Wednesday, October 19, 2011

#76: The Unthinkable: Who Survives Disasters and Why by Amanda Ripley

Crown Publishing, New York: 2008. 266 pages

This ranks as one of the most fascinating books that I have ever read. Amanda Ripley takes the question of why certain people survive disasters and spins it into a discussion of human nature, genetics, relationships and socialization. The disasters stretch from plane crashes, 9/11, the Virginia Tech shootings and the Halifax explosion of 1916 to such mundane things as traffic accidents and people shouting in a supermarket. 

As it turns out, you should take all of those fire drills, earthquake drills and airplane safety lectures seriously. The biggest thing to take away from this book is that most people in a disaster don't freak out. One of Ripley's chapters focuses on a busboy who worked at the Beverly Hills Supper Club outside of Cincinnati. On May 28, 1977 the building burned to the ground, killing 177 people. Ripley points out that "most people were more friendly during the evacuation", even while they were trapped by locked doors. Ripley's statement that "civilization holds" is chilling, in that most people will simply freeze and wait to be told what to do in these situations. Hierarchy holds; in the supper club fire, a busboy led the way for several people because "he had no vested interest in the club."

Ripley also takes on why certain people tend to run toward danger. They tend to be male, single and have no children. In other words, this may be an evolutionary thing; the idea that people freeze certainly is an evolutionary thing. This was the most interesting and frightening part of the book. A million years ago, when our biggest threats were large animals who viewed us as food on the hoof, playing dead or going limp was perhaps our best defense. It would lower our threat; in some cases, lions would not eat us because they wanted fresh meat. This same response is deadly in a fire in a plane or a skyscraper, as it takes time. Ripley describes a survival arc and plots each of her witnesses and examples along the arc, making the book easy to follow and digest.

This is in the top five of the year and cannot be recommended enough. What would you do in a disaster? Read this book and get some idea about what you might do whether you want to or not.

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