Natural disasters and societal collapse are, despite their tragic aspect, unintended laboratories of how people behave under stress. Past crisis teaches us what people might do in future disruption. What might we deduce from Hurricane Harvey?
Lesson #1. People tend to band together against a common foe or problem. In the aftermath of destruction caused by Hurricane Harvey, some media observers were surprised by the scale of self-help demonstrated by the civilians themselves. Many did not wait to be helped. They helped themselves and their neighbors.
An entire armada of volunteers have taken to the flooded streets to help the people of Houston.
It’s much appreciated by people in the city’s fire service, like Cary Hunter whose radio doesn’t stop when we catch up with him down the road.
Slate was even scandalized by the extent of it. Katy Waldman disapprovingly wrote that “it’s misleading to say that Houston showcases ‘America at its best’. Natural disasters shouldn’t be used for the purpose of national mythmaking.” But there was nothing shocking about it. An Obama-era Homeland Security publication even anticipated the inevitability of volunteerism. “Even in small- and medium-sized disasters,” it noted, “which the government is generally effective at managing, significant access and service gaps still exist. In large-scale disasters or catastrophes, government resources and capabilities can be overwhelmed.”
Any 500-year disaster will overwhelm government agencies sized for the average situation. A meaningful response must depend on mobilizing private resources, which depends partly on community culture, because that is all you have when the lights go out and the streets are flooded.
Lesson #2 is probably that a crisis jolts the public back to what is truly important. We can focus on the unimportant in normal times. But floodwater in your living room is the ultimate burn-through. The reality signal is so strong the facts overpower the Narrative. This may explain why stories about Melania Trump’s high heels and Keith Olbermann’s latest insights into Donald’s behavior generated less attention than otherwise. Like decoys ejected by ICBMs to confuse the defending observer, some Narratives will simply fall away in the pressing atmosphere of emergency events.
Lessons 1 and 2 have interesting implications for anyone anticipating the course of a hypothetical Second American Civil War. Such an event has been widely mooted, but nobody knows how it may play out. “In the 21st century, during an ongoing culture war between American conservatives and liberals over opposing cultural, moral, and religious ideals, Dennis Prager claimed that Americans are actually in the midst of the Second Civil War, albeit not necessarily violent.”
One extrapolation from the Harvey experience is that coalitions formed in periods of abundance and normalcy will vanish or change drastically in times of physical crisis. For example, the Marxist coalition in Venezuela won the culture war during its heyday as an oil exporter. However the same coalition is disintegrating under the burn-through of hunger.
Friends of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro are peeling away. As the nation’s chaos grinds on, former allies are joining a mounting chorus of dissent, a wave of defections unprecedented since the 1999 dawn of the nation’s socialist era. Many of the disenchanted are actively working to foil Maduro’s efforts, making his hold on power all the more tenuous.
For almost three months, the nation has been rocked by unrest that shows no signs of ebbing. Sputtering demonstrations against government overreach quickly became a nationwide movement against the country’s dire state, with inflation in triple digits and crime and corruption rampant. Dozens have been killed and thousands more injured or jailed.
Necessity has its own logic. As Trinculo observed in The Tempest “misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” Friends in need are often different from boon companions in plenty. Crisis changes optics and alters priorities. Perhaps such changed considerations brought about the sudden denunciations of Antifa by Nancy Pelosi and the Berkeley mayor. The once heroes were now heels.
It’s always dangerous to assume arrangements will remain unchanged when things fall apart. Thus if a Second American Civil War ever actually breaks out it will probably be nothing like what the coalitions that brought it there imagined.
One of the reasons a crisis produces surprises as already noted is because previously hidden information emerges. A status quo that relies on shaming, censorship and doxing to maintain information dominance can find itself caught off balance by revealed information. This process is what economist Timur Kuran called preference falsification. Suppose the public doesn’t really care about Melania Trump’s high heels? What then?
The fall of East European communism in 1989 came as a massive surprise. Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1978–79 stunned the CIA, the KGB, the Shah of Iran that it toppled, and even the Ayatollah Khomeini, whom it catapulted to power. The Russian Revolution of 1917 stunned Lenin, the deposed Romanovs, and foreign diplomats stationed in St. Petersburg. No one foresaw the French Revolution of 1789, not even the rioters who brought it about. In each of these cases, a massive shift in political power occurred when long-submerged sentiments burst to the surface, with public opposition to the incumbent regime feeding on itself. Preference falsification explains why the incumbent regime appeared stable almost until the eve of its collapse. People ready to oppose it publicly kept their opposition private until a coincidence of factors gave them the motivation and the courage to bring their discontents out in the open. In switching sides, they encouraged other hidden opponents to join the opposition themselves. Through the resulting bandwagon process, fear changed sides. No longer did opponents of the old regime feel that they would be punished for being sincere; genuine supporters of the old regime started falsifying their preferences, pretending that the turn of events met their approval.
What then is “surprise”? Many of these upheavals were precipitated by a proximate crisis, but it was rarely the crisis itself that caused regimes to fall; it was what was revealed by them. The world is an unpredictable place and there will be further surprises. Storms, eruptions, asteroid strikes, nuclear missiles and pandemics weren’t left behind in the ’80s; neither were shifts in the public mood.
Technology, design margin, dispersal and adaptation can help a political system survive, but it can never truly be in control.
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The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, by Norman Cohn. The end of the millennium has always held the world in fear of earthquakes, plague, and the catastrophic destruction of the world. At the dawn of the 21st millennium the world is still experiencing these anxieties, as seen by the onslaught of fantasies of renewal, doomsday predictions, and New Age prophecies. This fascinating book explores the millenarianism that flourished in western Europe between the 11th and 16th centuries and offers an excellent interpretation of how, again and again, in situations of anxiety and unrest, traditional beliefs come to serve as vehicles for social aspirations and animosities.
The Genius of Birds, by Jennifer Ackerman. According to revolutionary new research, some birds rival primates and even humans in their remarkable forms of intelligence. Ackerman travels around the world to the most cutting-edge frontiers of research – in Barbados and New Caledonia, the bowerbird habitats of Australia, the ravaged mid-Atlantic coast after Hurricane Sandy and the warming mountains of central Virginia and the western states – and delves deeply into the latest findings about the bird brain itself that are shifting our view of what it means to be intelligent.
The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, by Dale Russakoff. When Mark Zuckerberg announced to a cheering Oprah audience his $100 million pledge to transform the downtrodden schools of Newark, New Jersey, then mayor Cory Booker and Governor Chris Christie were beside him, vowing to help make Newark “a symbol of educational excellence for the whole nation.” But their plans soon ran into the city’s seasoned education players, fierce protectors of their billion-dollar-a-year system. It’s a prize that, for generations, has enriched seemingly everyone, except Newark’s children. This book is an absorbing portrait of a titanic struggle, indispensable for anyone who cares about the future of public education and the nation’s children.
For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.
Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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