formed us, and people feel relived.

  2. Layne Simescu permalink
    February 23, 2011 7:59 PM

    While I think that Solnit provides a good example of how humans can act in opposition to the Hobbesian state of nature, I would say that she fails to acknowledge the other end of the argument. She presents people in crisis as helpful towards each other and kind. She gives examples of how people after Hurricane Katrina were willing to help their neighbors and share food and supplies. But, I don’t think this can be said for everyone in a disaster situation. Some people may not act in helpful ways or even be kind to others. Looters were rampant after the hurricane. These weren’t necessarily people that were personally affected by the storm, some just jumped at the opportunity to steal jewelry and clothing from nearby stores. Solnit only represents the people that were thought to be acting “neighborly.” The people that acted otherwise were left out of her essay. While some people may have been friendly and helpful, others in the same situation represented the “every man for himself” mentality in Hobbes’ state of nature. I don’t believe that we can even begin to understand human nature based solely on Solnit, or even Hobbes for that matter. There are always exceptions to both of the theories. Therefore, I don’t think that we can characterize the nature of humans as friendly, kind, evil, or chaotic. Every person in every situation acts differently. There is not one answer to what human nature is. The fact is, no one knows. I don’t think Solnit or Hobbes, or any other person can put a stamp on what exactly human nature is. It can not be characterized by a few examples or a few words.

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