Survival of the Stupid

In “Nature Without the Nanny State,” Timothy Egan writes about the record number of fatalities in national parks this year. The parks are receiving record numbers of visitors — it’s a cheaper vacation than Disney World, I assume — and also record numbers of people who lack the sense to not fall off cliffs or over waterfalls.

I’ve already written about the three damnfools in Yosemite who climbed over a guardrail to wade in rapids just a few feet above a 317-foot waterfall, and surprise! They lost their footing on slippery rocks and were swept to their deaths.

I mean, it’s one thing to be killed by something unexpected. Egan discussed one hiker who was aggressively stalked and gored by a mountain goat, which is unusual behavior for a mountain goat. Stuff does happen. But people are doing things that anyone with the sense God gave igneous rocks would not do. The Forest Service is responding by putting up more warning signs and guard rails, but as one Yosemite park ranger said, “We’ve got more than 800 trails and 3,000-foot cliffs in this park. You can’t put guardrails around the whole thing.”

Nor should you, I say. And, anyway, several of the fatalities have occurred in places that were already guardrailed and warning signed. I don’t know what else the Park Service could do.

Egan writes, “My experience, purely anecdotal, is that the more rangers try to bring the nanny state to public lands, the more careless, and dependent, people become.” I suspect, however, that people are not becoming more careless because the rangers are trying to nanny them. I suspect it’s a combination of people with no experience with wilderness who also have no respect for government warning them to not be damnfools and try to pet the bears.

And from here I’d like to go into a rant on how a generation of people who have enjoyed consumer and workplace and other safety regulations have been bamboozled into thinking they don’t need those regulations, but I have to go somewhere now. I may take this up again when I get back.

Update: OK, I”m back. Buckyblue said in the comments that you don’t find as many warning signs and guard rails outside of the United States. That squares with what I observed in my trip to Britain a few years ago. I noticed a widespread assumption that people had the sense to not plunge out of castle turrets to their deaths on the rocks below, and that they didn’t need to be warned, for example. And I suspect Buckyblue is right that the signs and guard rails are as much about limiting liability as anything else.

Which leads me to wonder if signs and guard rails actually do any good, if people dumb enough to wade in rapids just above a waterfall don’t heed the warnings anyway. My suspicions are that the signs and guard do some good. There are people who may not be all that bright, but neither are they risk takers.

Perhaps I shouldn’t draw too many conclusions about our crazy times without knowing if the ratio of deaths to visitors in National Parks is going up, or whether it’s about what it has been for years. However, I’d be willing to pay money if someone could do psychological autopsies of people who do damnfool things in National Parks and get themselves killed, to see if there are any commonalities to explain the phenomenon. And why do I suspect a disproportionate number of them may be teabaggers?

21 thoughts on “Survival of the Stupid

  1. The guardrails and nanny state concerns are not there to protect the people. They are there to make sure no one can accuse them of negligence and then sue them. They are there then to protect the corporations. One thing I was struck by when I traveled throughout Europe many years ago was how few places had fences and guardrails and the like. I have a picture of myself on the Leaning Tower of Pisa shimmying around the outside of it, about 100 feet off the ground. In the US it would have all been caged in with chain-link fencing. The people who are being nanny stated are the corporations and companies, not the people.

  2. I suspect that these unfortunate people actually conflate national parks with Disney World, and have no sense of how to behave in the natural world. As a Montessori elementary teacher, I found that modern children actually have to have this interface with nature in their school day, as so many don’t get it anywhere else. And I’ve noticed people acting weird in national parks for decades, so suppose a large percentage never did learn how to behave amongst wild animals, rugged backcountry, strange plants. On a visit to Yellowstone 30 years ago, I witnessed children throwing rocks at several moose grazing in a lake, at the behest of their parents, to “make them raise their heads”, so a picture could be taken. Good thing the moose were feeling mellow that day. A group of whooping cranes flew over, on the way to their nesting site in Idaho. No one noticed or recognized the rarity of the experience.
    It is upsetting to see that humans are so heedless, but these are undoubtedly examples of the Darwin Award at work.

  3. Go down any highway where “The Nanny State” puts up sign like “65 MPH” speed limits, or on a backroad with a “RR Crossing,” with flashing ligts and cross-bars, and what will you see?
    More than one moron going over 85mph on the highway, bobbing-and-weaving like Ali in his prime.
    And some imbecile on his way to replenishing this beer and ciggy supply see if he can outrun that freight-train to the crossing.
    If it was only themselves they kill, it wouldn’t be so bad.
    Also, too, how many times does an innocent animal have to be put down, not only in nature, but in zoo’s, because people are stupid?
    I remember years and years ago reading about some bears being put down because a guy and his friend snuck into the zoo at night, crawled over the fence and moat, and decided to play tag with the brown bears. If I remember right, both became Darwin Award winners. And took a bear or two with them. You see, those weren’t the first two morons who those bears killed who did the same thing at the same zoo. Apparently, the bears were the repeat offenders. The morons never lived to make the same mistake again.

