Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Are You a Survivor?

“Deep Survival – Who Lives and Dies and Why?” by Laurence Gonzales, 2005

Hikers lost.  Boats sinking.  Survivors on life-rafts.  Climbers falling or breaking legs.  Plane crashes on mountains and on aircraft carriers.    Snowmobilers under avalanches.  The kayaker in a flooded gorge.  Scuba divers trapped in an underwater cave.  A swimmer lost in the riptide, or one that fell out of a boat on a fast river.  A wrong turn on a mountain road in a blizzard. 

We all think we are survivors.  But we’re not.  Though, ultimately, none of us are.  Its just the timing that counts.  No matter how quiet a life you lead, even the most sheltered person can encounter extreme conditions or an accident waiting to happen.  Laurence Gonzales was inspired by the life of his father, who, during World War II, fell out of a B-17 at 27,000 feet and survived, and lived a full life, even reading “Finnegan’s Wake.”  This book reads as a paean to him.  Gonzales seems to have dedicated his life to living on the edge, and studying the conditions under which some die and some live. 

For instance, the average middle-class person  thinks that ‘risk’ can be totally eliminated – which is why they are such good candidates for insurance products.  They, on average, never, ever do anything ‘risky.’  However, that is actually impossible. Ultimately, being inured to risk actually increases their risk by hiding the real difference between risk and danger.  They don't know the difference, which means they fear more than they have to.  And when bad things happen, they are less prepared.

Gonzales quotes liberally from various sources – Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher; Erich Remarque, the author of “All Quiet on the Western Front:” Saint-Exupery on flight; Zen and the I-Ching; even Marcus Aurelius, for chrissakes.  He also refers to many individual written stories of survival.  He tracks the relationship between emotions and mental attitudes, and their relation to different parts of the brain – the fear-based amygdala, the cerebral neo-cortex, memories in the hippocampus.  He shows how accidents are inevitable.  The only issue is whether you, as an individual, will be in that accident or not.   

Lawrence relates this to criticality and chaos theory.  (Criticality theory was reviewed below, in the book, “Ubiquity.”)  Chaos theory posits that there is a pattern even among the most disparate effects; and that small events can sometimes have large consequences.  In his discussion of internal critical states, he covers the same ‘rice grain pile’ game discussed in “Ubiquity” and agrees that accidents are internal to every system, just as ‘catastrophes are.  For every 100 climbers up a mountain, some percentage will fail to get down.  Clausewitz called it “friction” – all the innumerable events that can impact an army, for instance, throwing off the best-laid plans.  Some conditions are even more precarious.  A ‘tightly-connected system’ – lets say the world financial market – will ricochet damage everywhere in the system.  A more loosely connected system, with a separation between components – can slow the damage down, or isolate it. (Glass-Steagal, anyone?)

So what are the secrets to survival? When you get in your car on that snowy day, and drive off, are you ready for what might happen? 

Two of the most common reactions to immense stress are panic and complete immobilization.  Thinking too little and thinking too much.  If you stay in these states for too long, you are toast.  Another is over-confidence or ‘irrational’ exuberance.  As he quotes in the book, “The Rambos always go first.”  The ability to retreat intelligently is a mark of a survivor.  Another fatal quality is rigidity.  A person or group who have a plan and a time-table and are going to stick to it, even if concrete conditions are changing, are in for trouble.  There must be many plans.  Another is inattention.  Gonzales repeatedly points to the ‘zen’ of ‘being there.’  And this is not a passive state, but an active one. You must be aware of everything that is happening around you, to the smallest detail, and then act from that.  He also spends a lot of time on ‘positive mental attitude,’ which sounds corny, but basically revolves around being cheerful, seeing the humor in even the most fucked-up situation, and being able to enjoy the mess you are in.  Survivors do that, according to him.  People who babble too much – bad sign.  Calmness is the essence of surviving.  He contends that a balance of intellect and emotion – with intellect in control – will result in the best outcome. 

Gonzales discusses lost and partly lost hikers who make the main mistake of continually moving forward, when they should backtrack.  He of course covers the practical skills and equipment people should have – which gives them a handle on the material world when it goes south.  Many people think bringing home a paycheck or cleaning their house is all they need to know in real-world mechanical skills.  These people are doomed in certain situations, as they have no practical skills.  He maintains that being able to act when you need to – many times quickly – can be key.  Successful survivors are able to plan, carry out and achieve small successes, which allow them not be overwhelmed by their situation.   He also understands that being able to accept a certain level of pain and discomfort is essential to survivors. (see "Reinventing Collapse," by Dimitri Orlov, reviewed below, who also discusses this issue.)

Gonzalez points out that sometimes attempts at increasing 'safety' actually lead to more dangerous conditions.  The rule that lost people should ‘wait for rescue’ is one embedded in much traditional training for disasters.  However, Gonzales points out that it can also lead to being lost permanently.  Every situation has to be evaluated independently, not by a set of rules good for all occasions.  He cites people on 9/11 in New York who followed instructions to stay put, and, instead of moving, waited for fireman, only to die.  A plane crash in the Amazon also resulted in the same thing – 25 adult plane survivors wasting away while not moving an inch - expecting someone else to show up.  Even the most famous crash, cannibalism and all, depicted in the book, “Alive,” only ended because some went for help.

Besides his main skill, ‘being there,’ Gonzales says a key to avoiding accidents is to plan that everything will take 8 times longer than the plan allows.  In other words, people who do not plan for fuckups, which are inevitable, ultimately run late, and lateness can be fatal – snowstorms, river floods, lightening, exhaustion, lack of food, fatigue and hypothermia.  Timing is sometimes everything.  This might also be a note to the people who never get anywhere on time – even those not trying to scale a mountain. 

Why am I reviewing a book on survival?  Well, as you might be able to tell, many of these processes might be good in a riot, or a demonstration, or in arrest, or on a picket line, or in any stressful situation, like your job or even your political group.  It also relates to the ability to survive in a general economic or environmental disaster – the ones that are moving over us like slow-motion avalanches.  And perhaps in your daily life, as you enjoy the woods or waters of this world.

And I did not buy it at Mayday Books.
Red Frog
February 27, 2013

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