Yet The Band Played On….

A topical rework of an article I wrote back in 2009.  I recently posted it on the Simple, Green, Frugal Coop.


Who feels like we are all on the RMS Titanic, sailing full steam ahead, not knowing that an iceberg was about to appear on the horizon?  I know I do most of the time.

The passengers and crew of this mighty vessel were unaware of the fate on its maiden voyage, as are most of the 7 billion passengers also unaware of the fate that awaits the Mothership Earth.  This post is not meant to offend the memories of the Titanic tragedy, but to offer a simple comparison against the events of that voyage, and the plight of our current civilisation and vessel that holds and nurtures us.

There is a strong connection to the RMS Titanic story within our family.  My wife Kim’s Great Grandfather, William James Major, was a fireman on-board this ship, and luckily happened to be off-watch at the time the great ship struck the iceberg. Had he been at his post and in one of the boiler rooms fulfilling his duty, his chances of survival would have been slim indeed.  He was one of the crewmen allocated to lifeboat #13, and out of the 2,227 passengers and crew members who set sail, only 705 Titanic passengers and crew survived, him being one of them.  That is a 31.6% survival rate.  There were many factors that lead to the sinking of the Titanic on her maiden voyage, and I shall attempt to compare some of these events to the apparent chosen path of the passengers of Mothership Earth, if we to continue to maintain our current course and speed.

The Titanic was deemed by many to be ‘unsinkable’ which instilled a false sense of security amongst the passengers and crew.  The captain,  Edward Smith was a capable seaman and this was planned to be his retirement voyage.  Also on-board were Bruce Ismay, Chairman of the White Star Line.  Mr Ismay had a point to prove, and wanted to be the first trans-atlantic liner to set a new record crossing time.  The bridge crew and the helmsmen were never really in control of this behemoth of a vessel, but mere puppets as you shall read later.  So it was inevitable that the order from Mr Ismay to the Captain upon setting sail from Cherbourg, was to increase power, and therefore speed for the entire voyage.  So with the course set in, and power and speed increased, with no regard of the safety of the vessel. Yet the band played on.

So, imagine the bridge crew as western governments around the world, and liken the Captain, Mr Ismay, and the powerful owner of the White Star line, Mr Ismay’s father as some of the greedy corporations of our current time.  We, my friends, are the passengers and crew of this mighty Mothership Earth.  We have increased power for the corporations, relaxation and comfort for all those who choose to sail on her, and everything we would ever need even if we don’t know we actually need it yet.

To the unknowing passengers of the Titanic, some of the lifeboats had been removed to make way for a gymnasium for first class passengers.  This left the ship without a full capability of lifeboats should the unthinkable happen to the unsinkable!  I compare this to our current fossil fuel situation.  Very soon or maybe already peak oil and natural gas production will be reached and there will not be enough supply to meet demand.  Many on Mothership Earth will start to miss out, and indeed many already do, and panic will prevail, just as it did on the Titanic.  Yet, the band played on.

Many ice warnings were sent to the ship during the voyage, in fact 21 warnings including 7 on the day of the tragedy.  As ordered, the Titanic steamed onward at top speed towards the reported pack ice that was drifting down from Greenland.  The two radiomen on-board passed the warnings to the bridge officers throughout the day, and these in turn were passed on to Captain Smith who ignored them, due to the insistence of Mr Ismay.  The radiomen were mostly kept busy during the day sending stock market messages from the wealthy on-board and receiving quotes back from the NYSE.  Even when the radiomen received a signal at 11pm from the steamship Californian, who was 10 miles to the Northwest, to inform the Titanic that she had stopped for the night by ice blocking her way.  One of the radiomen on the ill fated ship sent back a snappy reply, “Shut up old man I’m busy.”

So to compare the two, the science community have given us all, including governments, many warnings about climate change and so far have done little to prevent its occurrence.  Governments, corporations and economists are infatuated by continued economic growth to the detriment of the resources supplied on loan to us by Mothership Earth.  We are ignoring our own form of ice warnings including melting global ice caps and the most glaciers around the world.  Quite an ironic comparison really.  It was an iceberg that sank the Titanic and it will be melting ice, heated by our thirst for fossil fuels, that sinks and disrupts the climactic patterns of the Mothership Earth!  We are all so busy trying to get to where we think we should be, we are forgetting about the vessel that carries us on our daily voyage.

As the Titanic sailed through the night, the wealthy upper class dined in opulence before retiring for the night, and the steerage class passed time, reassured by the noise of the engines and flow of seawater upon the steel hull.  A new country and life awaited many of them, all hoping for better opportunities.  Little were any of them aware that the ship was not unsinkable and there was a design flaw in the watertight compartments.  If a certain number of the watertight compartments flooded, there was a good chance that the ship would sink.  What does that mean in our current time period?  We drive our cars, thinking that petroleum products will be available at the service station, that there will be food in the supermarket shelves, and water will run when we turn on the tap.  We live in a disposable culture, only recently discovering the value of recycling in the western world.  Opulence in the west, and dreams of a western way of life in developing nations reminds me of the different classes on-board the ship.  The Mothership Earth also has a design flaw of sorts.  A limited carrying capacity and not enough lifeboats!  We have overshot the planets carrying capacity due to the abundance of cheap oil to grow massive amounts of food, and and now are confronted by limited natural resources.  Both issues are similar to the capacity of the ship and the limited lifeboat capacity of the Titanic on that dreadful night.

