Tag: Society

Why You Feel At Home In A Crisis

When disaster strikes, people come together. During the worst times of our lives, we can end up experiencing the best mental health and relationships with others. Here’s why that happens and how we can bring the lessons we learn with us once things get better.

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“Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.”

— Sebastian Junger

The Social Benefits of Adversity

When World War II began to unfold in 1939, the British government feared the worst. With major cities like London and Manchester facing aerial bombardment from the German air force, leaders were sure societal breakdown was imminent. Civilians were, after all, in no way prepared for war. How would they cope with a complete change to life as they knew it? How would they respond to the nightly threat of injury or death? Would they riot, loot, experience mass-scale psychotic breaks, go on murderous rampages, or lapse into total inertia as a result of exposure to German bombing campaigns?

Robert M. Titmuss writes in Problems of Social Policy that “social distress, disorganization, and loss of morale” were expected. Experts predicted 600,000 deaths and 1.2 million injuries from the bombings. Some in the government feared three times as many psychiatric casualties as physical ones. Official reports pondered how the population would respond to “financial distress, difficulties of food distribution, breakdowns in transport, communications, gas, lighting, and water supplies.”

After all, no one had lived through anything like this. Civilians couldn’t receive training as soldiers could, so it stood to reason they would be at high risk of psychological collapse. Titmus writes, “It seems sometimes to have been expected almost as a matter of course that widespread neurosis and panic would ensue.” The government contemplated sending a portion of soldiers into cities, rather than to the front lines, to maintain order.

Known as the Blitz, the effects of the bombing campaign were brutal. Over 60,000 civilians died, about half of them in London. The total cost of property damage was about £56 billion in today’s money, with almost a third of the houses in London becoming uninhabitable.

Yet despite all this, the anticipated social and psychological breakdown never happened. The death toll was also much lower than predicted, in part due to stringent adherence to safety instructions. In fact, the Blitz achieved the opposite of what the attackers intended: the British people proved more resilient than anyone predicted. Morale remained high, and there didn’t appear to be an increase in mental health problems. The suicide rate may have decreased. Some people with longstanding mental health issues found themselves feeling better.

People in British cities came together like never before to organize themselves at the community level. The sense of collective purpose this created led many to experience better mental health than they’d ever had. One indicator of this is that children who remained with their parents fared better than those evacuated to the safety of the countryside. The stress of the aerial bombardment didn’t override the benefits of staying in their city communities.

The social unity the British people reported during World War II lasted in the decades after. We can see it in the political choices the wartime generation made—the politicians they voted into power and the policies they voted for. By some accounts, the social unity fostered by the Blitz was the direct cause of the strong welfare state that emerged after the war and the creation of Britain’s free national healthcare system. Only when the wartime generation started to pass away did that sentiment fade.

We know how to Adapt to Adversity

We may be ashamed to admit it, but human nature is more at home in a crisis.

Disasters force us to band together and often strip away our differences. The effects of World War II on the British people were far from unique. The Allied bombing of Germany also strengthened community spirit. In fact, cities that suffered the least damage saw the worst psychological consequences. Similar improvements in morale occurred during other wars, riots, and after September 11, 2001.

When normality breaks down, we experience the sort of conditions we evolved to handle. Our early ancestors lived with a great deal of pain and suffering. The harsh environments they faced necessitated collaboration and sharing. Groups of people who could work together were most likely to survive. Because of this, evolution selected for altruism.

Among modern foraging tribal groups, the punishments for freeloading are severe. Execution is not uncommon. As severe as this may seem, allowing selfishness to flourish endangers the whole group. It stands to reason that the same was true for our ancestors living in much the same conditions. Being challenged as a group by difficult changes in our environment leads to incredible community cohesion.

Many of the conditions we need to flourish both as individuals and as a species emerge during disasters. Modern life otherwise fails to provide them. Times of crisis are closer to the environments our ancestors evolved in. Of course, this does not mean that disasters are good. By their nature, they produce immense suffering. But understanding their positive flip side can help us to both weather them better and bring important lessons into the aftermath.

Embracing Struggle

Good times don’t actually produce good societies.

In Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, Sebastian Junger argues that modern society robs us of the solidarity we need to thrive. Unfortunately, he writes, “The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate commitment to the collective good.” As life becomes safer, it is easier for us to live detached lives. We can meet all of our needs in relative isolation, which prevents us from building a strong connection to a common purpose. In our normal day to day, we rarely need to show courage, turn to our communities for help, or make sacrifices for the sake of others.

Furthermore, our affluence doesn’t seem to make us happier. Junger writes that “as affluence and urbanization rise in a society, rates of depression and suicide tend to go up, not down. Rather than buffering people from clinical depression, increased wealth in society seems to foster it.” We often think of wealth as a buffer from pain, but beyond a certain point, wealth can actually make us more fragile.

The unexpected worsening of mental health in modern society has much to do with our lack of community—which might explain why times of disaster, when everyone faces the breakdown of normal life, can counterintuitively improve mental health, despite the other negative consequences. When situations requiring sacrifice do reappear and we must work together to survive, it alleviates our disconnection from each other. Disaster increases our reliance on our communities.

