Charles Montgomery is the author of Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design.
Auckland Island, a craggy expanse of sub-polar tundra nearly 500 kilometres south of New Zealand, was once a magnet for shipwrecks.
In January, 1864, the schooner Grafton foundered on a rocky beach on the south end of the island. The ship’s mate, François Édouard Raynal, was deeply ill at the time of the wreck. His crewmates managed to rig up a rope system and get him to shore.
Raynal and the ship’s captain, Thomas Musgrave, used seal blood to record their ordeal. Despite their diverse backgrounds (American, French, English, Norwegian and Portuguese), the crew took care of each other and worked co-operatively. Once he’d recovered, Raynal led the crew to build a forge using seal skin for bellows. He forged nails from salvaged materials. He baked and crushed seashells, then mixed them with sand to make concrete. The crew built a cabin and taught each other their respective languages.
After a year and a half, the men repaired the ship’s dinghy, in which Musgrave, Raynal and another man made the desperate crossing to Stewart Island in New Zealand. Musgrave then led a successful expedition to rescue the remaining two men.
Unbeknownst to the Grafton crew, another ship struck and broke up on the north shore of the same island five months after their wreck. Nineteen of the Invercauld’s 25 crewmen made it to shore. They left one injured member of their party to die on the beach. As the castaways trekked across the island searching for food, they abandoned other weak members of the crew. They ate one fallen companion. Only three men remained alive when they were rescued a year later.
The fate of these two crews couldn’t have been more different, but they reflect a pattern seen in other nautical disasters. The sociologist Nicholas Christakis studied shipwrecks between the years 1500 and 1900. He found a consistent theme: Crews who were co-operative, egalitarian and caring, those who shared food and cared for sick members, almost always fared better than those where the ethos was “every man for himself.”
What’s true for shipwrecks is true for communities and entire societies. In his book Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, Dr. Christakis offers evidence from societies throughout history that the secret to any group’s success is its ability to embody several social traits. Shining among these traits are altruism and co-operation.
This is the lesson from mountains of research on human social groups. Altruism is the superpower that keeps us strong. We must activate this power as we face the greatest collective challenge in generations. The way we respond to the COVID-19 pandemic will determine not just our success as a society; it will define who we really are and how we will be remembered.
Are we a society of people who co-operate and take care of each other – especially our most vulnerable members – when we hit the rocks?
COVID-19 sure doesn’t make this easy. The pandemic is inherently disorienting: In times of crisis, our natural response is to come together – literally. But this crisis demands that we maintain physical distance from one another. We cannot necessarily huddle together, warming our sick and weary, on this storm-battered shore.
Altruism, in this case, demands that we ignore messages from what the psychologist Daniel Kahneman calls our “fast brain,” in favour of our “slow brain.” This means actively cooling our fear-driven passions and impulses, and paying attention instead to evidence and sober analysis. It means ignoring social-media clickbait and conspiracy theories, and instead trusting in scientists and health authorities.
I feel this fast-brain/slow-brain tension acutely. I became a father last week, just as Canada was ascending the pandemic curve. My heart aches with the desire to embrace my son, but the evidence demands that I give space to him and his moms (his two primary parents) until the time for physical distancing has passed. Social solidarity, in this case, demands FaceTime rather than face time.
The pandemic exacerbates another social tension: Our species has evolved the remarkable ability to trust and co-operate with millions of people who are not our direct kin. It’s essential for the success of cities and countries. But this ability competes with the tendency to favour people who seem more “like us.” In times of threat, much like the crew of the Invercauld, we are tempted to divide the world into those who should be protected and those who should be excluded from care because they’re weak or different.
This impulse has manifested in ugly ways already. U.S. President Donald Trump, against the advice of the World Health Organization, has dubbed COVID-19 “the Chinese virus.” Americans and Canadians of Chinese descent are reporting a surge in verbal and physical assaults. The South African government is building a virus fence along its border with Zimbabwe. One Kenyan parliamentarian insisted his constituents had the right to stone and chase away foreigners; one man has already been killed.
The virus is a convenient tool for any who believe their own social group’s strength comes from excluding others. It’s a weapon for those who double down on selfishness by shrinking the in group. When pundits talk about “herd immunity” – essentially letting the virus run its course so we can ramp up economic activity again – they’re really talking about culling the old, the sick and the poor.
The falseness of this path is woven into our spiritual traditions. The Christian Bible advises us to "value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Islamic texts celebrate the people of Medina, who welcomed the war refugee Mohammed and his followers into their homes. The Buddha reached enlightenment when he understood the interconnectedness of all suffering and the primacy of compassion.
Altruism is also woven into our DNA. We are rewarded by feel-good hormones such as oxytocin every time we engage in trusting and trust-building actions. Evolutionary biologists invented a term to describe the phenomenon by which altruistic groups fare better than selfish ones. They call it “inclusive fitness.”
The pandemic is forcing us to reckon with our interconnectedness. Take the neighbourhood outside my office. Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is home to thousands of Canada’s most vulnerable people, many of whom live with mental illness and addiction. Some are homeless. Thousands more live in cramped and filthy single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, sharing bathrooms.
For years, many Vancouverites have been content to leave these people to their fate, tucked away in a grubby corner of the city. But activists have sounded the alarm that this concentration of poverty is a “powder keg” of contagion. The science is clear: Viruses spread when poor people don’t have the resources to stay clean and healthy.
The virus could sweep through the SROs with astonishing speed, killing many immunocompromised people, but also compounding the spread of the novel coronavirus through the city. Our fates are now bonded even more closely than the crews of those South Pacific shipwrecks.
Common care has burst forth this spring. Community members and allies from all walks of life have rallied to raise funds to keep people in the Downtown Eastside healthy. (Yes, you can donate, right now at dtesresponse.ca.) Elsewhere, people across the country are offering support for homebound neighbours and strangers.
But society-wide threats demand a higher level of collective action. When governments invest in inclusive fitness, they boost our collective well-being. It was concern for poor families that led the Saskatchewan government to introduce universal health care in 1961. Publicly funded health care has now put Canada in a stronger position to fight COVID-19 than the United States.
The past few decades have seen a deepening of inequity in many countries. (In Canada, it’s worsening in our big cities.) Neoliberal policies have left many people alone on the rocky edges of society. But governments are now rediscovering the value of reinvesting in common well-being.
In their pandemic response, city governments in San Jose and San Francisco have announced a temporary moratorium on evictions. The Danish government has promised to cover up to 90 per cent of salaries if businesses keep their employees. Hospitals and medical systems are being rapidly expanded. Social welfare nets are being mended. Universal basic income was once considered a radical idea, but leaders across the political spectrum are now advocating for cash payouts not just for laid-off workers, but for everyone.
The COVID-19 pandemic is just a taste of the economic and environmental shocks we’ll weather in the age of rapid climate change. The decisions governments make today may shape society for decades to come. Countries with supportive foundations such as accessible health care and stable, affordable housing will be stronger as those storms approach.
A century and a half ago, the crew of the Grafton decided that a sick man was worth saving from their foundering schooner. Once healthy, Raynal used his smarts to help the group survive. Now we need to decide as a society: Will our decisions be driven by the impulse to exclude, or the knowledge that we really are all in the same boat?
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