Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Deep Survival by Laurence Gonzales

This book is very "bouncy". Gonzales is all over the map, literally and figuratively, talking about the subject of what makes the difference between living and dying in a disastrous situation. It just seems as if he had too much information from his references to cram it all in, and ended up with a very choppy narrative.

That being said, there were a number of points I found quite interesting. Statistically speaking, only 10 to 20 percent of people can stay calm and think in the midst of a survival emergency. As remaining calm seems to be a common factor in the tales of those who survive disasters, in any group of four or five people, only one is going to make it out alive. From this book and some of my other readings, it's possible to increase the odds of remaining calm in various situations by repeated training in emergency scenarios, so it would probably behoove each of us to take some classes.

A cautionary phrase: "Since, young, brain-dead, male motorcycle riders supply many of the hearts transplanted in the United States..." Please, guys, wear your helmets!

Gonzales talks about how, in endeavors like mountain climbing, or hiking to a wilderness destination, our failure to adapt quickly when something disrupts our plan can be fatal.

"...we all make powerful models of the future. The world we imagine seems as real as the ones we've the thrall of that vision we go forth and take action. If things don't go according to the plan, revising such a  robust model may be difficult. In an environment that has high objective hazards, the longer it takes to dislodge the imagined world in favor of the real one, the greater the risk."

Many climbers, hikers, river rafters end up in deep trouble when Nature fails to cooperate with their plan. Unanticipated bad weather seems to be a big factor, both in failing to plan for the possibility and bringing along the right type of gear to survive rain or cold, or in not changing our minds about reaching the anticipated destination and returning safely when things get dicey.

One thing I found particularly interesting is the idea that accidents are actually a normal part of any given system, and that it's just a matter of time and probability as to when they happen, especially in complex systems. We have this need to engineer away, safety procedure away, or legislate away, any possible hazard, mistakenly believing that it's an attainable goal. In fact, sometimes the safety precautions make things worse, as they merely increase the complexity of the system.

"Shit happens, and if we just want to restrict ourselves to things where shit can't happen...we're not going to do anything very interesting."

There's a theory called "risk homeostasis" which says that people are willing to accept a given amount of risk, which is different for each person, but which each person tries to keep at a constant level.

"If you perceive conditions as less risky, you'll take more risk. If conditions seem more risky, you'll take less risk...When antilock brakes were introduced, authorities expected the accident rate to go down, but it went up. People perceived that driving was safer with antilock brakes, so they drove more aggressively." (emphasis mine)

There's quite a few interesting things in this book, but you'll have to sift through a bit of chaff at times. At the end of the book, he provides a checklist of things to do in a survival situation.
1. Perceive, believe
2. Stay calm
3. Think/analyze/plan
4. Take correct decisive action
5. Celebrate your successes
6. Count your blessings
7. Play
8. See the beauty
9. Believe that you will succeed
10. Surrender (let go of your fear of dying; put away the pain)
11. Do whatever is necessary
12. Never give up

Sounds like good principles to live by all the time, to me.

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