In a state of chaos, our way of relating to each other changes. Junger explains that “self-interest gets subsumed into group interest because there is no survival outside of group survival, and that creates a social bond that many people sorely miss.” Helping each other survive builds ties stronger than anything we form during normal conditions. After a natural disaster, residents of a city may feel like one big community for the first time. United by the need to get their lives back together, individual differences melt away for a while.

Junger writes particularly of one such instance:

The one thing that might be said for societal collapse is that—for a while at least—everyone is equal. In 1915 an earthquake killed 30,000 people in Avezzano, Italy, in less than a minute. The worst-hit areas had a mortality rate of 96 percent. The rich were killed along with the poor, and virtually everyone who survived was immediately thrust into the most basic struggle for survival: they needed food, they needed water, they needed shelter, and they needed to rescue the living and bury the dead. In that sense, plate tectonics under the town of Avezzano managed to recreate the communal conditions of our evolutionary past quite well.

Disasters bring out the best in us. Junger goes on to say that “communities that have been devastated by natural or manmade disasters almost never lapse into chaos and disorder; if anything they become more just, more egalitarian, and more deliberately fair to individuals.” When catastrophes end, despite their immense negatives, people report missing how it felt to unite for a common cause. Junger explains that “what people miss presumably isn’t danger or loss but the unity that these things often engender.” The loss of that unification can be, in its own way, traumatic.

Don’t be Afraid of Disaster

So what can we learn from Tribe?

The first lesson is that, in the face of disaster, we should not expect the worst from other people. Yes, instances of selfishness will happen no matter what. Many people will look out for themselves at the expense of others, not least the ultra-wealthy who are unlikely to be affected in a meaningful way and so will not share in the same experience. But on the whole, history has shown that the breakdown of order people expect is rare. Instead, we find new ways to continue and to cope.

During World War II, there were fears that British people would resent the appearance of over two million American servicemen in their country. After all, it meant more competition for scarce resources. Instead, the “friendly invasion” met with a near-unanimous warm welcome. British people shared what they had without bitterness. They understood that the Americans were far from home and missing their loved ones, so they did all they could to help. In a crisis, we can default to expecting the best from each other.

Second, we can achieve a great deal by organizing on the community level when disaster strikes. Junger writes, “There are many costs to modern society, starting with its toll on the global ecosystem and working one’s way down to its toll on the human psyche, but the most dangerous may be to community. If the human race is under threat in some way that we don’t yet understand, it will probably be at a community level that we either solve the problem or fail to.” When normal life is impossible, being able to volunteer help is an important means of retaining a sense of control, even if it imposes additional demands. One explanation for the high morale during the Blitz is that everyone could be involved in the war effort, whether they were fostering a child, growing cabbages in their garden, or collecting scrap metal to make planes.

For our third and final lesson, we should not forget what we learn about the importance of banding together. What’s more, we must do all we can to let that knowledge inform future decisions. It is possible for disasters to spark meaningful changes in the way we live. We should continue to emphasize community and prioritize stronger relationships. We can do this by building strong reminders of what happened and how it impacted people. We can strive to educate future generations, teaching them why unity matters.

(In addition to Tribe, many of the details of this post come from Disasters and Mental Health: Therapeutic Principles Drawn from Disaster Studies by Charles E. Fritz.)

Loops of Progress, or How Modern Are You?

On your way to work, you grab breakfast from one of the dozen coffee shops you pass. Most of the goods you buy get delivered right to your door. If you live in a large city and have a car, you barely use it, preferring Uber or ride-sharing services. You feel modern. Your parents didn’t do any of this. Most of their meals were consumed at home, and they took their cars everywhere, in particular to purchase all the stuff they needed.

You think of your life as being so different from theirs. It is. You think of this as progress. It isn’t.

We tend to consider social development as occurring in a straight line: we progressed from A to B to C, with each step being more advanced and, we assume, better than the one before. This perception isn’t always accurate, though. Part of learning from the past is appreciating that we humans have tried many different ways to organize ourselves, with lots of repetitions. If we want success now, we need to understand our past efforts in order to see what changes might be needed this time around.

Would you be surprised to learn that in Victorian London (the nineteenth century), the vast majority of people ate their food on the run? That ride sharing was common? Or that you could purchase everything you needed without ever leaving your house?

To be fair, these situations didn’t exist in the exact instantiations that they do today. Obviously, there was no amazon.com back then. But while the parallels are not exact, they are worth exploring, if only to remind us that no matter the array of pressures we face as a society, there are only so many ways we can organize ourselves.

To start with, street food was the norm. All classes except the very wealthy (thus, essentially, anyone who worked) ate on the run. At outdoor stalls or indoor counters. Food purchased from street vendors or chophouses (the Victorian equivalent of fast-food outlets). Food was purchased and consumed outside of the home, on the commute to or from work.

