The Survivalist

How To Survive a Disaster
How to live through disasters.
Sept. 5 2006 6:21 PM

The Survivalist

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I never have been able to completely manage my fears, which is a drag. I get terrible stage fright, whether the audience is 500 people or 15. Walking down the street late at night, I have unconstitutionally profiled thousands of innocent people and imagined in rich detail the harm they might inflict on me. Intimates have always known me to be a tad panicky. When I was 17, I chaperoned two close friends one night as they first sampled psychedelic mushrooms. A few hours into the long evening, one of them, Adam, put both of his hands on my shoulders, looked me square in the eyes, and said, in the kindest possible way: "David—you should never do 'shrooms."

But fear and its consequences can work well for a guy. Someone has to be the first in a crowd to see or smell something funny. We always root for that person in the movies, because, even though all the other characters think he's a little nuts, we know there is an atomic bomb, or a toothy shark, or a massive conspiracy.

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In history books, too, we admire people who weren't afraid to follow their fearful impulses: Jews who fled Germany in 1938, investors who pulled out of the stock market in 1928 (or '99), Minutemen who kept vigil for Redcoats in 1775. One irrepressible lesson of history is that today's paranoiac is sometimes tomorrow's survivor.

Is this an era in which we should be listening more closely to our fears? Since 9/11, few days have passed without an above-the-fold reminder that the world is a dangerous place. There are loosely supervised Soviet and North Korean nukes, smallpox and other bugs and toxins, threatened airplanes, unguarded chemical plants, and vulnerable subways—and certainly no shortage of suicidal zealots. Tom Ridge, the first Homeland Security czar, told us to expect an attack at any time that could kill "vast numbers of Americans." Several years and billions in homeland defense spending later, no one even pretends that the ports, subways, nuclear and chemical plants, and other public infrastructure are secure from a determined attack.

And perhaps Mother Nature is an even greater threat than Osama Bin Laden. Katrina, we've been warned, was not a freakish event but very likely a harbinger of more vicious storms to come, fueled by increasingly warm waters. Scientists are forecasting major changes in climate and water tables by midcentury, along with many species' adaptations and extinctions. Separately, the Atlantic Ocean tsunami forecast by some scientists could bring an Armageddon-like 150-foot wall of water crashing into Boston, New York, and the rest of the eastern United States (with eight hours warning). And then there's the H5N1 avian flu, which many experts think is likely to mutate into a human variant and cause a horrific, multiyear pandemic.

The long list of dangers—and potential preparations—is dizzying. Most people, of course, are not preparing for anything at all. Chances are, dear reader, there are no "go bags" in your life right now, or rendezvous plans, or full gas tanks or stashes of cash or bottles of potassium iodide. You haven't stockpiled food or water or printed out emergency instructions for sealing a room or dressing a wound. You and your family and friends, all of them educated, well-read, and community-minded, are more or less blowing this off. You've got enough on your plate; you're too busy keeping up with Gawker and trying to relearn calculus with your kids to plan for things that probably won't happen in this century or ever. Plus, you'd have to spend money you'd rather not spend (saving for their college educations and your Mini), take time you don't really have, and—not least—think about awful things you'd rather not think about. You register that bad things could happen, but you don't see how cramming gauze and batteries into some small duffel bag is going to make a difference if the world instantly goes all to hell.

I've been trying to figure out why I feel differently. Is this another throwaway neurosis of mine, or is there something rational in wanting to learn more about these threats and trying to prepare my home and family in some manner? Put another way: Am I worrying too much about this stuff, or are most of you worrying too little?

Unfortunately, answering this question requires a reasonably unpleasant thought-journey into the world of potential calamity, a deep, if temporary, focus on some pretty vile scenarios. Such a virtual catastrophe tour is almost like reverse meditation: Rather than turning one's attention inward and relaxing the body by thinking of nothing but your own calm breath, you focus your thoughts on far-flung bloody awfulness, your mind and heart racing with surreal images of death and destruction, empty stores, toxic tap water, neighbors turning on neighbors, people at their most desperate and least humane. You imagine having to make Sophie's Choice-type decisions, living through conditions more medieval than modern. The mere thought process almost merits its own warning label:

Caution: Persons with high blood pressure, heart conditions, kidney problems, or impaired liver function should ask their doctor before reading this series. In a blind study against a placebo series, The Survivalist caused side effects including nausea, vomiting, earaches, thumb-sucking, angina, sore wrists, severe headaches, and running for the hills.

