Everyday Survival: Why Smart People Do Stupid Things

By Laurence Gonzales

W.W. Norton, 288 pages, $26

A professor of physics once advised my class that the downfall of mankind would inevitably be tied up with our inability, as a species, to truly appreciate the exponential function:

The slow progression of tiny changes in a system over time (lulling us into a false sense of stability and security), followed by an ominous tilt upwards at a critical point (that may or may not shake some of us from our daydream), and then, all at once, changes in the once familiar system start accelerating too fast for anyone to do anything.

Survival expert and best-selling author Laurence Gonzales calls that false sense of security “the vacation state,” i.e., behaving as if the world around us will always be simple, predictable, and just like it is today, even when evidence directly available to us warns that no, it will not.

The vacation state is a rather peculiar trait observed in Americans raised in the latter half of the 20th century. Once, like native peoples in many “primitive” parts of the world today still do, we knew our surroundings intimately and were keenly attuned to any changes we observed.

Now, we are practically sleepwalkers, walking straight into broken doors with clearly posted warning signs simply because they’ve always opened for us in the past. As Gonzales notes, we have replaced awareness of our surroundings with what he calls “behavioral scripts.”

In easy times, these scripts may work fine (though perhaps not so well as we’d like to believe). But shake up the system even a little, and those same scripts can lead us down extremely dangerous paths.

That was largely the subject of his previous book, Deep Survival, about why some humans handle extreme conditions far better than others. In Everyday Survival, he digs deeper into the underpinnings of behavior as well as the role of complex systems in a universe where, as the second law of thermodynamics informs us, entropy always wins.

The book is a cornucopia of cutting-edge ideas from science and philosophy, a page-turner that’s by turns exhilarating and deeply disquieting. Dire warnings about the price of continuing to live as though there is no tomorrow are peppered throughout the book alongside considerations of why our gluttonous consumption of resources continues regardless.

There’s something of a grand cosmic joke, shades of Kurt Vonnegut, in the fact that life in general tends to facilitate the progress of entropy quite efficiently. In fact, as Gonzales very elegantly illustrates, the more advanced life becomes, the faster we break the world down all around us.

By the time you reach the point of modern civilization, the breakdown of order into disorder has become an art form. It would be difficult to conceive of a more efficient means to burn up all the fossil fuels of the world and leech our oceans of oxygen than the system we have in place now.

It may well be (and here’s the cosmic joke again) that increasing disorder in the universe is the elusive meaning of life philosophers have pondered throughout history, here at last in our hands to make of what we will.

Maybe so, but Gonzales asks if we can’t do better for ourselves and for future generations. After all, with knowledge of how the world around us actually works, we may be in the heretofore-unknown position of being able to flip the script. In other words, do we have to keep stomping such enormous carbon footprints into the Earth with every step, or can we use our brains and slow down our steady progress toward a hot, inhospitable world of tomorrow?

Especially since, as Gonzales notes, it’s actually cheaper to stop living the way we do.

As he goes on to explain, we could actually improve corporate profits, make the economy grow faster, and enjoy a better standard of living if we made the decision to stop squandering our resources.

This, of course, is where the truly unsettling questions come into play. Are we such well-programmed disorder machines that we really can’t stop grinding up the world around us no matter how obvious the necessity becomes of at least slowing down the rate of damage?

Gonzales asks: If rational people with good information still cannot make decisions that we can all see are necessary, then how can we explain our behavior? Those with experience in the ways of the world should underestimate neither the power of denial nor the madness of crowds.

Even so, Gonzales finds hope in the brilliance of scientists, archeologists, and explorers of all sorts who dare to dig deeper into the stuff of the universe (including, of course, the stuff inside our minds and our imaginations).

He finds hope in the sheer beauty of stars, deserts, and self-organizing systems. We humans have demonstrated, from our earliest beginnings, that we do have the ability to change our view of the world and of ourselves.

If we can continue to do exactly that, and thus change how we interact with our environment, we may still have a chance.

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