The Titanic sank 100 years ago today. The following was first published on the April 12 Trenton Times opinion page under the title, "Earth's passengers should learn from the Titanic."
The good ship America is steaming full speed ahead towards the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s demise--the biggest symbol of avoidable disaster ever to sail the seas of human discourse. Given concerns about where we are headed, as a nation and as a planet, it’s worth asking what were the ingredients for disaster as the Titanic approached ice fields on a moonless night.
As chance would have it, the anniversary falls on April 15, usually a rallying point for discontent with government and taxes. But the elements feeding the Titanic’s demise, and other disasters in more recent decades, suggest that the reflexive anti-government thinking so dominant today misses the boat when it comes to identifying the dangers we face in the 21st century.
Technological Hubris: Most people associate the Titanic with a delusional belief in infallibility. The Titanic’s Captain Smith said he could not “imagine any condition which would cause a ship to founder." Worst-case scenarios tend to get short shrift in an atmosphere of overconfidence.
Inadequate Regulation: Lack of regulation primed the Titanic for disaster. Ships were not required to have sufficient lifeboats. Lax standards contributed to critical breakdowns in wireless communication between the Titanic and other ships.
Ignored Warnings: Warnings came from various ships in the vicinity that were encountering ice fields that night, but the Titanic made only minor adjustments, and continued at nearly full speed.
Don’t Rock The Boat: The Titanic pressed forward despite risky conditions in part because of high expectations that it stay on schedule.
Poor Information Flow: Safeguarding the ship was not the wireless operators’ top priority. After forwarding to the captain several warnings of icebergs from other ships, they went back to their primary role--relaying the passengers’ personal messages--and dismissed additional warnings as an annoyance.
Delayed Feedback: Having ignored warnings, the Titanic was dependent upon its lookouts to spot icebergs in its path. But visibility was limited on a moonless night, and icebergs show little of their true size looming underwater.
Momentum: When the iceberg finally came into view, the ship’s momentum--its sheer mass and high speed--made a last minute change of course impossible.
This list can be applied to most any disaster of recent decades. Warnings from engineers, scientists and other specialists with critical knowledge went unheeded prior to the two space shuttle disasters, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial collapse. Pressure to stay on schedule caused NASA to launch the space shuttle Challenger despite weather concerns. Inadequate regulation facilitated the financial meltdown.
But the list is most relevant to a calamity just now unfolding. The assumption is that Earth is infinitely resilient, “unsinkable”. Though warnings are repeatedly sounded that we are taking a very risky path, we feel compelled to move forward, to stoke the engines of the economy, even if it’s an economy based on fatally flawed fuels. Advertisements bathe us in celebratory images of gleaming automobiles that, for all their appeal and utility, speed the destabilization of climate.
Our leaders might be more emboldened to take strategic action if voters were better informed about the tremendous risks embedded in the status quo. But the news media are focused on the day to day political drama rather than relaying the scientists’ increasingly urgent warnings. Consensus for action becomes even more problematic when people feel they have a right to their own facts. Worst-case scenarios dare not be mentioned.
What is particularly important to note here is that the Titanic was just one ship. Other ships eventually arrived to pick up the survivors. Laws were passed requiring more lifeboats and better wireless communication. Despite the tragic loss, civilization could continue, safer for the lessons learned. But with spaceship Earth, there are no lifeboats, no other planets to come to our rescue, no second chances. The momentum of both the human economy and human-caused climate change is huge and will require an immense and prolonged effort to counter.
Before the passengers on the Titanic lost their lives, they lost the comfort of their assumptions. Everything deemed important up to the moment of the fateful collision was suddenly rendered trivial. Maximizing one’s wealth, status and entertainment, staying on schedule--all these urgent priorities dissolved into nothing.
We, too, are steaming at full speed towards a rude awakening, in which the priorities we cling to so strongly now will prove in retrospect to have mattered little. A way of life is not guarded by vilifying government, branding scientific knowledge as elitist, and stripping a society of its regulatory protections. “Every man for himself” are the words of a ship captain who realizes all is lost, not a slogan for progress.
The lessons of the Titanic and more recent disasters are there to be learned from. Take warnings seriously, consider worst-case scenarios, and when there’s trouble ahead, shift course before it’s too late.