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Mother Nature Uniting Human Natures

I just received an email from a friend, Joe Tankersley, a Disney Imagineer and corporate storyteller. Well, unfortunately he was living in the pathway of Hurricane Charlie. Fortunately, he and his family are alright. Like many, I'm sure, he is reporting the following phenomenon: "In the aftermath of the storm, neighbors found themselves carrying on conversations and offering to help folks they barely acknowledge most days. I've also been really fascinated by the way information is flowing. Everyone shares whatever they have heard about conditions--school closings, power returning etc.  When the roads were cleared neighbors and relatives were coming by to check on us and vice versa. Those with ice were delivering it to those without. As is always the case, hard times bring out the best in people. Seems somewhat a shame that we can't have a more connected community everyday."

I responded something like this:

Dear Joe,

Nothing like the barbs of mother nature to unite human natures! A common story, to be sure. But I'm glad your anthropological senses are making the most of such disruptions. To some degree, I confess to be a disruption-fetishist myself, just because of how they shake-up human relations, just because how they make visible so many invisible relationships, flows and issues. Everything is amplified and magnified making observation easier and differences more sharply defined.

And I agree with you: witnessing collective action and commons-sharing is always energizing to experience first hand. NYers talk a lot about this post September 11th or when the power grid failed last August, i.e. how they met neighbours for the first time and connected as a community. I was almost jealous of this in a perverse way. As you note, it's sad when this is an anomaly versus the norm. American society didn't used to be this way; it's pro-social aspects were what made outsiders like Tocqueville admire the country so. But that was in the 19th century. Lots has changed since then.

One hypothesis about these events: I think they showcase, more acutely than ever, the existence of much deeper and relatively untapped reservoirs of human potential -- the desire to help out, contribute to something beyond narrow self interests, be an active part of a community -- which when given an opportunity seem to gush forth like water through a hole in a dam. This periodic glimpse of collective human agency contrasts sharply to the more tepid flow (or lack thereof) defining day-to-day social and civic arrangements. It's a striking reminder of what's missing in our lives, a juxtaposition of just how shallowly and narrowing our current institutions tap into these deeper wellsprings of energy and motivation. (Curiously, this applies to both private and public sector institutions and has something to do with bigness as well.) I suppose some people think this is a good thing. Better to keep the masses quiescent, the cynical power-brokers might quietly say to themselves. And sometimes there can be too much of a good thing; mob action can be unpredictable and pretty horrific.

Most people would also qualify and bracket this state of cooperation, these bursts of pro-social behaviour, as temporary phenomenon. A reversion to selfish, atomistic, "tragedy of the commons" patterns tends to happen once things get back to "normal." Indeed, lived experience and the weight of hundreds of years of western political thought have reinforced this view of human nature quite definitively in our culture, almost to the point where it's hard to imagine anything else. Many people even assume that this view of human nature is tantamount to a law of nature, immutable and unchangeable. But this is conceptually and empirically not true. (The worst case of group think I can think of.) Using the Long View, neither of these assumptions are a given. Shift the context, the tools, the infrastructure, the underlying organizing values and frameworks, and we can engender a different collective versus individual equilibria. And no, I'm not pie-in-the-sky dreaming. This is no fiction for the future. Today, we are seeing many examples where people are engaging in collective action and activities that defy the pure rational choice theories: that is, the main motivator for people is to maximize their own individual interests. Everything from applied Open Source approaches to widespread experiments in social entrepreneurship are revealing new emerging models and approaches. Daily we are seeing signals of this on WorldChanging for instance, and many other places both on and off the web. A few of those same NYers will tell you that their new found sociability is sticky, even additive; how they now have block-parties as a result of the recent community-forming events, and have transformed them at an individual level quite powerfully. To be clear, what we are seeing is far from collective communist-style visions nor idealistic pictures of altruism in action, but rather something much more hybridized and nuanced, and dare I say it, timeless. And to be clear, much of this is terribly unclear except for the fact that cracks in the old assumptions are beginning to show. The context is changing, that much is certain.

Some guides to understand this? Too much almost. But three books, recently read, lay these claims and evidence out quite clearly and systemically using different conceptual frameworks and narratives: Success of Open Source by Steve Weber and old GBN colleague and Professor at UC Berkeley; The Wisdom of Crowdsby James Surowiecki, a business writer for The New Yorker; and Smart Mobsby Howard Rheingold, a long-time digeratti. I hope to do a collective review of these books, and other recent material soon so I can summarize some of these findings and ideas, but please don't hold me to that :) The point is that, unlike other revolutions, these ideas are already in the rapid prototyping, learning-by-doing phase; and they are manifesting themselves daily, quickly going mainstream, in a way that many entrenched interests will find surprisingly and perplexing. Another inevitable surprise to put to the bookies. This is also another role for Worldchangers. Translators and boundary-spanners from the old models to the new ones will be sorely needed for decades to come.

Take care, Joe. Glad you know your neighbours better now. Can't say the same is true for me in Paris. Don't know a soul in my building. I suppose we'll need something really earth-shaking for that to change. Maybe you, as a community, can replant the nature conservancy/park ("Huge old oak trees and some ancient palms were uprooted and split like matches") in your collective backyard? Now that would be a good story to tell :)

- Nicole

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Comments

Fabulous essay, Nicole!

It takes a brave person to jump forward and point out what I suspect many of us think -- what is even, to me, at least, a primary source of optimism and inspiration -- but which is so inchoate and unnamed.

There *is* something happening. Let's make it happen faster, better and for many, many more people.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 16 Aug 04

A couple of weeks ago, a group of us got together for a barbecue and it ended up with most of us playing music together. First time in a long time.

We have the power if we want to exercise it. The hardest part is starting. It's easier if everybody involved has a clear and unified vision. That's why hurricanes, blackouts, and emergencies bring out the best: they reduce circumstances to the essential - life and death.


Posted by: gmoke on 16 Aug 04



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