In the last 110 years, there has been no more famous marine disaster than the sinking of the RMS Titanic. It sank on April 15, 1912, after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York.
As it was dubbed “unsinkable,” there has been extensive analysis ever since of problems with its design and construction. When the wreck was finally explored in 1985, new evidence was added to old speculation about what went wrong.
Yet the real problem in 1912 did not involve engineering design flaws or construction mistakes. Both of these certainly contributed to its rapid slide into the frigid depths of the North Atlantic, but the Titanic sank for much less technical reasons.
It was all about attitude, a lethal arrogance or pride — what dramatists would call “hubris.” In Greek tragedy, especially, it is the excessive pride in characters who defy the gods, who see themselves as all-powerful or all-knowing, that inevitably leads to a disastrous conclusion. The audience knows what’s coming, but the characters are oblivious, and so the tragedy inexorably unfolds.
While it would be simpler if the Titanic tragedy was the fault of one person, it wasn’t. It was the arrogance of the social and cultural systems that designed, built, launched and sailed Titanic across the Atlantic that was responsible for what happened.
It had to be “unsinkable,” made with the latest technological tools out of whatever metals by whatever workers could get the job done in time for its launch at the start of the summer shipping season. Cost considerations limited the number of lifeboats, even the number of pairs of binoculars available for the lookouts.
The captain was in absolute command; all other crew were mere functionsaries, cogs in the machine, many of whom had been signed on just before the ship left Southampton. As for the rest on board, anyone not a first-class passenger was considered a necessary nuisance, carried as economic ballast to pay the coal bills.
And speed — speed was the primary value, with regular, fast passage in the unsinkable ship intended to set a new standard for the trans-Atlantic run, which meant fame (and financial rewards) for the White Star Line and Titanic’s captain.
It was a Greek tragedy in the making. So, as the audience, we shudder with anticipation as we hear the captain’s orders to keep steaming full speed ahead — at night, through the iceberg field, while he went to bed — believing the unsinkable ship could never be stopped by mere acts of nature . Hubris.
Yet whatever lessons in engineering design and construction techniques have been learned from the Titanic’s fate, clearly, the social and cultural lessons have been ignored. Our society demonstrates — daily — far more arrogance, disrespect and general contempt for the forces of nature than the White Star Line or Capt. Edward Smith ever did.
I thought of this Titanic anniversary as I read the response of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on the third part (on climate mitigation) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change AR6 report. He called it “an atlas of human suffering and a damning indictment of failed climate leadership” that depicted “arson of our only home” by the world’s biggest polluters.
As Guterres observed, the IPCC report calls for a 45 per cent decrease in net greenhouse-gas emissions by 2030. Current commitments (even if met, which is unlikely) instead will result in a 14 per cent increase.
For the usually diplomatic head of a global body renowned for not rocking the boat, his tone is remarkably pungent:
“Climate titles are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.”
That describes Canada right now. Our federal government continues to do lines of pipe, wasting billions of taxpayers’ dollars and enriching only the Russian oligarchs who supply steel for our Pipeline to Nowhere.
Then, even worse, just as the federal budget is tabled (with its nickels for climate crisis response), an offshore drilling megaproject near Newfoundland is approved by our green-tinged Environment Minister, Steven Guilbeault.
The Titanic metaphor fits our leaders all too well – “I don’t care about icebergs. Full speed ahead – and keep those coal/gas/oil fires burning!”
Ignore the data modern science provides; dismiss the scientists who spend their lives analyzing it; deny the warning signs of Mother Nature’s impending catastrophes; and discount the engineers who could design sustainable systems, with the right support.
Instead, our politicians and business leaders pretend they know different, and best. Hubris.
The leaders we elect in these next five years, at all levels, will either make the sustainable choices we need to survive, or they will continue torching our only home. Right now, I trust some more than others, but none of them enough.
Like the Titanic, we either change course or sink. Global warming doesn’t care about our politics or our egos, any more than the icebergs cared about the captain’s plans or the shipbuilders’ designs.
Peter Denton is an activist and scholar. His latest book is The End of Technology.