The news that thousands of Burning Man festival goers were told to conserve food and water after torrential rains left them trapped by impassable mud in the Nevada desert led some to chortle about a “Lord of the Flies” scenario for the annual gathering popular with tech lords and moguls.
Alas, I have to spoil the hate-the-tech-rich revelries. No matter how this mess is resolved — and many there seem to be coping — the common belief that civilization is but a thin veneer that will fall apart when authority disappears is not only false, the false belief itself is harmful.
Rutger Bregman, who wrote a book called “Humankind: A Hopeful History,” had read “Lord of the Flies” as a teenager like many, and didn’t doubt its terrible implication about human nature. However, Bregman got curious about whether there were any real-life cases of boys of that age getting stranded on an island.
Bregman learned of one that played out very differently,
In 1965, six boys from 13 to 16, bored in their school in Tonga, in Polynesia, impulsively stole a boat and sailed out, but became helplessly adrift after their sail and rudder broke. They were stranded on an island for more than a year. Instead of descending into cruel anarchy, though, they stayed alive through cooperation. When one of them broke his leg, they took care of him.
Some of the most memorable weeks of my life were spent helping out with rescues and aid in the aftermath of the 1999 earthquake in Turkey that killed thousands of people. The epicenter was my childhood hometown, so I was very familiar with the place, and I rushed to help, unsure of what I would find. Instead of the chaos and looting that was rumored, the people had been mostly sharing everything with one another. Intrigued, I dived into the sociology of disasters and found that this was the common trajectory after similar misfortune.
Rebecca Solnit’s book “A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster” documents many such experiences — people altruistically cooperating in the aftermath of earthquakes, hurricanes and other catastrophes — and how the authorities often assume the opposite, and go in to restore law-and-order, but end up doing real harm.
One of the most egregious recent examples of this involved rumors of conditions after Hurricane Katrina in the Superdome in New Orleans — where tens of thousands of people unable to evacuate earlier had gathered. The police chief told Oprah Winfrey that babies were being raped. The mayor said, “They have people standing out there, have been in that frickin’ Superdome for five days watching dead bodies, watching hooligans killing people, raping people.” There were reports that rescue helicopters were being shot at.
The reality was that even as the situation deteriorated in the Superdome, as Rebecca Solnit’s book documents, many people kept each other alive, especially taking care of the elderly and the frail under very stressful conditions.
But the demonization of the overwhelmingly Black population of New Orleans fueled true ugliness: Some aid was delayed and resources diverted to prevent “looting,” and refugees from the city trying to escape on foot were shot at by residents in the mostly white suburbs.
What about the terrible side of humanity: the wars, the genocides? And what about survival of the fittest?
In his book “Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society,” Nicholas Christakis, a sociologist as well as a physician, explains that people are cooperative and social animals, not lone wolves. Humans have survived not because they were the animals with the sharpest claws and strongest muscles, but because they had smarts and they had one another.
Christakis looked at shipwrecks from 1500 to 1900 and found that survivors often managed by cooperation and that violence and ugliness was far from the norm.
This is not a rosy-eyed view that ignores the terrible aspects of human behavior. Groups can also be organized politically and socially against each other. That’s the basis of wars and genocides. But far from being elements of true human nature that are revealed once the thin veneer of civilization is worn off, such atrocities are organized through the institutions of civilization: through politics and culture and militaries and sustained political campaigns of dehumanization.
The institutions of civilization can also be enlisted to resist this dehumanization. The European Union may not be perfect, but it has helped to largely suppress the sorts of conflicts that wracked the continent for centuries.
I would venture that many of the thousands trapped in the Nevada mud are mostly banding together, sharing shelter, food and water.
If tech luminaries and rich folks are among those suffering in the mire, instead of gloating about their travail, let’s hope this experience reinforces for them the importance of pulling together as a society.
We can help them along by passing laws that make tax havens illegal, create a more equitable tax structure and a strong international framework for stopping the laundering of gains of corruption, force technology and other companies to deal with the harms of their inventions and overcome the current situation where profits are private but the fallout can be societal.
Human nature isn’t an obstacle to a good society, but it needs help from laws and institutions, not thick mud, to let the better angels have a chance.