    • c u n d gulag — I was thinking of the bear incident also. It was 1987, and a couple of 11-year-old boys broke into the polar bear exhibit at Prospect Park Zoo so they could wade in the moat. One of the boys escaped alive. The bears were shot to death by police before what was left of the other boy could be retrieved. A lot of people objected to the killing of the bears, especially since it was obvious the boy already was dead by the time police got there.

      Also, in 1982 a man described as homeless and irrational was found dead in a polar bear cage in the Central Park Zoo. He must have climbed over a series of fences to get into the cage. In that case the bear was distracted away from the body and not killed.

      So, yeah, there’s only so much that can be done to save people from themselves, never mind polar bears.

  4. I’m picturing a Scott Adams (Dilbert) series with the whole crew of GOP hopefuls trying to survive a week in the wilds of Yosemite without a bull horn or a hair stylist.

  5. Regarding the rant touchup didn’t have time for, I have two cents worth. Not what you would have said, Barbara… Lets look at three issues – camping, being a legislator, and owning a gun. WTF do they have in common? Anyone can do all three BUT doing any of them safely and well requires training.

    I have nightmares about the number of people who buy a gun for home safety and NEVER take it to the range for practice. I mean NEVER! Camping, even in national parks, requires a set of skills that aren’t acquired by purchasing a tent and jumbo ice chest. Politics should be open to all, but like gun ownership, you have to be willing to learn about economics, budgets, finance, science (from climate to nuclear) water & energy, international law… the list goes on and on.

    The point is that a damn untrained fool with a gun is a hazard to himself and everyone in range, but not to an intruder

  6. and likewise a damn fool who enters politics wit a ful set of preconceived and false notions is a hazard to all society if elected. Unless he’s willing to learn.

  7. “I have nightmares about the number of people who buy a gun for home safety and NEVER take it to the range for practice. I mean NEVER!” When you take martial arts, the first thing they teach you is “run away”, if possible– don’t confront. The second thing is how to fall. Lessons here for prospective gun owners!

    “Politics should be open to all, but like gun ownership, you have to be willing to learn about economics, budgets, finance, science (from climate to nuclear) water & energy, international law” I wholeheartedly second that. It’s actually what the Founding Fathers had in mind, as that would have been the situation with the “landed” gentleman would would have been allowed to vote back then.

    I also fully expect that in today’s world, the FF would have made it clear the second amendment was for a MILITIA (police; army); not ordinary citizens. They lived a different world.

  8. Tom.. I think anyone is entitled to his own opinion about how and how much to regulate guns. But you obviously haven’t read the opinions of the founding fathers.. or you have read something I have not… or you are indulging in false vanity, trying without foundation to wrap your opinions in the coat of ‘the founding fathers’.

    Thomas Paine, writing to religious pacifists in 1775:

    “The supposed quietude of a good man allures the ruffian; while on the other hand, arms like laws discourage and keep the invader and the plunderer in awe, and preserve order in the world as well as property. The balance of power is the scale of peace. The same balance would be preserved were all the world destitute of arms, for all would be alike; but since some will not, others dare not lay them aside. Horrid mischief would ensue were one half the world deprived of the use of them; the weak would become a prey to the strong.”

    Thomas Jefferson, in an early draft of the Virginia constitution:

    “No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms in his own lands.”

    Patrick Henry:

    “Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up that force, you are ruined. The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able may have a gun.”

    George Washington’s address to the second session of the First U.S. Congress:

    “Firearms stand next in importance to the Constitution itself. … The very atmosphere of firearms anywhere and everywhere restrains evil influence. They deserve a place of honor with all that’s good. When firearms go, all goes. We need them every hour.”

    • Doug — yes, the relationship between the militia and firearm ownership is not well understood, mostly because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to a 21st century brain, but it was what it was. From what I’ve read, in the early history of our Republic firearm ownership was assumed to be an individual right that was not conditional on being enrolled in a militia, the militia clause notwithstanding. As I understand it, the idea seems to have been that rights to firearm ownership could not be abridged so that militias could be formed; not that because there is a militia, there will be firearm ownership. I know that’s the same argument that the gun culties make, but in this case I think the documentation is on their side.

  9. Evolution can be cruel, so if some people refuse to heed the obvious clues, like not leaning too far over a cliff, or wading into rapids, looking down the barrel of a gun or strapping a jet engine onto your car ( true story) etc. what can one do? I would never, and do not, wish this on anyone. But it does seem to me that there are natural forces at work when I read about how people get themselves killed and it was not an “accident” or something unforeseen, but willful daring(?) or total ignorance of the obvious. ie: Wild animals = wild behaviors.
    I remember reading years ago about how some kids climbed into the Polar Bear cage at the Brooklyn Zoo thinking that the moat would protect them from harm. A tragic event as they were killed when one of the bears mistook them for a midnight snack. But, duh, Steel bars? Large Bears with claws…none of these things made an impression? But the false idea that Polar bears could not swim did.
    Evolution is cruel and not restricted to the rest of the animal kingdom, it is part of our lives as well.

  10. I happen to have been in Yosemite a week ago. There’s a big field of boulders at the bottom of Lower Yosemite Falls that hundreds of people climb over–jumping from one rock to another, descending one and climbing up on the next, making their way closer and closer to the base of the falls and the deliciously cool mist, dipping toes in the water. My 9yo son has been going to rock climbing camp all summer and was keen to try it, and so was I, and we had a lovely time.

