Disaster: great news - RSA

Disaster: great news


  • Social brain

I few months ago I posted about Dan Pink and his book Drive. Dan is speaking here in January (27 January at 18.00) so Fellows will be able to hear his thesis from the horse’s mouth.

The argument has two parts. First, Dan summarises the overwhelming evidence coming from both research experiments and empirical studies of corporate performance, showing that crude incentives (like cash) damage performance in complex tasks. This leads to his second point, or question: if the evidence so clearly leads to this counter intuitive and memorable conclusion why do so few outside the academic community know about it? Dan surmises that this is because those who benefit from incentives have too much to lose by allowing it to be known that their high salaries and bonuses don’t improve performance.

I was reminded of Dan’s work when reading a review by Bill McKibben of Rebecca Solnit’s new book ‘A paradise built in hell: the extraordinary communities that arise in disaster’. Solnit examines how people respond to natural disasters ranging from the San Francisco earthquake in 1906 to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. You may recall the lurid coverage of the latter event which talked about rampaging gangs attacking victims and looting shops. It turns out these stories were massively exaggerated and many were later quietly retracted.

Instead Solnit’s detailed research comes to inspiring conclusion about what she calls….

‘…disaster communities. These remarkable societies suggest that just as many machines reset themselves to their original settings after a power outage, so human beings reset themselves to something altruistic, communitarian, resourceful, and imaginative after a disaster, that we revert to something we already know how to do. The possibility of a paradise is already within us as a default setting’

Solnit even suggest that when the authorities talk about ‘restoring order’, for example in New Orleans, this is not simply about providing services or tackling a real policing problem but also reasserting the need for authority in the dangerously egalitarian community which has emerged.

Both these ideas would have fitted neatly into Adam Curtis’ powerful 2007 series ‘The Trap’, which explored the origins of the idea that human beings are fundamentally atavistic and self serving and therefore in need of a combination of free markets to meet their appetites and authoritarian states to control their desires.

Remember as well a theme I was writing about a couple of years ago, the opinion poll findings showing the contrast between optimism about our own lives and pessimism about society.

Why is it that we seem to prefer bad news about human character? Is it a hangover of a particular neo-liberal ideology? Or maybe, more simply, it just makes us feel superior. Perhaps the best Christmas present we can give each other is a bit more faith in what we are made of.

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