Journalist and author Laurence Gonzales has been studying accidents and their roots in human behavior for more than 35 years, culminating in the 2003 publication of Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why. Part adventure-story, part scientific treatise, Deep Survival looks at what separates the quick from the dead and how we can foster those characteristics within ourselves. Gonzales’ next book, Vortex, will examine why smart people do stupid things. We got his take on global warming, preparedness and denial.
SC: In Deep Survival, you talked about taking a realistic look at what’s going on in an emergency rather than going into a state of denial or becoming so paralyzed and overwhelmed by the situation that you don’t do anything. What are your thoughts on that relative to global warming?
LG: I address that in my new book. One time I went away to a medieval village in Europe, a little tiny place on the island of Majorca, far up in the mountains, with no electricity, a stone house, very primitive. In order to get food, you had to walk to the market and back. The market was all tables with stuff that had been laid out, fish that had just been caught, or olives that had just been picked. So I got used to this way of living. I came back finally after a month or two, and we immediately went to get some food because there was nothing at the house. We went to the supermarket and we both just stood there gaping like “What is this? Where’s the food?”
The American economy is predicated on our willingness to exercise a kind of voluntary stupidity.
It was so different, it was so shocking, because it was all packaging, and it was kind of a revelation. It was like “Wow. We don’t really sell food, we don’t really buy food in this country, we buy packaging.” Then, by a process of extension, I began to see this insane system that we live in. All the most expensive and manufacturing intensive things that I’ve just bought go immediately into trash, or the recycling. So there I am, enacting a system whereby I’m essentially an agent of garbage. If I stopped doing that, if we all stopped doing that, the system would stop.
This system assembled itself because of the way we do things that we’re rewarded for in the short term, without really thinking about what it means in the long term. But once you start viewing your real job in this system as what it truly is – every time you walk out with a couple of garbage bags full of this manufactured stuff that you’ve purchased now that you’re throwing away within perhaps hours or days of when you bought it, you realize what a messed up system it is.
So where does that lead us? All of this stuff that human effort has made in our culture is now getting taken away, dumped in a heap at the edge of town, completely useless. So all this wonderful human ability is going into this process, and we are agents of the process. Once you start thinking that way, it really begins to affect how we feel about our behavior, and we start to look for ways to not be quite so ridiculous.
SC: In terms of denial, there are two issues here. There’s mitigation and there’s also the issue of adaptation. When it comes to global warming, what is it in us that doesn’t want to see the problem?
LG: It really comes down to the simplest seeming principles of how mammalian emotional systems work, ours included. It’s a system that starts, probably before you’re born, and it develops a model for the world. It develops these models that say, “This behavior is good because I get rewarded for it, and this behavior is bad, because I get punished for it. So I will constantly move towards the things I get rewarded for, and I will move away from the things I get punished for, and as you grow up into the world, you continuously create these models that essentially dictate how you make decisions about your behavior.
If there is a real fire, you want to be sure you’re the person standing on the street, not the person staying inside because you practiced staying inside during fire alarms.
So now you create a world, over a fairly short period of time in evolutionary terms, an environment, essentially, that’s stripped of all the predators. It has the appearance of being stripped of all the dangers, too. The kinds of dangers, and even the kinds of rewards that the system was designed to relate to, are gone.
Now you’re in this environment where all of your rewards come from things like, “I’m going to go to the grocery store and get a pretty package that says Cheerios on it, and that’s going to be my breakfast.” You don’t want to have to create a whole new system of rewards for yourself to make your life satisfying. You don’t voluntarily go out and find punishments for your behavior. That’s not how the system works.
So you’re being rewarded essentially for something that’s destructive. The system still works, so intellectually you may be able to comprehend this, but the intellect is not very strong when it comes to competing with the emotions.
SC: Then there’s also the piece that it’s creating a threat, but the threat is not –
LG: It’s invisible.
SC: It’s not immediately perceived, and so, regardless of how much science gets presented, there’s not the immediate impetus to act.
LG: That’s correct. Yeah, it’s not associated with something tangible.
SC: I’d like to look at the whole think, analyze and plan step from your book and how that would relate to a long-term threat.
LG: Part of the point is that we’ve created a culture for ourselves that, at least throughout my life time, has made it not only unnecessary to think, but has made it actually a detriment to the system to think. The American economy is predicated on our willingness to exercise a kind of voluntary stupidity. Our time is so worthless and our intellect is so useless in the system that essentially it just needs to be immobilized so that it doesn’t work.
