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Lifeboat Earth?

October 5, 2013

I’ve been working on a new novel, which is one of the reasons I’ve been so quiet lately.  When people ask me what the book is about, I tell them that one of the things I’m trying to do is reconcile the conflict between my wanting to view people and humanity as fundamentally good and deserving the best, and the reality of how people and humanity generally behave.

It’s the old question of if little kids are so sweet and innocent, why are sandboxes often the site of bullying, fights and generally feral behaviour.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading on the topic and totally by accident came across a book that helps put things in perspective.  The book, by Australians Eleanor Learmonth and Jenny Tabakoff, is ominously entitled No Mercy:  True Stories of Disaster, Survival and Brutality (Text Publishing, 2013).

I had no intention of reading that book.  It sounded too much like the lurid stuff I used to read in junior high school, but it hooked me from the first page.  The book is a compilation of disasters, primarily shipwrecks, and the authors analyze the behaviour of the survivors to see if there are patterns of human behaviour and group dynamics that emerge in times of stress.

Most of the cases are shipwrecks from the days of sailing ships because back then it was easy for survivors to be marooned in isolated parts of the world for long periods of time.  It turns out that these situations are perfect laboratories for observing how groups behave and for spotting behaviour patterns.

One of the things that makes the book so readable is that is it not simply a litany of disasters with each chapter being a gruesome account of a different disaster.  Rather, the chapters are organized around the types of things that become issues in these situations–for example, leadership, personal relationships, care of the sick and wounded, and dealing with things like hunger, thirst, conflicts in the group and adverse environmental conditions.  Different groups’ handling of these things are compared and contrasted.

The bad news is that in a survey of 23 disasters spanning from 134 BC to 2010, in only one case did the group of survivors manage not to end up spiralling out of control into acts of inhumanity.  You can imagine what I mean by “acts of inhumanity.”

Yes, it’s grim reading but one of the things that makes it all worthwhile is the stirring story of the Grafton, which was wrecked in the Southern Ocean in January 1864.  The crew was stranded for 20 months in impossible conditions but actually managed to survive and save themselves with no loss of life.  It is an amazing story of human ingenuity and endurance.  Interestingly, 4 months after the Grafton was lost, another ship, the Invercauld, ran aground only 15 kilometres away.  The two groups were unaware of each other and the Invercauld crew suffered from appallingly bad leadership and group friction.  Eighty-four per cent of the crew died before they were rescued even though they were stranded for a shorter time.

You might wonder what centuries-old shipwrecks have to do with us today.  In the last chapter, the authors summarize their findings and conclude that there are nine factors related to the social decay that lead to failed survivor groups.  Although each case is different, as groups fall apart they fail at each of these steps and move to increasing levels of violence and savagery.  And what invariably starts a group down the track of inhumanity is a failure of leadership.

If you think of Planet Earth as a lifeboat or desert island and the human race as survivors, it might be interesting to map our performance against that of failed groups.  How many of these nine characteristics of social decay do you think we are experiencing in our lifeboat today:

1.  Neglect of the sick and weak.

2.  A rapid descent into bickering over resources and labor.

3.  The corrosive, emotional effect of hunger, paranoia and fear.

4.  The collapse of leadership.

5.  Fragmentation into hostile factions.

6.  The emergence of personal hatred.

7.  An absolute loss of compassion and altruism.

8.  Casual acceptance of death.

9.  Violent fights that escalate into murder and, finally, the emergence of killing for entertainment.

The authors demonstrate that each of the failed groups progressed through these stages as a result of breakdowns in leadership and problems with the interactions between the leader and the group.

Some of the stories are funny, even though they led to tragedy.  In a shipwreck, the captain, if he survives, is generally by default in charge once the survivors are on land.  A surprisingly large number of captains choose not to go down with the ship but rather delegate that duty to other crew or passengers.  This doesn’t get things off on a good footing.

Also, once on land, a captain can create problems by not being sensitive to changed conditions. A group stranded near the North Pole started to disintegrate when the captain insisted that the crew continue to do his laundry, as had been their duty on shipboard.  Inflexibility, stupidity, inability to listen, arrogance and inability to cope with change were all characteristics of leaders who ended up leading their groups to disaster. And the people who let themselves be led into disaster are complicit.

It might be a bit of a reach to compare global society to a lifeboat, but I think it’s important to reflect on these nine characteristics of social decay as metaphors for what might be happening in our world.  Many workplaces and communities are marked by neglect of the sick and weak, bickering over resources, paranoia and fear and breakdown into hostile factions.  We can see many examples of loss of compassion and altruism both by governments and corporations.  And the news has given us a casual acceptance of death (as long as it’s far away).

