A commercial airliner breaks apart over an island in the South Pacific Ocean. Around 50 survivors of the crash form a camp, and an obsessive, troubled surgeon tries to keep them alive. After several days, it becomes clear that rescue is not forthcoming, and social relations among the survivors begin to deteriorate. The surgeon intervenes in a physical spat, and he gives a speech that resonates for the rest of the survivors’ long ordeal:
Every man for himself is not going to work. It’s time to start organizing. We need to figure out how we’re going to survive here.… If you don’t want to [help find water], then find another way to contribute.… If we can’t live together, we’re going to die alone.
Matthew Fox, as Jack Shephard, delivers this monologue in the fifth episode of Lost, a television show that ran on ABC from 2004 to 2010. Lost can be analyzed and discussed from innumerable angles, but what interested me, finishing my second watch-through of the show, was how closely its social specifics mirror the conclusions of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, the California Book Club’s September selection.
In the aftermath of the crash of Oceanic Flight 815, the survivors form a collective, mutual aid–based society strongly resembling the “disaster utopias” Solnit recounts. Throughout the show, true to Jack’s words, everyone finds some way to contribute; whenever someone calls for help, others rush to their aid, whatever the task or crisis. Some collect fruit or firewood. Some build shelters. Some hunt or fish. No one is idle, and no one is desperate.
Increasingly, over time, this small society depends on trust. Each survivor trusts that the other is contributing to the best of their ability and that no one is going to steal from or harm anyone else. Trust is both the glue that holds these survivors together and the oil that lubricates their relationships. Part of what nurtures this trust is the flattened hierarchy of the group, the fact that the plane crash deprived them of all the belongings and power they possessed in their lives before the crash—anything they could use to feel superior. The Lost collective is, parallel to Solnit’s description, “an open society based on trust in which people are free to exercise their capacities for improvisation, altruism, and solidarity.”
Solnit develops the concept of disaster utopias from a combination of journalistic reporting and the work of sociologists who specialize in disasters. Real-life examples and research directly contradict common assumptions about how people behave after disasters. Instead of Lord of the Flies, a violent descent into tyranny and mob mentality, people tend to be calm, cheerful, and helpful when disaster strikes. They make jokes. They find profound purpose in mutual aid.
Widespread misapprehension about an inevitable kill-or-be-killed environment after a disaster, Solnit writes, often comes from Hollywood. She cites Panic in the Streets, Deep Impact, The Towering Inferno, and other films as examples of how Hollywood shapes our assumptions about what happens between people in extreme crisis. In incisive prose, Solnit explains how Survivor, another popular television show, portrays such crises inaccurately: “The premise is that these people were surviving a disaster that consisted of being stranded in a remote place without the usual resources. They were in fact surviving a very different disaster that consisted of the social order enforced upon them from above and outside.” Solnit continues, “These people were not in the wilderness but living under an arbitrary autocratic regime.… The producers pretended we were seeing raw human nature in crisis conditions but stacked the deck carefully.”
According to Entertainment Weekly and other sources, then–chair of ABC Entertainment Lloyd Braun pitched Lost to its writers as a blend of Survivor and Cast Away, the 2000 Hollywood blockbuster about a man’s survival on an island after a plane crash. Yet Lost, a fiction, is more sociologically accurate than Survivor, a “reality” show about how people behave in desert-island conditions. In Lost, no authority puppeteers survivors, artificially pitting them against one another, and so they cooperate. Boldly for a network TV show dependent on conflict and cliff-hanger, Lost offers up a kinder, more accurate narrative of human nature in extremis.
That narrative adheres to Solnit’s argument all the way to the end. In the penultimate episode of the show, a mysterious Jesus figure (don’t get me started) explains to the survivors that by situating them in the island’s disaster utopia, he offered them a purpose they could not access in their disparate ordinary lives: “I didn’t pluck any of you out of a happy existence.… You were all looking for something that you couldn’t find [off the island].” Or, as Solnit puts it, paraphrasing a soldier with a sociology degree, Charles E. Fritz, “everyday life is already a disaster of sorts, one from which actual disaster liberates us.”
Many survivors in A Paradise Built in Hell reported never again feeling as happy in their ordinary lives as they did in the hours or days following particular disasters. They spoke of kinship, purpose, belonging. Some survivors in Lost communicate these intangibles as well, but through character shifts and performance. “The most important part of your life was the time that you spent with these people [on the island],” Jack’s father tells him in the final 10 minutes of the series. Perhaps even more tellingly: “Nobody does it alone, Jack. You needed all of them, and they needed you."•