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Survival of the nicest?

Periodically I find myself bombarded with a certain type of query: What is the timing of the collapse? How far along are we? Is it 5 years away, 50, or 500? And no matter how many disclaimers I issue, the queries keep coming.

If you listen to extremist yahoos like Alan Greenspan, we appear to be in the midst of a financial collapse. As it runs its course, the strange idea that endless economic growth on a finite planet is possible, or even desirable, will mercifully fall by the wayside, to be replaced by the much nastier mindset that economics is a zero-sum game: if you are to win, somebody else has to lose. No amount of greenwash or pining after sustainability is likely to stem the tide of nasty people who are determined to make it at your expense.

And so collapse, for you, is likely to turn out to be a deeply personal experience. Furthermore, if you manage to survive it, chances are, you will be none to eager to divulge the details of how you made it, for they will not be edifying. The process of survival is only enjoyable if it is experienced vicariously -- at someone else's expense.

I recently picked up a book about castaways, and was amazed to discover that the introduction to the book spells out this very idea succinctly and in good prose, perhaps better than I could, so I will reproduce a piece of it here:

After a century of enjoying the roller coaster ride of the Industrial Revolution, we face the bleak prospect of it all ending so suddenly that there's no time to don a life jacket, grab a parachute, or find a pack of matches. The fact that most humans are hopelessly unprepared for the ultimate crisis was driven home for me several years ago when a survey of boating accidents on Chesapeake Bay produced a curious detail: most of the male corpses fished out of the bay over the years had their flies open. The inescapable conclusion reached by the authorities was that all these people met their end while blithely peeing over the side. Their last thought, I'm sure, was astonishment. The next most common emotion (for those who do not die immediately) is a deep, sometimes suicidal melancholy, eventually pushed aside by hunger, panic, and -- in many cases -- temporary insanity...

One fascinating aspect... is the dawning awareness that when survivors get back to civilization, they carefully hide much more than they reveal. For the brutal truth, we have to look for clues between the lines. Some of these stories right more true than others, and it is entertaining to see the lengths to which the scoundrels go to paint themselves in noble hues. One comes away with the nagging suspicion that nice people usually do not survive being stranded, and when they do, it is often through freak accident or divine intervention. The real survivors in this world are few and far between. And if they are the fittest to survive, God help us, indeed...

How many of us, unexpectedly tumbled onto an alien shore, would silently give up the ghost rather than face the reality of drinking iguana urine, chewing up grubs, or gagging down raw turtle liver? Lord Byron's grandfather, shipwrecked in the Straits of Magellan, saw his dog killed and eaten by his shipmates... then became so starved himself that he dug up and devoured the dog's paws. We are all far too removed -- even from the rural farms oof our immediate ancestors and the prosaic hardships they faced -- to know what is really put in sausage meat or scrapple, or how to wring a bird's neck. Our soldiers have to be given months of training in jungle survival to prepare them for only a few days of commando operations in rain forests where barefoot people happily raise babies. It is all in your point of view.

Certainly it helps to be marooned with somebody else, for you can commiserate, quarrel, an feud like newlyweds, and when things really get difficult, you can always eat him, or vice versa... When the going gets tough, the tough get eaten. Cannibalism like so many other customs, is merely a state of mind. Over the centuries famine repeatedly drove Europeans and Asians alike to eat everything, including each other. The culinary genius of the French and the Chinese, working with nothing more than a few spices and a bit of garic, turned famine food into such delicacies as snails, sea slugs, and stewed bats, garnished with larvae, pupae, and spawn -- all, like escargot, under more elegant names. And while doughboys in the trenches of World War I were driven insane by body lice and other vermin, political prisoners, POWs, and castaways savor them in their gruel as if they were herbs from Provence. One culture's famine food is another's caviar.

In the case of survival cannibalism, society seasons its judgments with something akin to garlic by conveniently applying certain criteria: Was the main course already dead of natural causes? If not, was a lottery properly conducted before the murder, and are the culprits suitably pious, making analogies to Holy Communion? In this way, the survivors of a plane crash in the Andes could make a group decision to eat some of their number, and walk away heroes. It is only a short distance from the Andes to Soylent Green.

But what is customary is comforting. Cannibalism is a social affair. Solitary survival is not. Solo survivors are a breed apart. Confronted by extreme solitude, by starvation, an by no prospect of rescue, they do not sit around long pining in self-pity but set about urgent practical matters. In some cases this reveals strength of character, tenacity, and the will to live. In others it reveals only animal cunning and stubbornness. Sensitivity and imagination are terrible disadvantages in the crunch. Unusual among these tales because of its painful and pathetic revelations is the diary of a nameless castaway on Ascension Island. Unlike other classical accounts, in which the survivor returns to civilization to enlarge endlessly on his own ingenuity, this victim was much too sensitive for his own good. He kept a diary frankly revealing his misery, his mistakes, his melancholy, his weakness of character, and his hallucinations. The diary is singularly lacking in excuses. Perhaps because he was overly absorbed in his own failings and inadequacies, his struggle failed, and he diary was found beside his bones.

Excerpted from Sterling Seagrave's Foreword to Desperate Journeys, Abandoned Souls: True Stories of Castaways and Other Survivors by Edward E. Leslie

Editorial Notes: Amazon entry for the book. Excerpt from the book are at Google Book Search. Recent review of a another book on survival with a contrary point of view: Miraculous survivors: Why they live while others die. Dmitry reminds us that common stereotypes about survival are usually untrue. We can learn a lot from factual accounts of survival situations. One problem with drawing conclusions is that there are all sorts of survival situations. What works in one may be counter-productive in another. -BA

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