The authors indicate that no matter how far down the track of inhumanity groups have progressed, when they are rescued, they quickly re-adapt to normal societal conventions.  The question is, who is going to rescue us?


28 Comments leave one →
  1. October 5, 2013 5:59 pm

    Great write-up. This sounds really interesting and depressing – I’ll have to check it out. I remember being an absolute terror as a little kid – any good and decent qualities in my case are entirely the result of socialization. 😉

  2. Dolly shahlori permalink
    October 5, 2013 11:57 pm

    The 9 points of the lifeboat are an eye opener.

  3. October 6, 2013 1:50 pm

    The 9 points of the lifeboat, sound like they would fit our House & Senate
    in the USA .All nine fit these politicians , I have learned by just being around
    for 73 years that elected officials serve terms and then jump on the gravy train to lobby all they have made friends with. If in doubt check out Lobbyist
    and when they served in the house or senate. To sum up what I get a kick out of is if a person is asked if they support Obama Care or prefer the
    affordable care act. They always pick Affordable care act. Well they are the same thing . Put Obama in front of any house bill and watch what
    happens—- YES Race still plays a part a big part in the House of representatives , So with that said we need to super examine people
    running for office. Lie detector? Drug testing? as I write this reporters
    covering Washington are bringing up good points about how our elected officials smell from BOOZE when interviewed . Like me or hate me I am
    only the messenger telling it like it is , God Bless American and save us
    from what might turn very ugly.

  4. October 6, 2013 2:35 pm

    Hi Tom, I’m really enjoying Identities. I look forward to your next too.

  5. October 6, 2013 9:18 pm

    This is a fascinating project. Keep us abreast of how it flows.
    I’d be especially interested in more insight (if it even exists) on how to keep things from spiraling down. For instance, what exactly constitutes “good leadership” in these situations?
    If something happend on my subway train tomorrow and the group of people marooned there with me could go one way or the other, what would I try to do?

    • October 9, 2013 7:51 pm

      Thank you and I will!. More insight would be useful because a lot of times the book leads you to believe that it’s just a matter of luck–the right combination of personalities and skills that work together–or don’t. My read of what constitutes good leadership is to be able to recognize the signs of decay and to react to them–and that includes stepping aside if you realize you are the problem–and how often does that happen?

  6. October 7, 2013 1:55 am

    We need a life boat from lifeboat earth soon

  7. October 7, 2013 3:28 pm

    I enjoy a good book review, and this sounds like a fascinating study into group behavior. I think the downward spiraling we see in society, the list pretty much sums it up for me, is disturbing and close to what I see every day. How alarming is that! I’m interested in the title of your book (on the sidebar) and will check it out on Amazon. The whole concept of corporate greed fascinates me. Probably “fascinating” isn’t the best word. Shock and horror might be best.

    • October 9, 2013 7:51 pm

      Thanks very much–hope you enjoy Identities! Let me know what you think.

  8. October 7, 2013 5:02 pm

    A Lord of the Flies scenario for sure. I’m not sure the comparison can be made between societal problems at large ( one of your readers cited the American legislature) and the pressure that develops in a small space where death is imminent.

    But Andreas’ question about leadership is especially salient in a world with few real leaders. His own Angela Merkel is surely a leader.

    Shall we turn to Longfellow’s Oh Captain My Captain?

    • October 9, 2013 8:02 pm

      Funny you should refer to Lord of the Flies. I didn’t mention it due to space constraints but a major theme of the book is whether William Golding’s portrayal of survivorship in LotF is realistic. The conclusion is that he was optmistic.

      I curious as to why you are sceptical that there is a similarity between societal problems and the pressures cited in the book.

      PS–I could be wrong but isn’t that Whitman?

  9. October 8, 2013 12:35 pm

    In the beginning it could have been considered a Utopia. All of the boys were happy and innocent; however, there can never be a true Utopia, as our won human nature would not allow it. There is perhaps a deep carnal instinct that, we, as human beings must have violence. Never will we be able to attain everlasting peace.
    9.the emergence of killing for entertainment. As in Killing legislation that
    would benefit those who need help to survive .
    Your points where well taken Thank You,Ray

    • October 9, 2013 8:03 pm

      Thanks for reading and responding, Ray. It doesn’t sound like things are getting any better over there.

