When disaster strikes: looting or love?

Lyttelton, NZ earthquake cleanup

Citizens helped the military clean up after an earthquake in New Zealand. Can citizens of large countries achieve the same camaraderie? Photo: NZ Defence Force.

“A powerful riposte to those who argue that in difficult times people become more selfish and turn on each other.  Beautiful,” says Rob Hopkins about a video from a New Zealand town recently leveled by an earthquake with a plucky community spirit.

It makes dramatic TV to see angry mobs brandishing Glocks, busting store windows and pushing shopping carts full of bottled water, toilet paper and power tools down night streets glistening with broken glass. But when Lyttelton, the port city for Christchurch, New Zealand, experienced a 6.3 magnitude earthquake in February, destruction brought out the best in people.

“In this time of great loss,” wrote filmmaker James Muir, “Lyttelton and its community stood out as being resilient, organized and sustainable. It already had the community connections, time-banking, resource sharing and a cooperative arts community.”

Lyttleton’s experience mirrors that of Japan’s Sendai Prefecture, which after the devastating 9.0-point Tohoku Earthquake in March, experienced peace and calm amidst devastation.

Was it because the Japanese are by culture a peaceful people? No, says Richard Baehr in the American Thinker — just remember the Rape of Nanking, a horrible atrocity.

As a Japanese businessman told Baehr,

Japanese people are like passengers on a cruise ship. They know that they are stuck with the same people around them for the foreseeable future, so they are polite, and behave in ways that don’t make enemies, and keep everything on a friendly and gracious basis. Americans are like ferryboat passengers. They know that at the end of a short voyage they will get off and may never see each other again. So if they push ahead of others to get off first, there are no real consequences to face. It is every man for himself.

New Zealanders, like the Japanese, live close together on islands. Are they nicer to each other because they feel they have to get along?

If that’s true, is there any chance for Americans or others who live in big countries to do anything but start ripping our neighbors to shreds if catastrophe comes?

This should be a key question of anyone who cares about peak oil and climate change. The Transition movement seems to have an answer for this, at least in small communities, but possibly also in big cities such as Los Angeles too: start getting to know your neighbors and working with them on local-resilience projects like community gardens now.

Love in a Little Town from James Muir on Vimeo.

— Erik Curren

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    • says

      I haven’t read it, but judging by the book’s title, the premise sounds very plausible. And it makes me fear for the US with its growing income disparities and widening gap between rich and poor.

  1. Radoje says

    I think the salient point here is that one reason these disasters have brought out the best in people is that there is relief coming from the outside to help rebuild. Where there is hope of relief, it is much easier for the social fabric to hold together. However when approaching the coming global decline of industrial, globalized civilization, there will be no unaffected areas with surplus prosperity to assist in the rebuild. Thus in order to keep that hope upon which the social fabric depends, communities will have to empower themselves to be able to rebuild (or manage their energy descent) more or less on their own. This sort of thing ought to be a key focus of any Transition Initiative, and people should look at reskilling with this in mind. While examples like these are nice, it would be more instructive to show how people can work together when the outside world is unable to help on possibly in worse shape.

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