At 11:40pm in calm weather and on a clear night, the mighty vessel struck an iceberg that ripped a hole in the ships side that was long enough to fill many of the watertight compartments, thus forcing the ‘unsinkable’ to indeed become sinkable.  The crew of the ship attempted to avoid a head on collision, however due to the vessels speed and a flaw in rudder design, the ship still scraped the side of the massive iceberg.  Yet the band played on.

The passengers and crew were not aware of the impending danger that awaited them, in fact it wasn’t until at least 30 minutes later that the crew were aware that she was taking on water.  Many of the passengers slept through the entire incident and had to be woken up to begin abandoning the ship.  From 12:15 am, the radiomen began sending their first distress signal, only to get a reply 10 minutes later from the Carpathia.  Within two hours the Titanic was sinking bow first, with the watertight compartments flooding one after the other, and the radio failing due to lack of power from the flooding engine rooms.  The crew, who were totally unprepared for this type of event struggled to launch what lifeboats they had, and struggled to convince many bewildered passengers that this was necessary for their safety.  Many passengers must have thought that if the ship were so unsinkable, why where they being forced onto the lifeboats.  Many would drown, especially from third class and steerage, simply because there were not enough lifeboats and the ones that were launched were not filled to capacity.  Plus the fact that many were locked behind steel meshed doors preventing them from escaping.

The radio message sent at 1:45 am was the last message and it read, “Come as quickly as possible”.  It was sent in hope, as the last of the lifeboats pulled away from the sinking ship.  Still the band played on until the deck was so tilted that they couldn’t sit and play.  Those not safely on a lifeboat stood little hope of more than a few minutes of survival due to the freezing temperature of the water.  The Captain went down with the ship, as did the first officer, however Mr Bruce Ismay was one of the first onto a lifeboat. 

So, with all the scientific warnings, and with many dire new discoveries of approaching tipping points regarding climate change, with our population having gone from 1.6 billion in 1900 to 7 billion in 2011 due to the abundance of cheap oil, and with our resources dwindling whether they be fossil fuels (stoking climate change and overpopulation) or precious minerals and natural resources including a mass species extinction, are we about to hit the a proverbial iceberg?  It paints a pretty grim picture when compared to a real life event that could have been avoided.

As with the Titanic, instead of steaming ahead at top speed, we need to reassess, and slow to avoid the impending disaster that soon await the fate of all who are passengers on Mothership Earth.  Is our rudder too small, and that we may not be able to turn away soon enough, with the speed of progress, growth at all costs, resource depletion, and increasing carbon emissions hold back our inability to act in time.

As for the bridge crew, who resemble current day governments, are failing to act decisively, because of the pressure exerted upon them by the corporations like Mr Ismay and the board of the White Star Line.  Will this pressure be too great, with vested interest lobbying our poor, misguided crew at every chance?  What will happen the the passengers of Mothership Earth?  Will there be enough lifeboats, or will there be a mass die-off as in the case of the Titanic with the lower classes bearing the brunt of disaster?  These questions go unanswered as yet, but there are signs that we may be approaching the “iceberg”, with the majority of the passengers of Mothership Earth blissfully unaware, and still dressed in their finest clothes dinning, or in this case, consuming until they drop, egged on by governments and corporations.  As with the Titanic, there will be survivors, how many are unknown as yet, but there have been estimates that our carrying capacity may be reduced to as little as 500 million to 1 billion passengers without cheap and abundant energy.  A sobering estimate indeed.

I am not saying that the disaster is inevitable, we just need to slow or steer away, by reducing consumption, reducing emissions, and stabilising or reducing population growth. As the passengers of Mothership Earth are loaded onto what ever form of lifeboat is available, will they still be wondering “Why?  I thought we were unsinkable!”

Comments

  1. says

    Very sobering post Gavin, and very apt analogy. I have seen estimates that the lower limit could be closer to 300 million if we want the earth to be able support our current lifestyle.

    Quick everybody! Lean on that damned rudder!!

  2. says

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. How suitable an analogy. Sometimes I feel like we are at the “iceberg has started to rip into the sides” stage and that it is already too late. I am reading “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson ( compare the message from the Californian) at the moment. I have been aware of its contents before but not had a copy to read. Every paragraph horrifies…doubly so because this was written in 1962…how much worse have we made it in the last 50 years since then…without really doing anything substantial to change things.I don’t see it as being necessarily about population…how much has anyone really cared about the millions/billions of the third world although the will suffer the most…but about consumption by the western countries. The band will play on and the rich will ensure that they survive and survive well. Pessimistic…yes, must be one of those days. Still, I have hope and faith that there will be people enough to stand up and complain, to shake those steel mesh doors, to take up the cry of those who have tried to warn and to show others how to live a sustainable future. I also live in an urban setting but am doing my best on limited funds to, like you, teach the next generation about the realities of life and prepare them for a future unlike the one I grew up in. Thanks for all your posts Gavin. I don’t always get to comment but I always read them and they make a real difference in my life. Appreciate it.
    Shirley

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