Monday, March 08, 2021

Review: The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why

I finished The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes - and Why by Amanda Ripley and couldn't help but feel overwhelmed. She covers so many disasters from some many different perspectives, that by the end of the text I was maxxed out.

I'm sure that wasn't her intention, but the comprehensive nature of of the book struck me as a disadvantage. Ripley's a journalist, not guru, so her mission is to share what survivors and experts have to say about their experiences, not tout her own philosophy. This leads to advice that naturally contradict each other.

Consider this example: first, to reduce information overload focus on disasters that are likely to happen. Ignore the media hype. You're more likely to be injured in a car accident, then be involved in an active shooter incident, so focus on steps you can take to increase your safety on the road.

However, a second tenet of the book is that it's precisely the outlier events, the unthinkable ones if you will, that leave you open to catastrophic handling because they so unfamiliar. So it's not likely that you will end up in an active shooter incident, but if you do and you've done no preparation, chances are you'll react poorly.

In short, by the end of the text, I didn't anymore anecdotes or experts; I just wanted to be told what to do!

After some reflection, however, I've come to appreciate The Unthinkable's approach. Yes, it's goal of being comprehensive can be daunting, but it also elucidates a novel strategy. To me, it goes like this:

During an emergency, a person travels through three stages: denial, deliberation and the decisive moment. Ideally, you'd zip through denial, have quick and intelligent deliberations and execute the best actions available to you during the decisive moment. Through Ripley's research, we appreciate that there's no way to guarantee an optimial traverse through these stages. Even your everday temperment isn't a strong indicator of how you'll perform.

But, there is good news: through small changes, you can improve your performance in a disaster. Take the active shooter scenario above. If you complete Run / Hide / Fight Training, get into the habit of noticing exits when you walk into buildings, practice leaving through different routes at your work place and keep a trauma kit at your desk, you'll be in a far better position to survive an active shooter. You'll also be in a better position to deal with a fire, earthquake or coutless other disasters that call for evacuation and the possiblity of mass casualties.

Using this approach, I can imagine a simple disaster optimization algorithm: identify risks, look for simple yet effective ways to mitigate these risks and put these discoveries into practice. And repeat.

So yes, Unthinkable is daunting. But in this context it's also uplifting. You don't need to spend huge amounts of money or re-work your entire life to be disaster ready. What you do is need is imagination, creativity and perseverance. As disaster after disaster shows in Ripley's book, small changes can have a mighty impact.

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