As we grew up in this culture, what we learn is that we really don’t HAVE to do anything. Things are done for us. In fact, since my childhood, which was in the ‘50s, it’s gotten more and more that way. Things became completely automated in my lifetime. It’s cleverness, it’s technology. On the other hand, this kind of progress, if you want to call it that, begins to take us more and more out of the loop, so we have to do less and less. The less you have to do, the less you have to think, the more incapable of doing and thinking you become. I’m not saying this is a conspiracy, I’m just saying this is an unintended side effect of this culture.
We’ve gotten more and more away from being critical and analytical. The system counts on you to be uncritical and unthinking, or else you would never put up with the bullshit that’s in the system. So that’s why, to think, analyze and plan, we really have to work against what our culture encourages us to do.
We don’t really sell food, we don’t really buy food in this country, we buy packaging.
SC: Okay. And what would that look like?
LG: We begin to look at the culture as what it is. Most of the things in our culture are first of all useless, and secondly, dangerous, and don’t really have anything to do with our survival, or perhaps our getting smarter, or doing things better. They are essentially distractions meant to get us from purchase to purchase so that the system keeps going.
Packaged food is just one example. But so much of what we experience in our culture is, if not directly useless, at least a point along that engineered uselessness that we live with so much.
It doesn’t mean that we have to reject all our culture. It just means that it’s a good idea to be aware of, what are you doing, why are you doing this, what are you doing with this product, why do you want it, what do you intend to accomplish, how is this making your life better, or the lives of others better? Is this the agency of some good at all, or is it just like what you do ‘cause you can’t figure out what else to do? That kind of analytical thinking is very rare in our culture.
SC: It’s also a distinction between what you need and what you want, and our culture is really focused on what you want, whereas survival is really focused on what you need.
LG: It’s a completely different way of thinking. Part of this is changing your point of view on things. Because until you change your point of view, nothing new will get in.
SC: The last piece is really about taking decisive action. One aspect of that is setting these small, attainable goals and breaking it down into a way that’s manageable. Can you talk about that in terms of survival and global warming?
LG: I have two grown daughters, and when they were little, we traveled a lot together. Whenever we were in a hotel and the fire alarm went off, we would leave the building. We’d put on our robes and go down these stairs and be standing out in the street in the cold when the fire department came and said, “It’s a false alarm.” I said to the girls, “You do what you practice doing. This is why we’re doing this. If there is a real fire, you want to be sure you’re the person standing on the street, not the person staying inside because you practiced staying inside during fire alarms.”
So this is a basic element of thinking that I try to teach as I go around the country talking to people. I say, “Bureaucracy is bad. Not for all the reasons that you hear, like inefficiency or corruption. Bureaucracy is bad because it makes you practice nonsense, and if you practice nonsense you will be in a position of behaving nonsensically, and someday, that’ll kill you.”
Whatever action you’re going to take, you’re going to aim at retraining your way of behaving. In terms of small ways of doing this, if you live in a place like New Orleans, or the coast of Florida, where you’re subject to get flooded out by storms, you have to really kind of question your entire underlying way of life, and wonder why you’re doing it. Why did you put yourself in harm’s way? The answer goes back to question number one, which is, it rewards you in the short term. It does not reward you in the long term.
It is entirely within the realm of possibility that our giant growing agricultural area in this country that we use to grow all of our food could fall apart under the stress of climate change.
You have to, at the very least, start thinking about well, since the climate has already changed, and since these storms are getting bigger and bigger, I have to have a plan. If I’m not actually going to sell my house and move somewhere safer, then I have to have a plan for how I’m going to survive the next storm that comes, because it will come.
That, for example, is one way of looking at our lives. What is the Achilles’ heel in my life, and how should I be thinking about it? What’s the worst thing that can happen here in my little part of the world?
SC: Realistically assessing where you are.
LG: Like, did you move to a beautiful new house on a mountaintop in rural California, where it just so happens that you’re surrounded by pine forest that has a tendency to burn? What am I doing here in the middle of this tinderbox?
By it’s very nature, climate change is unpredictable, and we’re in for some big surprises, and they’re apt to be nasty surprises. It is entirely within the realm of possibility that our giant growing agricultural area in this country that we use to grow all of our food could fall apart under the stress of climate change. For example, two-thirds of the fruit, vegetables and nuts that we consume in this country are grown in California. If California has a water catastrophe, which many people believe is very possible, that could drastically influence what happens there.
Bureaucracy is bad. Not for all the reasons that you hear, like inefficiency or corruption. Bureaucracy is bad because it makes you practice nonsense, and if you practice nonsense you will be in a position of behaving nonsensically, and someday, that’ll kill you.
It’s almost certain that food systems some place in the world will collapse as a result of climate change. We don’t know where yet, but somewhere. You’re going to see things like war happen over food, essentially, and probably over water. So there are things like that to consider, too.