    This activity required us to climb over a stone wall with a sign on it that said “Dangerous to climb past this point”. I never saw anyone even pause at it. I certainly didn’t. It doesn’t say “don’t climb”, it just says “dangerous”, so you know you’re taking a risk when you do it. Okay by me.

    (The sign is right, BTW: My first time climbing over that same boulder field, I was about the same age as he is now, and I slipped on a rock and fell into a pool of very cold water. Didn’t stop me from doing it again, though; life’s more interesting that way.)

    I’m not trying to suggest that wading in rapids at the top of a 300-foot cliff is a bright thing to do. A fall to certain death is not remotely the same thing as a bunch of rocks where you could maybe break your arm if you aren’t careful. I’m just saying that disregarding warning signs in a national park isn’t, in and of itself, stupid behavior–and definitely isn’t only done by teahadists.

    • I’m just saying that disregarding warning signs in a national park isn’t, in and of itself, stupid behavior–and definitely isn’t only done by teahadists.

      Of course not, but I’m talking about situations in which people do things that are plainly dangerous whether there is a sign or a guard rail or a cage or not.

      Part of the problem may be that people don’t differentiate between warnings that mean “you could get hurt doing this” and those that mean “you’ll probably get killed doing this.” The Park Service might think about that. Where deaths have occurred, there should at least be signs saying “X number of people have already died doing y. Don’t be next.”

      Also, for people who aren’t used to unvarnished nature, I think there’s a lack of respect for how dangerous things can be. Where I grew up various species of pit vipers were common, and I’ve seen snapping turtles in the wild that easily outweighed a beagle, if not a German shepherd. And there were a great many non-venomous snakes and mammals capable of inflicting substantial injury if you messed with them. But if you went on a nature outing with city people they would not listen if you told them to not walk around in weeds in their flip flops, especially toward evening; and not to reach a hand into a hole or woodpile without checking it for snakes first; and watch out for the flipping turtles. They would not listen. You could tell them there really are snakes around here and how to avoid them, and they would listen politely, and then promptly walk off the trail into the poison-ivy infested flora without a care in the world. You could literally pick out the city slickers from the local yokels by who was taking care to keep hands and feet out of places where snakes might be, and who wasn’t.

  11. But, duh, Steel bars? Large Bears with claws…none of these things made an impression? But the false idea that Polar bears could not swim did.

    That really was a shocking story. I don’t recall that any one claimed the boys were developmentally disabled, and they were well old enough to understand death and big teeth and danger. These were city boys whose experience with wildlife probably was limited to pigeons and common rodents, but still….

  12. It just seems to me to be a combination of excessive stupidity and very little respect for rules or guidelines. When I was a kid (yes, I am old), when you saw a sign that said “don’t walk on the grass” you didn’t damn walk on the grass. Now we have idiots who won’t even obey signs about feeding bears and staying away from waterfalls.

    And, yes, I also suspect many of them might be teabaggers. Rules? They don’t need no stinkin’ rules! We’d have better luck educating the bears…

  13. I grew up in Queens, NYC, and the only wildlife we saw were roaches, pigeons, mice, ants, other bugs, squirrels, and an occasional rat – usually on the subway tracks – often the size of a VW Bug, or so it seemed at the time.

    One time, some poor snake decided it was a good idea to come out of wherever it was hiding from. I abstained as the rest of the kids in the neighborhood took some sticks and rocks and decided to treat it like it was like some advance Nazi interloper into our urban, mostly Jewish neighborhood. I don’t think a CSI team could have put the poor thing together when they got done with it…
    I always had a healthy respect for nature, since it was something as foreign to me growing up as palm trees to an Eskimo.

  14. Oh yeah, and as to camping, WTF is THAT all about?

    Getting in tune with nature?
    “Roughing it?”

    My idea of ‘camping’ is if I’m staying in a motel without a bar in it, or a good restaurant next door.
    ‘Roughing it,’ is if neither one is withing walking distance, and I have to risk a DWI to eat and drink.

    • My idea of ‘camping’ is if I’m staying in a motel without a bar in it, or a good restaurant next door.

      And if you want greenery, order the spinach. 🙂

  15. Evan, that big field of boulders at the bottom of the waterfall is “dangerous” for a reason. There are rapids coming out from that area which will pin you and kill you as sure as falling over the waterfall. A broken arm will cost the taxpayer a lot of money for the rescue, plus put rescuers at risk. Also, people insist on doing these hikes in flip flops and climbing the rocks in them. I’ve even see people do the 4-mile trail in flip flops and without a water bottle.

    So, yes, these people who do not heed the signs are contemptible in MHO. They cannot judge all the risks AND they think the risk is only to themselves. It’s not.

    I have to be in Yosemite in two weeks for Mom’s 80th. I’ll think of you.

  16. Jennifer,
    Have a great time, and stay safe while you’re in Yosemite.
    And stay away from “Sam,” he’s got a nasty, “Rassa, Massa, Frassa” temper.

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