Who Survives and Who Does Not: Civilization Lost in a Wilderness of Mistaken Mental Models

Have you ever been lost in the woods? Or just in an unfamiliar urban neighborhood? As it turns out, getting lost is not that uncommon. However, most of the time things work out because we got lost within the familiar bounds of civilization. We can rely on others to give us some directions. Today, industrial civilization is lost among failing mental models.

From birth, we develop mental models of our surroundings as well as of ourselves. Recent research in neuroscience reveals the complex processes by which we harmonize our mental models with the social as well as physical environments in which we live our lives. Too complex to go into here, these findings explain why we get lost and how easy it is to get into trouble in unfamiliar environments.

In a fascinating book, Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why, Laurence Gonzales not only recounts numerous examples explaining how some survived and others died in diverse wilderness situations. He also draws on research in neuroscience and studies of actual search and rescue incidents. The incidents and research he reports reveal consistent patterns of errors that produce high risk of death in the wild.

Out of Our Element

Since the industrial revolution, humans have lived more and more within what I like to call a cultural bubble. Both technology and social organization have allowed, indeed forced us to live increasingly isolated from the conditions of the natural world. When we venture out into the wilderness, whether to ski, surf, hike, climb mountains, trek or race dune buggies through deserts, we are out of our element. Our mental maps of society do not fit the conditions we find ourselves in.

Our mental models of physical space and conditions reflect on our dominant experiences, starting at home and working out from there into the industrial consumer world. As Gonzales puts it, we treat the wilderness as if it were a theme park. But it is not. The wilderness is not a ‘virtual world’ to experience in the abstract, as in a video game. It is real and it precedes everything we know or have experienced in our human constructed world of economy, politics, family, neighborhood, and social media. Nature is the real deal.

At the same time, that constructed human world is entirely dependent upon the conditions of the natural world in which it operates. We imagine that we control nature, but in fact, we only temporarily control very small parts of it within certain boundaries of which we are usually not aware.

The Lost Society

When we moderns venture out into the wilderness we are indeed out of our element. However, on a much larger scale industrial civilization itself is increasingly lost in Nature. Think of society as equivalent to a person wandering in a national forest without a map, a compass, water, or clothing adequate for the approaching blizzard.

Society exists only because of and in relation to the conditions of the Earth System in which it resides. “Be Here Now!” as Baba Ram Das used to say. Our mental models of how to operate in the social world do not work in the wild. If we try to use them there, we will remain lost until we re-map our minds to reflect the conditions in which we find ourselves. Or, failing that we will die.

That is why modern civilization is lost in the natural world. Like the individual hiking in the forest, society can continue to function only to the extent that our institutions and social organization correctly map our place in the larger Earth System. So far, we have failed miserably to do that. In fact, for the most part we have not even tried, as we watch ecological and climate conditions deteriorate around us. Survival will require us to open our minds and change our ways.

Tragedy of the Mind

The climate emergency, ecological destruction, and various other forms of human damage to the Earth System result from societal failures to form correct mental maps of the natural world. Modern ideologies and cultures are in denial about how to live within Nature. They do not even acknowledge that we must. Gonzales suggests that the stages a lost hiker goes through are similar to the stages of a person facing death, as described in Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ famous book, On Death and Dying. The present situation of industrial-consumer society is similar.

As a society, we are currently mostly in the stage of denial. We have little time left to re-map our world to fit the conditions that surround us and threaten our survival if we do not start living in the present. The old mental models of “Man over Nature” reflect past conditions and a predatory culture that flourished when there was still lots of room for the industrial-consumer society to expand.

The tragedy is that we are lost because we keep trying to follow the mental maps of a dying industrial era as we move deeper into the unknown but decipherable changing conditions of the Anthropocene. Industrial-consumer societies are in desperate need for a planetary search and rescue team.

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