One week ago, on Sunday April 15, 2012, was the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. One week later, we are celebrating Earth Day on April 22nd. Many people have used the sinking of the Titanic as an allegory for the way we are responding to the “perfect storm” of crises we face with resource depletion, climate change, economic instability, species extinction, etc. The ship is sinking, and most of us are still playing shuffleboard on the top deck, or, at best, rearranging the deck chairs. So the analogy usually goes. Thus, it is interesting we are celebrating these two events one week apart.
For Earth Day, I’d like to share with you a more fleshed out analogy from theologian/philosopher John Cobb. Cobb is a well known theologian interested in process philosophy, and he’s also written numerous books on environmental issues. It has been said that “John Cobb was the first to publish a book by a philosopher on environmental ethics.” Is It Too Late? A Theology of Ecology came out in 1972 and was revised in 1995. However, we must not forget Francis Schaeffer‘s “Pollution and the Death of Man,” published in 1970. Nevertheless, Cobb’s book was ground breaking, and this book provides the best “sinking ship” allegory that I’ve read anywhere.
Although he does not name his ship the Titanic, it feels like an appropriate time to share his story, which comes from chapter 1: Is Ecology The Issue? Cobb addresses “The danger in focusing attention on a single issue and raising it as one of supreme importance is that it might seem to detract from the importance of other issues.”
An allegory will give perspective. Picture the world as a ship on a long voyage. The ship has first class and steerage accommodations. The crew directs it’s attention to the comforts of the first class passengers, who have plenty of space, luxurious accomodations, and superabundandant food of great delicacy and richness. In steerage men and women are crowded and uncomfortable. The food is tasteless and poorly cooked. Some suffer malnutrition. Contagious diseases break out, and medical help is inadequate. Tempers are high, and fights occur. First class passengers occasionally look down on the steerage deck below with amusement and even with pity, but for the most part they prefer to forget the existence of these other passengers and to enjoy the gracious living for which they have paid. The fact that most of the steerage passengers are of other cultures and races makes this easier.
Many of the steerage passengers dream of someday transferring to first class and a few even succeed in doing so. But most resign themselves to the impossibility of such a move. They live in impotent envy, taking out their anger on each other. Finally, a few among them begin whispering that this is unnecessary. Why should they be crowded and poorly fed when there is so much space and food wasted on other decks? Why not share all the space and food equally?
Many ridicule the idea as impossible, but others listen. Of these, some want to seize by force the space and food they need, while others propose appealing to the innate sense of fair play on the part of the first-class passengers. At first these win out, and a few changes result from their humble and modest requests. The food supply and medical attention are improved. The first-class passengers expect gratitude, but in fact the slight success only intensifies the demands for an equal share.
I will not detail the struggle as it grows bloodier and more bitter. The crew is called in by the first-class passengers to maintain order and guarantee their privileges—for which, after all. they have paid. And the crew obliges with all too little reluctance. The few first-class passengers who sympathize with those in steerage are increasingly ostracized. More important, many of the children of the first class passengers believe in the cause of the steerage passengers and try to help them. Some of these also fall victim to the crew, while the parents generally think they have gotten what they deserve. Several times during the struggle the news is heard that the boat has sprung a leak. A few members of the crew are dispatched to see about it. They report that it is not too large a leak yet, although it is growing. Most suppose that the captain will see to it and go on about their business and pleasure. But the captain is too busy trying to keep order, and the few who continue inquiring about the leak are ignored.
The untended leak becomes larger. Some of the ship’s supplies are soaked in salt water and ruined. Even the boat’s speed is slightly affected. New leaks begin to appear. Although life continues luxurious in first class, some notice that the ship lists a little. Some of the shipboard games are adversely affected. Shuffle-board is abandoned. More voices are raised about the urgency of action, but when the crew shoot some of the children, a new controversy breaks out which distracts attention. The first-class passengers feel guilty about the killing of these children, but they cannot bring themselves to admit that they are in the wrong. They devote their energies to self-justification. The children are deeply hurt by this attitude on their parents’ part. Until now they have felt that the ideals on which they have acted were those of their parents as well and that if only the parents saw the situation clearly the would aid the steerage passengers instead of using force against them. With far less confidence, the steerage passengers have shared this hope. But the willingness of the parents to kill their own children in order to maintain their privileges, and the subsequent justification of this act,is profoundly disillusioning. A few turn to unalloyed violence. Most relapse into angry but lethargic resignation.
The ship continues to list. Almost everyone recognizes it now. But in the aftermath of the intense emotions generated by the other conflicts, no one seems to care very much. Leaders vie with each other to announce their concern, but not one dares to speak realistically of the risk or of the vast cost of dealing with it. The people have no stomach for great sacrifices. Their idealism is spent.
This is where we are now. What happens next is still unsettled. We may continue to fragment into disgruntled minorities while frantic efforts on the part of our leaders to hold us together leave little energy to deal with the spreading leaks. Only when the water covers the lower decks will the passengers turn their attention, too late, to the problems of a sinking ship. With bluer mutual recriminations they will struggle for places in the inadequate lifeboats, while the sinking ship carries most to their death. Another possibility is that the crew and first class passengers will wall off part of the ship in such a way that although the lower decks fill with water, the steerage passengers drown, and most of the supplies are low, the ship can stay just barely afloat. In this way many of the first-class passengers can survive, although at a level of subsistence inferior even to that of the steerage passengers when the boat was intact.
A third possibility is that the ship’s captain, as a man of wisdom and courage, will persuade all the passengers of the necessity of immediate massive action. Unnecessary supplies are then quickly thrown overboard, including many of the weapons used by the crew to control the steerage passengers. All able-bodied men join together in a massive effort to pump out the water and repair the leaks. In the process, the mutual antagonisms subside. New leadership patterns are established. All the passengers and the crew, as well, become a single community living frugally but harmoniously together.
Granted, only a miracle could realize this third possibility. Politicians would have to refrain from playing upon the mutual antagonisms of our polarized society and challenge us to extremely unpopular sacrifices. Masses of people would have to vote for and follow these politicians. Business and industry would have to adopt new criteria by which to measure achievements, and all of us who are dependent on the present system for our luxuries would have to accept a simpler style of life. Is all that really possible?
No one knows; but the unforeseen and the unexpected do occur. Indeed, the rise to consciousness of the ecology/population crisis itself illustrates the openness of the future, the occurrence of the unpredictable, the surprising fruition of forgotten seeds.
…But the question remains whether all this will lead only to a series of ad hoc measures designed to meet particular emergencies when public opinion demands it, or whether it will lead to careful planning and rethinking of our national life. The latter can occur only if a new vision of man and his place in relation to nature comes into being, a vision that would naturally express itself in a changed style of life.
Learn more: In 2009, John Cobb spoke to an Eco-Philosophy class on EarthDay, and fortunately for us it was recorded.