THE WORLD UNTIL YESTERDAY
The young ornithologist was Jared Diamond and today he is a celebrated and much-published academic and author.
I found the falling trees story in his book The World Until Yesterday, in which he looks at tribal societies, describes their behaviour and strategies and relates these to the modern world.
Any technical divers reading this will at once get what Diamond is talking about. They might not use the actual phrase, but technical divers employ constructive paranoia as a survival technique.
They address the real risks of diving up front. They know how the technical divers who went before them got hurt and have developed procedures and equipment to reduce the chances of the same thing happening to them.
Technical divers also talk constantly about safety in scuba-diving. They exchange stories and debate safety strategies online and when they gather at conferences. In doing so, they are unconsciously imitating tribal societies. Their dialogues fulfil the same purpose as the New Guineans’ campfire chats.
Over the years, technical divers have passed on to the mainstream diving community innovations such as octopus hoses, BCs and, more recently, side-mount diving. However, generally speaking, the sport-diving community has not yet adopted technical divers’ constructive-paranoia safety culture.
In fact, knowing that bad things can happen and learning either to prevent them happening or knowing how to deal with them when they do happen is what diver training at every level is all about.
For instance, new divers learn how to replace a mask under water so that they can manage (without panicking) a situation in which their strap breaks or their mask is dislodged from their face by an unfriendly fin-kick.
However, instructors don’t always introduce skills with direct reference to the emergency situation they are designed to resolve. Skills are often presented instead as tests to be accomplished, or experiences to be endured. For instance, there is a useful drill that shows divers what it feels like to run dangerously low on air so that, if it ever happens for real, they can react in time before running out completely.
This is referred to by one training agency as an “air-depletion exercise”. I have witnessed instructors introduce it simply with these three words before describing how the exercise will play out.
The possibility that a diver can run out of air might be implied but it is not stated directly, let alone discussed. This tendency, at beginner-diver levels, to avoid awkward conversations concerning bad things that might happen under water, can lead to ignorance, over-confidence and a complete absence of constructive paranoia.
Nusa Penida – what could go wrong?
Here is a story that illustrates the point perfectly. One day, my friend Robert received a call from a friend of a friend. She asked him for advice on diving Nusa Penida, an island off Bali’s south coast famous for big fish, but also notorious for the strong, unpredictable currents that make it an accident black-spot.
Robert asked how much diving she had done, and was informed that she had only just learned to dive. He pointed out that diving around Nusa Penida could be tricky and suggested that, instead, she do some diving in easier conditions at Tulamben on Bali’s north-east coast.
The woman became very upset at what she felt was Robert’s assumption that she was “not an excellent diver, which I am”, and hung up on him.
Two days later, she called Robert back to say that she had gone to Nusa Penida and had had a great day’s diving. “So there, you were wrong,” she said.