When you’re in the battlefield, survival is all there is. Death is the only great emotion.

Sam Fuller.[1]


[Say, Phil, have you finished reading that book yet? You know, the one about survival? What’s that? It doesn’t discuss bug out bags, or of what guns would be effective in a zombie apocalypse? There’s no evaluation of potassium iodide and radiation sickness? Really, I didn’t expect any of that. You’re confusing me with Fred, who is a sterling fellow, but has some odd views about fringe movements. I’m asking what you, not Fred, think of the book. You’ve finished and it’s interesting? Good, why don’t we discuss it now? None of our other topics are ready yet for prime time.]

“Fine, I’ll do it. The book is Everyday Survival, Why Smart People Do Stupid Things, by Laurence Gonzales.[2] And before you interrupt, I’ll answer the question you’re about to ask. Who is Laurence Gonzales and why should we read him? Well, as near as I can tell, he’s a freelance writer who currently specializes in survival as a topic. There are lots of biographies of him out there on the web[3], but they all say the same thing. He’s been writing since the 1970’s, is regularly published in various national magazines, and has functioned as a ‘contributing editor’ for some of them, including National Geographic.[4] He’s also received a number of literary awards.[5]

More importantly, he’s written a number of books[6], including Deep Survival, a best seller back in 2003, and Everyday Survival, the book we’re talking about today.”

“Phil, if I get your drift, he sounds like a generalist to me. Does he claim any particular expertise in the areas he writes about?”

“If you mean academic, the answer is no. His technique is to interview people about aspects of a problem he’s working on, then report (and draw conclusions from) what they say.”

“Does he read books as well, or does he just do interviews?”

“He seems to read a lot[7], but doesn’t brag about it. Can we get on to the substance of the book? After all, you’re the one who wanted to do it.”

“I wanted to do the book because you read it, and you have a good eye for interesting things. But by all means, let’s get into the discussion. Time is short.”

“First he interrupts, then he says time is running out!  Anyway, the book is deeply metaphorical. You might want to say ‘philosophical,’ but I wouldn’t go that far. He spins a lot of tales about how things were at the beginning of the Universe, how they are now, and what might happen, and draws conclusions about how we ought to behave. But, in my view, his conclusions aren’t necessarily consistent with his story.”

“Come again?”

“Well, his basic notion is that life, the Universe and everything are governed by the Second Law of Thermodynamics.[8] That’s the one that says if a closed system is not in a state of heat equilibrium, it “spontaneously evolves” toward that. Warm things in the system tend to get cold, and the cold ones warm, until there is no heat difference between them. Then they’re in equilibrium. It’s also called entropy.”

“Oh, wait! I remember a sci-fi story I read as a kid; in it the Universe eventually cooled, so that at the end everything was cold and dark. The story was called Night,[9] but it was really about heat death at the end of time.”

“Trust you to illustrate a point with a story from an ancient sci-fi magazine; but it’s to be expected, I suppose; you’re the only person I know who has all the issues of that old rag. I’m not sure the modern view of entropy is the same as the one in your story.

Nevertheless, your example does catch one of the basic points of Gonzales’ book.  He says that human civilization can be characterized as a ‘climb up the heat ladder.’ All of the things that we do to better our lives involve generating prodigious amounts of energy. By one measure humans need about 100 watts of power to stay alive; but in this country we generate 100 times that per person to run our civilization; it’s as though each of us has a 10,000 watt light bulb in our back yards, running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.[10]

We run our civilization this way because it makes us more comfortable and we think it improves our chances of survival in the long run. And to date, that’s exactly what it has done. But that doesn’t mean that our present approach to life will be useful for much longer.”

“I see where you’re going with this. Laurence Gonzales is worried about the environment. He’s worried that all of the energy we produce and consume could work a major change in the chemical and physical properties of our environment. We’re doing many unprecedented things and we can’t really foresee the consequences.”

“That’s right. He has lots of examples. But he also has an intellectual problem. The Second Law of Thermodynamics, at least the version we’re discussing, predicts that systems “spontaneously evolve” toward entropy. So perhaps what we’re doing, in spewing out all of this additional energy and changing our environment, is the right thing. We’re simply following the dictates of nature. Gonzales calls this ‘a deep puzzle.’[11]

In my view this kind of thing is puzzling only if you want to base your moral views on some sort of natural law. Then you look at nature and try to deduce some rules about what people ought to do. The problem is, that way you confuse what is with what ought to be. To take a simple example, if nature throws a new disease at us, should we just accept it, or should we try to eradicate it? If we do the latter, aren’t we interfering with nature?

Another problem is that, when people look at nature to develop moral precepts, they come up with widely differing interpretations. One group might decide that the races shouldn’t mix because most species don’t interbreed in nature; another that there has always been poverty in the world, so government should not try to lift people out of it; a third might conclude that women have a secondary position in much of the world, so they should be treated that way everywhere; and so forth.”

“Yes, Phil, we talked about natural law theory before, on the old blog site.[12] But how does Laurence Gonzales solve his ‘deep puzzle’?”

“He comes out four-square in favor of survival. After all, that’s what his recent books have been about. He thinks that we have the technology to avoid the immediate consequences of our actions if we have the will to employ it. “Are we capable of becoming the first species in history to defy the commands of the second law of thermodynamics?’[13]

“Well, Phil, we have tried to represent Laurence Gonzales’ views in less than 1500 words. Hopefully we did a fair job of it and I agree on one thing for sure. Survival is important for us as a species; without it, nothing else really matters. So if we’re on a new kind of battlefield, perhaps it’s time to get serious about it.”

[1] You can find this in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations (ODQ) (6th Edition, 2004) at Sam Fuller, p. 337, n. 2. It’s from an American film producer, circa 1991.

[2] It was published by Norton in 2008. At the moment, I don’t have a link to a web version. Henceforth, the book will be referenced as Everyday Survival at ___.

[3] The one that Norton, his publisher, puts out is nearly identical to the one on his own blog. Compare WW Norton & Company, Laurence Gonzales  at http://books.wwnorton.com/books/Author.aspx?id=5578 with Laurence Gonzales.com at http://www.laurencegonzales.com/

[4] This would be with the blog National Geographic Adventure. Just go there and search Laurence Gonzales; you’ll find quite a bit of material. It’s at http://adventure.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/

[5] You can find the awards at Illinois Center for the Book, Laurence Gonzales, at http://www.illinoisauthors.org/authors/Laurence_Gonzales

[6] There’s a publications list also at the Illinois Center and it appears to be up to date. See note 5.

[7] See Everyday Survival, at Select Bibliography, p. 267-270.

[8] To know more about the laws of thermodynamics, check out Wikipedia. Go to the Wikipedia website and search “laws of thermodynamics,” or simply click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_thermodynamics

[9] See Don A. Stuart (aka John W. Campbell), Night (Astounding Science Fiction, October 1935) available in Campbell, The New Dawn (NESFA, 2003) at p, 149 – 166.

[10] See Everyday Survival, at The 10,000 Watt Lightbulb, p. 201-210, especially p. 204-205. He’s quoting Geoffrey West of the Santa Fe Institute for this notion.

[11] See Everyday Survival, at The 10,000 Watt Lightbulb, p. 205.

[12] See the blog of 12/09/2010, The Life of Man, Solitary, Poor, Nasty, Brutish and Short …, available at http://elementalzoo.typepad.com/elemental-zoo/2010/12/index.html

[13] See Everyday Survival, at The 10,000 Watt Lightbulb, p. 205.