Book review – Emergency

So, I finally managed to tear through another book.  The one is called "Emergency: This Book Will Save Your Life", and it's written by Neil Strauss.

The book chronicles one author's quest to be able to survive in case the system breaks down.  Survivalists like to say … we are all only three days away from total chaos, and that's the three days you can survive without water, not be incredibly hungry, etc.  The scary thing is … it may not be the way most of us are used to looking at the world, but it's true.

Some helpful acronyms to know if you're speaking survivalist lingo, by the way:

  • WTSHTF (When The Shit Hits The Fan)
  • EOTWAWKI (End Of The World As We Know It)
  • BOB, BOV, BOL (Bug Out Bag, Vehicle, Location)

Warren Buffett has often been quoted as saying that your lot in life has a lot to do with timing and placement … where and when, in other words.  He's been famously quoted as saying something to effect of "Bill Gates may be a billionaire today, but if he had been born two centuries ago, he probably would have been eaten by a bear".

Personally, this resonates with me.  Most of us would probably be eaten by a bear.  It wasn't that long ago that all people could worry about was how to keep a roof over their heads and where the next meal would come from.  Society has built up such a tremendous amount of infrastructure around us that we end up thinking and worrying about completely different problems that the ones our ancestors were designed to face.  It's amazing, but also a little unsettling.

The chapters in the book are vanishingly small and plentiful … many running at the length of just a small anecdote of two to three pages.  It's not wrong, but perhaps a bit different.  I think the design is meant to capture some of the random stories and short thoughts that chronicle his experience.

The novel takes a while to get going.  I found myself already halfway way through the book and Neil was still recounting his experiences with trying to get an second citizenship in another country.  It's incredibly expensive to do if you don't just move there … tiny countries basically sell citizenship in return for investment or job creation.  The US doesn't make it easy on you either … in the aftermath of 9/11, the government has made it very difficult to keep international bank accounts and they want to keep an eye on everything you do just so they can try to gank your tax dollars even after you stop being a citizen.

While he waits for the citizenship to go through, however, the pace picks up.  The author starts taking gun lessons, wilderness survival training, knife fighting classes, and edible plant walks.  While the novelization of the details is light, the details are fun and interesting every time you do get them.

I particularly enjoyed the chapter on his training at Gunsite.  The man who recommends the training program to Neil tells him "People with guns are dangerous.  Gunsite graduates are deadly."

Neil flys out there … and btw, it's still quite easy to check a weapon on a plane.  The instructor tells them at the beginning of the class "You don't rise to the occasion.  You default to your level of training.  When the stress hits, you will only be half as good as your best day of recent training."  I'm sure this applies to many situations, not just shooting!  People learn by doing!

He picks up some interesting tidbits.  Shooting for the head with a pistol is risky because the skull is excellent protection, meaning a bullet can simply glance off.  If you have a clear shot, you go for the eye.  If you are preparing to go into a gunfight, you bring a shotgun, not a pistol.  Pistols are portable self defense, but low damage weaponry.  Colonel Cooper recommeneded a 12-gauge shotgun with an 18.5 inch barrel.

The class concludes with the following advice.  "Be safe, and be good to everyone you meet … but always have a plan to kill them."  Funny guys.

In CERT (Community Emergency Response Teams) class, they start off with the following.

"If there's a big disaster, you cannot expect assistance for how many days?

"Three to five days."

"So who's going to get you when there's an emergency?"


"Nobody is coming to your aid in a disaster.  You have to be independent."

In retrospect, what happened during Katrina wasn't surprising.  Federal and local rescue planners already know it will take forever to get to survivors.  The indignance of the rest of the country is because we're ignorant.  Apparently, in the event of a major earthquake, it could take as long as 30 days to restore water everywhere.  The average person needs a gallon of water per day to survive.  Drink from the water heater if you have a house.

On the edible plant walks in California, Neil asks what the parsley like plant is that he keeps seeing all over the place.  One student quips "California parsley surprise".  The lead explains more seirously.  "Hemlock. Dead in 30 minutes."  Guess I'm not going to eat any plants out here.  In fact, the walk ends up being peppered with interesting trivia about how eating so and so plant will kill you in such a way (usually not a pleasant way).

The knife instructor's slogan is "Cogito ergo armatum sum."  I think, therefore I am armed.  In addition to forging, sharpening, and the usual lessons on the types of swings and strikes, perhaps the most brutal part of the book is when the knife instructor teaches him how to slaughter, gut and skin a goat for food.  Although it's just words on a page, the description of the act as he cuts the goat's throat in front of the instructor made my queasy.  I'm pretty sure that if I did this in front of a friend, they would think differently of me.  Neil has the same thought as his girlfriend waits in the car.  But there wasn't a time long ago that everyone had to do this…and it was normal, because it was part of staying alive.  How can our moral standards be so different today?  It can't be possible for people to be bad because they slaughter a goat, or else everyone centuries ago would have been a bad person.

All in all, I found the book to be a rather light read, but still very informative.  Many of the instructors and other characters he meets are surprisingly quotable.   It would have been nice to get more in depth coverage of each of the topics in the book, but I suppose that wasn't really the point.

In the end, I think what you learn from this book, aside from the useful trivia, is that survivalism and training, isn't, as a practical matter, that useful of a skill to pick up right now.  On the list of things people die from, disasters are really, really low on the list.  But if the nagging sense that you wouldn't know what to do when a crisis hits is bothering you … if knowing you're ready for anything makes you walk around with a little more confidence and a little less fear …than these folks aren't as crazy as they sound.  After all, there's a lot of mental security built in when you're at the top of the food chain.

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