Thinking in an Emergency

April 14, 2011

It is said that there are only seven different plots available to the storyteller, and people coping with crises is the basis for several (if not all) of these. The dramatic storytelling that forms a central part of good research into crisis management is a significant attraction, and so books on the subject are likely to be a good read. But as a researcher in this area, I have seen several attempts to popularise the work of Gary Klein, my personal hero in the field, sometimes without proper acknowledgement.

His excellent work Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions in an Emergency (1999) is still the yardstick: readable, but with academic integrity. Accordingly, as I opened Elaine Scarry's book, I sharpened my reviewing dagger in preparation for yet another work that draws on Klein's text without attribution.

Unusually for a scholar addressing this topic, Scarry is a professor of English literature; a Harvard academic known for her analysis and criticism of the likes of Hardy, Beckett and Thackeray. What can an English professor tell us about how people think in an emergency? Perhaps, I thought, I had been sent the wrong book? The picture is made more complex when one discovers that Scarry has also written books on the causes of plane crashes and on the nature of pain. She could certainly never work in the UK - which research excellence framework panel would she be submitted to?

If I was puzzled when I began reading, by the end of the first chapter I was completely confused. Unlike the best-known works in the field, Thinking in an Emergency is not about how ordinary people have to make quick decisions in crisis. Scarry is after far bigger fish, and her thesis is that politicians have taken debate out of important decisions under the pretext that we are in crisis and thus there is no time for debate and democratic controls.

The dazzling array of sources she deploys are sometimes enough to make the head spin - a single page refers to ancient Greece, exhaled air resuscitation, the flooding of small communities and the Bible. Scarry moves on to assesses different countries' response to the nuclear threat and why Switzerland has enough bunkers to provide spaces for all its citizens, whereas in the US and UK it seems there are only enough for members of the government. She discusses the fact that some countries have a first-use policy and others not. Through the example of resuscitation, she explores how some emergency procedures quite rightly rely on routine, but that if routine is translated to strategic decisions about war, we bypass our ability to reflect and debate.

However, I would suggest that something is missing from this part of her thesis. If a country does have nuclear weapons, it is a safe planning assumption that the decision on the reactive use of nuclear weapons would have to be made extremely quickly with no time for political debate. Scarry does not discuss this point, and in my view it reduces the power of her argument. Her stance is vehemently pro democracy and anti nuclear weapons, and she is not averse to selecting her evidence to fit her worldview.

Clearly this is not an essay that presents watertight arguments and comes to predictable conclusions. It is instead a polemic - but also a wonderful and strange story written with passion from a deeply humanitarian standpoint. Scarry is sometimes a little partial, and fails to acknowledge the considerable body of cognitive psychology she might have drawn on here, but she presents some truly thought-provoking ideas.

Short but densely populated with fascinating material that has furnished me with a long list of further reading to pursue, Thinking in an Emergency is a mind-blowing canter around some difficult topics - conflict, democracy and nuclear war. It is, moreover, a highly timely work in light of recent spontaneous uprisings against oppressive regimes - and, as Scarry points out, we in the West are perhaps not as free as we might think. I will give this book the ultimate accolade - I will buy copies as gifts for others.

Thinking in an Emergency

By Elaine Scarry. W.W. Norton & Company 144pp, £14.99. ISBN 9780393078985. Published 5 May 2011

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