Why? Why would everyone from the middle classes to the working poor eat out?

Unlike today, eating out was cheaper then. As Judith Flanders explains in The Victorian City:

Today, eating out is more expensive than cooking at home, but in the nineteenth century the situation was reversed. Most of the working class lived in rooms, not houses. They might have had access to a communal kitchen, but more often they cooked in their own fireplace: to boil a kettle before going to work, leaving the fire to burn when there was no one home, was costly, time-consuming and wasteful. … Several factors — the lack of storage space, routine infestations of vermin and being able, because of the cost, to buy food only in tiny quantities — meant that storing any foodstuff, even tea, overnight was unusual.

Even food delivery isn’t new.

Every eating place expected to deliver meals, complete with cutlery, dishes and even condiments, which were brought by waiters who then stayed on, if wanted, to serve. Endless processions of meals passed through the streets daily. … Large sums of money were not necessary for this service.

People need to eat. It’s fundamental. No matter what living conditions we find ourselves in, the drive away from starvation means that we are willing to experiment in how we organize to get our food.

Public transportation took hold in Victorian London and is another interesting point of comparison. Then, its use was not due to a sense of civic responsibility or concerns about the environment. Public transportation succeeded because it was faster. Most cities had grown organically, and streets were not designed for the volume they had to carry in the nineteenth century. There was no flow, and there were no traffic rules. The population was swelling and road surfaces would be devastating to today’s SUVs. It was simply painful to get anywhere.

Thus the options exploded. Buses and cabs to get about the city. Stagecoaches and the railroad for longer excursions (and commutes!). And the Underground. Buses “increased the average speed of travel to nearly six miles an hour; with the railway this figure rose to over twelve, sometimes double that.” Public transportation allowed people to move faster, and “therefore, areas that had traditionally been on the edges of London now housed commuters.”

As a direct consequence of the comparable efficiency of the public transportation system, “most people could not imagine ever owning a private carriage. It was not just the cost of the carriage itself, of the horse and its accoutrements — harnesses and so on — but the running costs: the feed and care of the horse, the stabling, as well as the taxes that were imposed on carriages throughout the century.” As well as the staff. A driver, footmen, their salaries and uniforms.

A form of ride-sharing was also common then. For travel outside of the city, one could hire a post-chaise. “A post-chaise was always hired privately, to the passenger’s own schedule, but the chaise, horses, driver and postboys all belonged to the coaching inn or a local proprietor.”

Aside from the cost of owning your own transportation, neither the work day nor the city infrastructure was designed for reliance on individual transport. London in the nineteenth century (and to a large extent today) functioned better with an extensive public transport system.

There was no social safety net. You worked or you died.

Finally, living in London in the nineteenth century was very much about survival. There was no social safety net. You worked or you died. And given the concentration of wealth in the top tier of society, there was a lot of competition among the working poor for a slight edge that would mean the difference between living another day and starvation.

This situation is likely part of the reason that sellers went to buyers, rather than the other way around. Unlike today, when so many bookstores are owned by the same company or when a conglomerate makes multiple brands of “unique” luxury goods, a watercress girl owned and sold only the watercress she could carry. And this watercress was no different from the bundles the girl one street over had. The competition to sell was fierce.

And so, as Flanders describes, in the first half of the nineteenth century, street vendors in all neighborhoods sold an astonishing array of goods and services. First chimney sweeps, then milkmaids; “the next sellers were the watercress girls, followed by the costermongers, then the fishmongers’, the butchers’ and the bakers’ boys to take the daily orders.” Next came the guy selling horsemeat.

Other goods regularly available from itinerant sellers in the suburbs included: footstools; embroidery frames; clothes horses, clothes-pegs and clothes line; sponges, chamois leathers, brushes and brooms; kitchen skewers, toasting-forks and other tinware; razors and penknives; trays, keyrings, and small items of jewellery; candlesticks, tools, trivets, pots and pans; bandboxes and hatboxes; blackleading for kitchen ranges and grates, matches and glue; china ornaments and crockery; sheets, shirts, laces, thread, ribbons, artificial flowers, buttons, studs, handkerchiefs; pipes, tobacco, snuff, cigars; spectacles, hats, combs and hairbrushes; firewood and sawdust.

You didn’t have to leave your house to purchase items for meeting your daily needs.

This is not to say that Victorian London had everything figured out or that progress is always a loop. For example, there is no time in history in which it was better to be a woman than it is now, and modern medicine and the scientific method are significant steps up over what has come before. But reading these accounts of how London functioned almost two hundred years ago hints that a lot of what we consider modern innovations have been tried before.

Maybe ways of organizing come and go depending on time and place. When things are useful, they appear; as needs change, those things disappear. There really is no new way of doing business.

But we can look at the impact of social progress, how it shapes communities, and what contributes to its ebb and flow. Flanders notes that in the second half of the nineteenth century, there was a shift to going out to shop in stores. What changes did this give rise to? And how did those changes contribute to the loop we are experiencing and to our current desire to have everything brought to us?