I should add that, based on painful experience, the whole catastrophe-preparedness notion is a guaranteed dinner-party downer, roughly on par with discussing leprosy or child molestation, and only a fool writer desperate for material would risk bringing the subject up in sociable company. "Next topic, please," one otherwise polite friend spouted when I mentioned this essay in process just before dessert. "You can bet I won't be reading that one!" another shouted out when I brought it up again with a different group a few weeks later. I didn't take it personally. No one wants to dwell on terrible news or possible future catastrophes. The widespread avoidance of the issue is what interested me in the first place. Still, it is a little sad and lonely trying to interest your friends in a litany of ways to suffer and die.

Catastrophes are inherently difficult to envision. They have a built-in surreal quality that comes from having almost no relationship to our own past experience. They don't feel even remotely like the reality you and I know, but rather like someone else's dark fantasy—or something out of the sepia-toned past. It's also hard to take seriously a warning about a catastrophe that has recently been hyped in a network miniseries (10.5: Apocalypse!). In this way, the most vexing dangers of all are paradoxically the most difficult to prepare the public for.

There are a couple of ways to get past this contradiction. The first is to simply look at the facts and follow logical reasoning wherever it takes you. One million dead people in the first 15 minutes? Well, if that's what the computer model says, that's what it says. The second is to find trusted sources and to actually trust them—not just technical experts, but also nonexperts with sound judgment. It was chilling enough to see NIH's Anthony Fauci say about the H5N1 pandemic that "sooner or later … it will occur." But it was something else again to see Tom Brokaw and Ted Koppel acknowledge (on Meet the Press in December) that they are personally stocking their homes with at least three-month's supply of food and water.

The third and most surprising method for dissolving the paradox of disbelief is highly counterintuitive: It's what risk communications specialist Peter Sandman calls "riding the seesaw." In my catastrophe research, I stumbled one morning onto a video of Sandman speaking to the financial industry about pandemic flu and ended up spending the rest of the day poring over his fascinating Web site. In a field that pits jargony scientists against skittish politicians against a sensational press against a confused public, Sandman (whose name I am not making up) serves as a valuable navigator who can help different constituencies understand one another. It turns out that when trying to communicate risks and hazards to the general public, you don't necessarily want to simply stick the facts out there—third-most seismically active region, etc. Rather, you want to strategize against what the public already knows or thinks it knows. People, he explains, are inherently ambivalent and will usually compensate for whatever side of the argument is not being made: If you emphasize the low probability of a particular catastrophe occurring, for example, the listener's mind will usually rush to the other side and worry about its potential devastation. If, on the other hand, you emphasize its potential devastation, the listener will respond by lending more weight to its low probability. "When we are ambivalent," Sandman explained to me, "whichever half of our ambivalence the communicator is stressing, we resolve the ambivalence in the direction of the other half—the other seat on the seesaw. That's why, if you're worried about people thinking you are paranoid and upset, you should sort of float out the hypothesis that you're paranoid and upset. The vast majority of the time, people will tell you, 'No, you're reasonable.' If you say, 'I know this sounds paranoid,' they'll think, 'Well, you know, he actually has a point.' There are a variety of things you can say that take care of half of their ambivalence so that they're more inclined to lean toward the other half."

Seesaw psychology, Sandman said, is a bedrock principle of communications strategy. "A lot of risk communication relies on riding the seesaw in strategic ways."

So, if I'm a communicator trying to get people to take preparedness more seriously, I should begin by downplaying the risks and playing up my own paranoia. I shouldn't talk about how nervous public officials are, and the last thing I should do is describe worst-case scenarios. If I do that, they might resolve their ambivalence by emphasizing the odds against such an event. They might reassure themselves with the thought that Slate seems to have given much too large a megaphone to a real nervous ninny.

I might inadvertently convince people to prepare even less.

Click here for the essential survival shopping list. Next: How to survive a nuclear bomb.

David Shenk is author of five books, including The Forgetting and The Immortal Game. He is blogging his next book atgeniusblog.davidshenk.com.