Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Colony

The televised urban survival "reality" series called The Colony was very entertaining, but the reality part was mostly lost in the entertainment part, so I hope viewers weren't sucked into the story too deeply to realize that this was to reality what Hollywood is to real life.

According to the narrative at the beginning of each episode, the concept was that Los Angeles had been wiped out by a viral disaster, but the scene looked more like the aftermath of a nuclear strike. Maybe that's being too picky, because I realize that the producers were trying to depict the city in a derelict condition and if the populace simply died as a result of disease and all the buildings were left standing, there wouldn't be anything dramatic to display as the show opened. But right away, concessions to drama were being made, and that should tell you something about what would follow.

And what followed was a collection of personalities such as you might find in any normal neighborhood (not!). A doctor, an ER nurse, a black-belt martial artist, a do-everything mechanic, an aerospace engineer, a genius scientist capable of scavenging rubble and creating an operational solar electric utility company, and cooking charcoal to capture wood gas to fuel a truck for a couple hundred mile dash to safety … you get the picture. Not reality. Not in my neighborhood, anyway.

But it was fun to watch. The projects the team came up with were fascinating — making an ozone water purification system, building a radio out of scrap, cobbling together an automatic solar tracking system, rebuilding a truck engine on the kitchen table. Just the type of things we're all capable of — right?

It was kind of a cross between old episodes of Watch Mr. Wizard and a soap opera in which personalities clashed over issues of social conscious vs. Colony security. Everyone in The Colony knew they were on camera. This was their 15 minutes of fame, and that no doubt stirred the pot when it came to conflicts among cast members. Some of the characters obviously over acted, while others were remarkably calm. But they all knew the cameras were rolling and that there were rules to the game.

I suppose that's what causes me the greatest concern. Were this a real urban survival situation with hostile outsiders beating on the shelter walls and screaming threats, the rules of engagement would be very different than what this television program showed. For the sake of the viewing audience, there was a lot of compassionate discussion about such things as "should we let the monster into our compound and share our rapidly dwindling supply of food and water?"

The value of this, I suppose, is that it showed a range of emotions that survivors must deal with. There is a natural desire to help save other people, but there is also an overwhelming desire to survive yourself. At some point, those two desires might not be compatible. That's when you must make tough decisions that will seem, to people who have never faced such a situation, to be heartless. Among the Colonists there were ubercompassionate personalities who would (and did) give away nearly their last drop of water to passing vagrants who came begging. In contrast, there were ubersecurity guys who bristled every time someone showed up asking for help. You just know that this combination of personalities is going to result in conflict within the group. Remarkably, they handled most situations democratically by voting. They weren't all happy with the outcome of the vote every time, but at least they arrived at a practical consensus.

In an apparent loss of focus, toward the end of their stay in the compound, the Colonists started playing games. I'm sure this was urged by the producers to enhance the story, but it was nothing short of foolish abandonment of shelter security, and it resulted in some injuries to equipment and people. While the group clustered in the courtyard for their amusement, renegades were breaking into the compound and stealing food and other survival gear. It was as if the team had lost its mind.

And that brings me to the end of today's comments. Survival is a mind game. If your mind isn't in the game, you're going to lose. At least 90% of survival is psychological and emotional and the stuff between your ears. Get that part right, and you'll have a better than even chance of making it out alive. Figure out ahead of time what you're willing to do to keep yourself and your loved ones alive and well. Get it straight in your brain and in your heart, because you might someday face situations that aren't going to give you the time to take a vote about how you're going to react. Never lose your focus.

Life is not a Hollywood production, and no "reality" show can do justice to what really happens when chaos replaces normalcy. Don't get sucked into thinking you're going to be able to fix everything with a combination of hair spray, bubble gum and bailing wire. You're not McGyver, and neither am I. Yes, by all means learn to improvise, to be inventive, to use your hands and your intellect — but don't fool yourself into thinking you can tinker you way to survival. Get prepared. Have the things you need on hand. Have a plan that is based on honest to goodness survival knowledge and experience. Have contingency plans about surviving in place or evacuating. Maintain situational awareness at all times.

We'll get deeper into all of this as we go along. For today, I just wanted to open the windows a little bit and let some fresh air in to clear away the stuff that Hollywood has to offer. No doubt about it — it was fun to watch. But it wasn't real.

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