Sunday, March 20, 2016

Recommended book: At The Mercy Of Nature

Tools are what we need, to survive what is coming.  Humans are tool users, tool makers - an aspect of our species that is largely responsible for climate change, the population explosion, and pretty much everything else we can point fingers at "that's the problem, right there!"  Our tools (I'm including things like antibiotics) gave humans the power to expand; so we did; and here we are.

My fingers are trying to trick me into writing a whole long essay on "tools"; but that will have to wait...

What tools do you, do we, need going into this unknown future?  We really don't know; that's a big part of our worries.  An ever-increasing number of charlatans are willing to sell you magic survival tools; be very wary.  

When we “don’t know” something- how do we, human tool users, tackle that? In this era, "Science" is our standard answer; wave the Magic Wand Of Science, and Answers will appear.

Not going into that right now, either.  What I have to offer you here is something unique, so far as I know- a fully competent practitioner of Science has waved his highly trained Wand - appropriately - and come up not with all the Answers; but with clear vision, the necessary precursor to finding our way.

I’m going to invoke a couple of Holy Names here: who says you should read this book, besides me?  E. O. Wilson.  Bill McKibben.  Both put their stamp of approval on the back cover, very official.

Ecologist Carl McDaniel has done something beautifully Scientific in his book At The Mercy Of Nature: Shackleton’s Survival Saga Gives Promise For Our Future.  

He set out to methodically search for the right question, then see what he could pull out of History that might refine the question further.  Many great scientists have stated some version of "First find the right question."  McDaniel's methods here are in the best scientific tradition.

"Do we have historical examples of humans in groups surviving against unknown challenges, and extreme trials?" - is my own phrasing of how this investigation was launched.  Because that is what ecologists know our species is facing - extreme conditions and unknown problems.

Ernest Shackleton's expedition's survival of Antarctic shipwreck in 1914 is an astonishing story which was copiously documented by photographs and daily journals.  The basics- their ship, a 3 masted sailing vessel with an early coal fueled engine, became locked in ice far from land, and the crew of 28 picked men found themselves trapped, their ship crushed and sunk.  In the era before radio, let alone GPS.  No one knew where they were, no rescuers would come.  Their story has been made into many books and multiple movies, and the storytellers are not done with it yet, I'm sure.  I won't be spoiling anything by telling you - all 28 men survived- and they finally managed their own rescue in 1917 - after years utterly alone in the Antarctic.

McDaniel re-tells the story as part of his analysis, it's mind-boggling.  You only have to get a few months into the events after the Endurance became caught in the ice to realize- people in this expedition should have started dying immediately.  Catastrophe after deadly catastrophe caught them- in my own reading, it's amazing any of them survived more than 6 months.  But they all survived.

Unlike the many re-tellings that are purely hero-worship (quite deserved); McDaniel asks "How?  Why"  and "What/"  and manages to pull multiple answers no one else has ever extracted from the story.  And convinces, with evidence.

You need to have the list of factors that allowed Shackleton's crew to survive - in your back pocket.  Look at it often.  Use it.  They survived, when they should not have.

Of course- you have to read the book, to get the list.  If you don't have McDaniel's accompanying commentary, the list will mean nothing to you.

Read it.  Pass it on.  It's a tool; one you'll need.


shadowfoot said...

Thanks for the recommendation; ordered the book.

Val said...