I’ve just finished reading Laurence Gonzales’ excellent “Everyday Survival: Why Smart People do Stupid Things“. It has floated to somewhere near the top of the list of books I’ve read in recent memory, for a number of reasons.
First off, it’s a cleverly executed indictment of the condition in which mankind has left the planet — in terms of carbon and climate, specifically, and the environment, more broadly — in which the author generally avoids being overbearing or pedantic (a difficult task). Gonzales is passionate while maintaining the subtlety of his arguments — this is no green manifesto, but rather an exploration of a few possible explanations for the condition we now find ourselves in, viewed through the lens of the development of human behavior.
Secondly, it’s an ambitious book with a soul. Commingling earth science, history, and psychology, and arriving at any sort of definitive conclusion in under 300 pages, is a potentially daunting undertaking. But Gonzales manages to pull it off. His central premise is this:
Really, really dumb.
Dumber than chimps, actually. Since we’ve lost — through complacency conditioned into us by technology — much of the natural curiosity that enabled us to achieve the wonders of the modern world in the first place. Gonzales ascribes to us a “vacation state of mind”, in which the natural defense mechanisms — curiosity, aversion to danger — that allowed us to out-compete the rest of the apes are dulled by our seemingly safe environment. The result? We outsource our survival, to our peril. His example of how airbags make crashing, rather than driving, safer speaks volumes in this regard.
Part meditation, part lamentation, part exploration, the book is a series of hymns to wakefulness, a warning to humanity, and (almost as a side effect) a delightfully accessible explanation of why many natural phenomenon occur the way they do. An enjoyable read.
On a personal note, I was recently put on the spot and asked what the dumbest thing I’ve ever done was. I couldn’t really summon anything worthwhile — the best thing that came to mind was decidedly uninspired — until I was biking home from the office a day later, and it hit me.
I once misplaced a car. Permanently.
Seriously, if anything says “vacation state of mind” more clearly than leaving your second most valuable* possession where you won’t be able to retrieve it in a matter of hours, and then plum forgetting about it until it’s too late, I don’t know what it could be. Forgive me, pity me — I was young, and stupid, and distracted.
What happened was quite simple: I had just acquired a newer little round car (a Miata) to replace my first little round car (a ’74 VW super beetle), so I wasn’t driving the latter anymore. It was sitting out in front of the house, waiting for me to get sufficiently motivated to list it in the classifieds (this was 1998 — sadly, craigslist had yet to arrive on the scene). Then one day, up popped a bunch of sawhorses on the sideway with “no parking” warnings, indicating that street-sweeping was being done the following day.
No problem, I thought, as I dutifully moved both cars around the corner, to a block where sweeping wasn’t occurring the next day. Naturally, I moved the new car back in front of the house as soon as I could. Equally naturally, I just plum forgot about the beetle.
That is, until the tow notice arrived in the mail three weeks later. As it turns out, the block where I had moved the beetle was due for sweeping a few days later, and my poor little beetle had been towed. As luck would have it, the towing fee plus the storage fee added up to a bit more than the street value of the car. So, naturally, I let it go. But man, did I feel dumb. I still do sometimes, but usually not *that* dumb.
*Arguably — I had, and still have, a very nice guitar amp that was probably worth more than the car in question at the time