  10. October 10, 2013 1:58 pm

    We just might have to have a bigger march on the National Capital then
    Martin L King had , with that said I pray cooler heads prevail, because
    the very angry March would go against Martin’s peaceful approach which I
    subscribe to and respect. Politicians in 2013 just don’t understand what
    the people who elected them want . American has turned from old rich
    white males in charge to a more diverse make up ,I support change and
    can only our hope the current elected officials grow up and do the same.

  11. October 12, 2013 12:43 am

    Sadly, most of the nine points you mentioned seem to apply to the Untied States Congress these days. Be thankful you’re living in NZ.

  12. Eleanor permalink
    October 17, 2013 10:37 pm

    Fascinating to read all your comments and glad that you enjoyed No Mercy! We wanted it to be thought-provoking and get people to consider what it means to be human. But, if I can add my 2c worth, these are people who have dumped their social conditioning, and retreated to their survival instincts. One of the conclusion I reached after 5 years of researching the book is that as much as we tend to run down society, it does protect us pretty effectively. Sure, it’s not perfect, but when it is running well, it functions like a suit of armour that protects us from what we have the innate ability to become.
    Certainly, most of us can live an entire life without encountering the kind of problems that our survivors often experienced in a single day!

    • October 19, 2013 7:47 pm

      Hi Eleanor–Thanks very much for reading and commenting. I agree with what you say about society in general and applying the nine Lord of the Flies points to today’s world is a bit of a stretch. But your book is thought provoking and that’s what I wanted to show.

      What is your next project?

      • Eleanor Learmonth permalink
        October 25, 2013 7:03 pm

        Hi again TE,

        No, I was very interested in how you had interpreted the book. One of the reasons I love the material is that it is easy to see traces of that terrible behaviour in everyday life – in politics, at work, in traffic, even at family reunions (especially at family reunions?). I’m sure you will agree as an author, the best outcome we can hope for is to make people consider and question things. It shows intellectual interaction with the book. What more could we hope for?

        In answer to your question, I’m considering that at the moment. I do find the microcosm of lifeboat society endlessly fascinating, but probably should try something different this time. So many possibilities, eh!


        • October 28, 2013 7:49 pm

          Thanks Eleanor–your book has generated a lot of discussion and I’ve told a lot of my friends about it. Best of luck with your next challenge!

  13. November 1, 2013 9:09 pm

    I think #4. The collapse of leadership is a huge factor in the spiraling of any group. It’s repeatedly the thing that is absent when mass chaos unfolds.

    However you are right, who is going to rescue us?

  14. Gail Robertson permalink
    November 5, 2013 4:57 pm

    Hi Tom- great to see you back – thought Cue Haven had taken all of your time. From my time on committees your comments ring so true. Even down to the smaller ones there seems to be a feeling that because you are on a committee this somehow makes you the greater man. statements 1,2,4,5,6 & 7 ring so true. The Hon. Secretary (me) does 98% of the work and the others turn up for “what’s in it for me”. They seem to believe that as they are on THE COMMITTEE this negates them from dirty hands. You are absolutely correct regarding leadership – as this crumbles due to ignorance and or greed, the rest follow as no-one really wants to rock the boat. Really look forward to seeing your next book in print. Gail.

    • November 6, 2013 9:16 pm

      Thanks very much Gail. CUE is keeping me busy and I’m also working on my next novel–don’t pin me down on when you might see it!

  15. November 13, 2013 8:25 am

    Fascinating subject. Sometimes I think that if we really understood how terrible human beings can be to each other, we would enter into a permanent state of despair. Perhaps deliberate tunnel vision is the solution—keep on doing whatever small good things we can do, focus on the positive examples, and tune the rest out. The story of Shackleton and the “Endurance” locked in the ice of Antarctica is the inspirational tale I like to latch onto.

  16. December 11, 2013 4:39 am

    The conflict between aspiring to good deeds though often behaving in the opposite way is – according to Olaf Stapledon – one of the flaws of Homo Sapiens and the centre of his reflection. This English philosopher turned into novel writer (Last and First Men, Last Men in London, Odd John, Star Maker etc.) has been a pleasant discovery. Wonder if it might help. I’ve read your ‘Identities’. I liked the book a lot (together with your first-hand knowledge of big IT corporations).

    • December 11, 2013 7:19 am

      Thank you for the introduction to Stapledon and thank you very much for reading Identities and for your feedback.

  17. December 11, 2013 7:49 am

    It’s been a pleasure, really.

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