What I wish Science-Fiction writers knew about disasters

Probably as many science-fiction books as not feature disasters, and most of those reproduce what are sometimes termed by experts ‘disaster myths’. I find a lot of speculative fiction frustrating because of how it treats the human response to disasters. It is the near unanimous view of science fiction that, during a disaster, humans become, at best, focused on narrow ‘tribes’, at worst, focused only on themselves. A few people (mostly the protagonists) might transcend this, but in the main, cold calculation and hot panic predominant. In truth, people in disaster situations tend to be more altruistically minded, and sometimes even more rational, than they are in everyday life. The following extracts from Erik Auf der Heide’s Common Misconceptions about Disasters: Panic, the “Disaster Syndrome,” and Looting summarise the consensus view among scholars about how people really tend to act in disaster situations:

Because of the frequency, vividness, and potential significance of disasters, a number of widespread stereotypes have developed about behavior in disaster. The popular image of disaster has often centered on the theme of personal chaos. Such an image is frequently documented by isolated anecdotes used to prove the universality of such behavior. This image suggests that individuals panic and that individuals lose their concern for others…. They act irrationally in terms of their own self interest. Also, as the result of the disaster experience, it is suggested that people become hostile and take aggressive action toward others. Another facet of the image suggests that victims develop a “disaster syndrome,” a docile, childlike condition, and as a result must be “cared for” by some protective organization, acting in a parental way…. At the community level, the image of a “social jungle” prevails. People, hysterical and helpless, gradually shed the thin veneer of civilization and exploit others. It is said that looting is common and outside authority is perhaps necessary in order to inhibit these resurgent primitive urges. It is assumed that many will flee from the disaster area in mass panic, leaving the community stripped of its human and natural resources.

… Even when interviewees have denied seeing such behavior in their own disasters, some of them have viewed this as atypical — as the result of the extraordinary spirit and courage unique to their own community — rather than as characteristic of disasters in general.

… In contrast, researchers have found — at least in the immediate aftermath of disasters — that community resilience and unity, strengthening of social ties, selfhelp, heightened initiative, altruism, and prosocial behavior more often prevail. In short, when things are at their worst, disaster-stricken communities tend to rise to the occasion.

It’s well worth reading the whole thing here. It’s not just that ‘good’ behaviour balances the bad- rather, good behaviour seems to greatly predominant in a way that the popular understanding of disaster situations is does not predict.

You might be thinking that you ‘know’, that people become dangerous after disasters because of news reports to that effect. In fact, close examination suggests that many such reports are simply a matter of seeing what we expect to see. For example this paper argues that a closer examination of the events after the New Orleans floods suggests: “ It is likely that there was in fact no looting in the traditional sense”.

It’s often said that you know a person’s character best by knowing how they would act when things are at their very lowest. I’m not sure whether I agree or not, but it’s certainly a popular sentiment. If this is true of individuals, it is presumably true of the species. Thus the point is worth mooting- we have to push back against claims people behave badly in disasters, because they aren’t true, and they represent a misleading conception of what we are as a species, a cynical conception that limits our understanding of human possibilities.

The wholesale deployment of disaster myths sniffs of what a common pattern in fiction, especially serious fiction. What Natalie Natalie Wynn calls “Masochistic epistemology”. The sense that being ‘tough to swallow’ is an indication that something is true. It’s hard to accept that your librarian would sell you for money to buy chopped liver the moment the lights went off, therefore it must be a serious-but-sad truth that all the grownups and very serious people must accept. In fact the very serious, but also very happy truth is that most people care about other people, and many other things besides. This care is not a thin veneer over our ‘real’ motivations, hence disaster does not peel it away. Indeed, disaster often does peel away the relatively superficial barriers to care.

And to wax political for a moment, there are authoritarian aspects to disaster myths- both in an immediate and in a broader sense. The immediate concern is that disaster myths can, and have been, used to justify the enforcement of brutal authoritarianism against already traumatised populations. The broader concern is that the conception of humans as only marginally civilised, but boiling with self-interest and even malice underneath, forms part of the ideological arsenal of authoritarian and ‘strongman’ politics. For an interesting take on the relationship between class, race and the breakdown of civilisation narrative check this outthese narratives have played out many times and worries about the political effects of disaster myths are far from hypothetical. To go a step still further, disasters disproportionately effect the poor and marginalised, ideas about what ‘people’ are like in disasters are sometimes really about what ‘those’ people are like- the fear that without order and regimentation the outcasts and the wretched might take revenge.

No doubt some readers twitching at the apparent moralism of calling fiction ‘wrong’. Fiction always takes liberty with facts. Why object to how disasters are described but not worry about faster-than-light travel? My answer is that we expect speculative fiction to contain false, or at least unproven, physics, chemistry and biology. We aren’t usually expecting it to play around with anthropology, sociology and psychology- at least not without being transparent about the fact that it is doing so. Thus speculative fiction has the potential to catch us out, a potential to lead us not into a fuller understanding of human potentials (and an informed assessment of weaknesses).

It’s not easy to push back against the disaster-as-violent-panic view, because panic and violence make better stories, whereas the story of a community coming together- despite risk- seems like sentimental pap (even though it’s quite realistic.) But given that it’s truer to how we really are, it is surely achievable. A community coming together in the face of adversity is more than a pleasant thought, it’s usually true.

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