Tag Archives: disasters

“Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why” by Laurence Gonzales

I read this book years ago, probably not long after it came out in 2003. I found it as I pursued my (literary) interest in mountains and climbing. (Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer is one of my top ten favorite books.)

Case histories make up the heart of this book. I guess we all read about disasters and wonder “Would I have been a survivor? Or a statistic?”

Gonzales treats survival as both an art and a science.

I decided to put my fictional hero Mark Watney (of The Martian) up against Gonzales’ list of survivor traits. How does Mark do?

First of all, Mark manages to believe that the “impossible” has happened. He survived a series of mischances that left him alone on Mars. (Denial wasn’t going to help.) He scores very high indeed on thinking and planning, and he was superbly trained. Humor is important, and Mark is an unapologetic wise guy.

What about play? Gonzales emphasizes the importance of having “stuff in your head”, like poetry, stories, mathematical problems or prayers. Mark is short on this, but in his high tech world, he raids his departed companions “entertainment” files, reading murder mysteries, listening to disco and watching re-runs of old TV shows.

What else? Gonzales emphasizes persistence, but doesn’t say that much about creativity. Watney was creative, and came up with the highly improbable intervention that led to the book’s happy ending.

Most important, I think, in Gonzales’ analysis, was that Watney did things even when they didn’t seem likely to work. Like growing potatoes. So I would say that Mark Watney rated about 60% or 70% against Gonzales ‘ list of survival supporting characteristics. But, hey, its fiction…

Who should read Deep Survival?

  • Anyone involved with or curious about emergency management.
  • Anyone who takes risks intentionally – like mountaineering or white water rafting.
  • All parents of teenaged boys – they are biologically programmed to take risks!

Gonzales has published another book entitled Surviving Survival – The Art and Science of Resilience. I plan to read it.

Everybody talks about…the weather

The Year Without Summer: 1816 and the volcano that darkened the world and changed history by W Klingaman and N Klingaman.

Here we sit worrying about global WARMING… But global cooling could be just as bad! One message of this book is that there’s a good deal we don’t know about atmosphere and climate. Research should be supported.

In 1815, Mount Tambora in Indonesia exploded. Dirt and dust were flung into the upper atmosphere. The particles were big enough to block sunlight and too small to drop rapidly to earth. So the next year, the world’s weather was cold and stormy. Many areas experienced frost in every month of the year 1816. 

I’m from New England, so I paid particular attention to what was written about Maine and the surrounding areas. It was grim. Crop after crop was destroyed after planting, or before harvest. One consequence was the exodus of many residents, who decided to leave their rocky farms and head west.

One chapter of this book is entitled “Poverty and Misery”, and that sums it up. In Ireland, as hunger spread, civil authorities bemoaned that fact that the Irish clung to their habits of charity and community. They continued to shelter (and try to feed) wandering beggars. The beggars had fleas, which carried typhus. As people died, their families hosted traditional wakes, which offered another opportunity to spread disease. Along with food crops being lost, the Irish had difficulty harvesting the turf/peat they used for fires, so they were cold as well as hungry.

This book makes clear the changes that have come with improvements in communications and science. Nobody knew why summer never came in 1816. The extent of the problems wasn’t clear. The authors believe problems also arose in Asia and elsewhere, but there’s no documentary record.

We are fortunate to be able to predict some disasters. Imagine if we hadn’t know that Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy were coming! The loss of life would have been (even more) staggering. 

This book is well written. No scientific background is assumed. I would have liked a little more meteorology, but the history is detailed and interesting. Read and enjoy!