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It's a Jungle in There

In our minds, that is. Life has never been so good for Americans. Yet we seem oddly drawn to the notion of survival, from books and films about disasters to the purchase of death-defying gadgets.

September 27, 2000|MARTIN MILLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

America is as safe as it's ever been. Life expectancy is up, crime is down and the Cold War is over. But amid this time of relative security and longevity, America is strangely preoccupied with surviving . . . something. Anything. Earthquakes, shipwrecks, plane crashes, hurricanes, the wilderness and even each other. It doesn't matter. Just push them to the brink of death, and they will watch it, read it or buy it.

Survival has always been part of the zeitgeist, but rarely has the motif been so prominent or pervasive. Its themes stock the bookstores with huge sellers like "Into Thin Air" and light up the silver screen with hits like "The Perfect Storm."

"We all have this nagging question in our minds, 'What if everything fell to hell? How would I respond?' " said Nathaniel Philbrick, author of "In the Heart of the Sea" (Viking, 2000), a bestseller about a band of 19th century whalers who survive 94 days at sea in a small vessel. "But these days we're so insulated, so removed from the real world, which is nature. You can have all the computers you want, but nature is out there, and that is what determines whether we live or die."

The subtler threads of survival run through the schoolyard's cargo pants fashions, the suburbanite's SUV with Global Positioning Satellite, and Father's Day gifts like a solar-powered emergency radio-flashlight. All hint at some far-off disaster that may befall its owner.

And it's no accident that the biggest summertime TV hit in recent memory was named "Survivor." It might have easily been known as "Expedition: Robinson" as it is Sweden, the show's birthplace. Or it might have been "Castaway 2000," its title in Great Britain. Or, in a true nod to "reality" TV, it could have simply been called "The Island of Bad People."

A crucial element to the show's success was creating the illusion of danger on a remote Pacific Island when, in reality, safety was only a camera crew away.

"It used to be whalers would go out to sea, and every voyage someone would die," said Philbrick, director of the Egan Institute of Maritime Studies in Nantucket. "We are so safe now. All this survivor business is just games. Games with a net. You get kicked off the island, but you don't die."

It's more than a mere Y2K hangover. In addition to "Survivor II," set to premiere in January, a steady stream of other survival-laced tales and products are rushing toward the marketplace. Tom Hanks will star later this year in "Castaway," a movie already generating talk of an Oscar. The plot? He plays a business executive whose plane crashes on a deserted tropical island where he must fend for himself or die.

Handbook for Survival Scenarios

Meanwhile, on bookshelves, "The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook" (Chronicle Books, 1999) is a bestseller, offering helpful hints on such topics as surviving a skydive if your parachute fails, and escaping quicksand. The book has spawned a calendar and a sequel of sorts called the "The Worst-Case Scenario Traveler's Survival Handbook," which is due out in the spring. The current book, which has sold about 750,000 copies in less than a year, is also being considered as the basis for a new television show.

"Everything in our book is extremely unlikely," said humor author David Borgenicht, who co-wrote the quirky guide with Joshua Piven. "You are much more likely to die getting out of your bathtub than getting eaten by a shark."

Another book released last month, which is being marketed as a holiday gift, is "Living Safe in an Unsafe World" by Kate Kelly (New American Library). It includes helpful sections on how to recognize a tsunami and how to bat-proof your home.

Readers of both "Unsafe World" and "Worst-Case Scenario," however, might be confused if confronted by killer bees. The books recommend contradictory responses to elude the attackers. "Unsafe World" directs the reader to jump into water if possible. "Worst-Case Scenario" urges readers to avoid water because the bees probably will be waiting for you when you surface.

Even the magazine Men's Journal, which produced the book "The Great Life: A Man's Guide to Sports Skills, Fitness and Serious Fun" (Penguin Books) for release next month somehow felt obliged to have a 20-plus page section on survival techniques. Among others, it provides instructions on how to emerge intact from an avalanche, a lightning storm, and how to survive a commuter plane crash without breaking your legs (apparently, a common injury in small plane crashes).

"Most of us live in cocoons of safety entirely divorced from nature," said Frank Farley, former president of the American Psychological Assn. "We are looking for extreme experiences. Some actually want them, but most want them from the safety of their living room. . . . It's a simulated roller-coaster ride."

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