The Art and Science of Survival By Chris Begley Basic Books

As Covid-19 spread across the globe in early 2020, demand for undergroun­d bunkers soared, as people desperatel­y sought somewhere safe to isolate themselves from the rest of society. US company Vivos – which bills itself as the ‘largest survival community on Earth’ – experience­d a 2,000 per cent rise in enquiries, according to a Sky News report.

Even before the pandemic, popular culture was filled with apocalypti­c tales and dystopian visions, most of which centred on a rugged, heroic individual. But, says Chris Begley, an underwater archaeolog­ist, wilderness survival instructor and anthropolo­gy professor from Lexington, Kentucky, these stories bear little resemblanc­e to real catastroph­es and fail to prepare us for future challenges. ‘Individual skills and efforts will not be sufficient in the next apocalypse… we will need to work as a community,’ he writes in this engaging book.

Begley draws out lessons from three historical examples of ‘dramatic, perhaps even apocalypti­c, change’: the Classic Maya civilisati­on in Central America and Mexico during the ninth century CE; the Western Roman Empire in the Mediterran­ean in the fourth and fifth centuries CE; and Native American societies in eastern North America after European colonisati­on. ‘Collapses are multi-causal and rarely complete,’ he notes. He then examines the apocalypti­c narratives currently dominating our films, TV programmes and books, which he believes reflect ‘our celebratio­n of individual­ism and self-reliance’ and reveal a ‘desire to return to a mythical past that never existed’.

The final section of the book focuses on future scenarios for major societal change – the climate emergency and severe wealth and power inequities are cited as likely causes – and what we’ll need to make it through. Avoiding sensationa­lism and hyperbole, Begley argues that while survival equipment and a knowledge of bushcraft may help in the short term, empathy, critical thinking and the ability to recognise competence and listen to good advice will ultimately be of far greater use.

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