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The Titanic Disaster as a Metaphor for Impending Environmental Doom

The sinking of the RMS Titanic in April of 1912 and the great loss of life as a result of the disaster closely mirrors American environmental attitudes in unfortunate ways. Describing ineffective attempts at solving problems as being like rearranging the Titanic’s deckchairs befits our national response to this looming crisis.

The story of the Titanic is one of human arrogance and egotistical decisions made at the expense of others. The Titanic’s creation was not about innovation that would benefit humanity but instead about what would impress the world and bring the White Star Line glory. Grand claims that the ship was "unsinkable" did garner attention and admiration but proved to be fatally untrue. It was largely this belief of indestructibility which led to reckless decisions being made by those in power. Similarly, U.S. and world business leaders think only of short-term growth and profits and don’t care about or even believe in the impossibility of infinite growth on this planet. Just as people were unreasonably optimistic about the Titanic’s maiden voyage - it was "the ship of dreams" after all - people seem to think we can continue living the way we do without the possibility of sinking our metaphorical ship.

One fatal error made by those on the Titanic was the failure to heed warnings and take proper precautions to prevent a disaster in the first place. The ship was traveling at near top speed, despite the known dangers, in an attempt to break a record. Again, ego is a driving force, as with the business leaders of today who push for more and more progress and profits at greater risk to the environment.

The same egotism and human arrogance which led to the creation of the Titanic also led to a lack of preparation for disaster. It’s well known that the ship wasn’t carrying enough lifeboats. What’s less known is that they were actually carrying more lifeboats than required. They had 20, when the regulations only called for 16, and it still wasn’t enough for every Titanic passenger. Parallel to this are the corporations contributing to massive amounts of pollution while still technically in compliance with government regulations. The environmental policies simply aren’t strict enough.

One memorable scene from James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic involves third class passengers locked below deck while the water rises and they beg for help. Like the shortage of lifeboats, another well-known fact of the Titanic disaster is that third class passengers died in far greater numbers than those in second or first class. The reason many were trapped below - an accurate portrayal by Cameron - was due to U.S. immigration laws of the time aimed at preventing the spread of disease. An unintended consequence of this social stratification was the tragic deaths of third class passengers. In today’s world, it is those in the third world and the global south who pay for the arrogance and careless lifestyles of those of us in the first world. The third class passengers were not on the ship because it was such a grand way to travel, but because it was their method of immigrating in hopes of better lives. However, like on the Titanic, if our situation gets bad enough, then no one will be truly safe, regardless of wealth. In his film, James Cameron depicts The Unsinkable Molly Brown trying to convince other women in a lifeboat to go back to save a few more people. The other women overrule her, but not forcefully. They simply stay silent and do nothing, unwilling to take action. It is not active, malicious intent which will lead to so many needless climate-change-related deaths in the third world - it is the failure of those with power to take action.

Finally, the factor of time is at play. Amongst the passengers, there was a failure to realize the gravity of the situation. Many of them didn’t really believe the ship was sinking, so they ignored warnings and instructions to put on flotation devices. One survivor, Edwina Troutt, said that in general people felt safer and more comfortable on the ship than in the lifeboats and refused to board them. The first lifeboat did not launch until a full hour after the ship hit the iceberg. The collision did not send people into a panic and some barely noticed it. Similarly, we have been ignoring the advice of environmental scientists and are not attempting to change our behavior in any major ways. We have already surpassed the carbon dioxide levels at which it was predicted that human life would be in danger. Like hitting the iceberg, realizing the dangers of climate change did not happen all at once. It was a gradual thing and continues to be so. As on the Titanic, people did not immediately realize they were in danger. Some of them still haven’t.

Of course, there are always people working to downplay the problem. This is exemplified by the lack of a response by our government to repeated statements of climate scientists who insist we must take action now. This gives people a false sense of security similar to that felt by passengers aboard the Titanic. Crew members worked to calm everyone down and some weren’t even aware themselves of how dire the situation was. The band continued playing as if the evening were like any other. Additionally, the captain never issued an official abandon ship order. It was not until half the ship was in the water that some people realized it was going down at all. Then panic ensued. Just as the real life sinking of the Titanic was not total chaos until the last half hour or so, we are not rushing around panicked while trying to fix our environmental crisis. Maybe in our last moments we will be, but for now we go about our business, living our lives as we always have. We need to be prepared for environmental catastrophe. Human arrogance led to the sinking of the RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage, and human arrogance can easily lead to the complete, irreversible destruction of our environment.

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