Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Titanic

The story of the Titanic is as familiar to the modern storyteller as is 'Cinderella' or 'Sleeping Beauty': Oversized ship heads off on voyage to meet it's destiny with an ice berg whilst unsuspecting passengers enjoy the luxury of the liner. The story has become such an important part of our cultural lore that one might even say that it is nearly locked in mythos.

But the realities of the Titanic are not nearly as romantic as Hollywood would like us to buy into (and buy and buy again!) and the sad truth that many of the deaths could have been prevented if safety protocols had been followed has a familiar ringtone- the all too familiar sound of money in pockets while the urgency for safety is ignored because of the extra cost. But it's not a recounting of the frozen bodies or the drama of men left standing on the deck as women and children are bundled into the too few lifeboats or the multiple mistakes that led to the disaster that causes me to reflect on the Titanic. It is actually the allegory of the Titanic that continues to be reenacted like the nightmare on Elm Street that I wish to reflect on.

Which brings me to Japan...

The tragedy of the earthquake and ensuing tsunami were simply that: a tragedy. And while such naturally occurring tragedies cannot be stopped by anything that humans can do*, there is the reality that different choices in multiple areas would have made the calamity less catastrophic. In fact, there were so many mistakes that my head swims with frustration, building on a fault line, using cheap materials, etc.

Lest you think that I am placing the blame for the earthquake and tsunami at the feet of humankind, let me reiterate: the earthquake and the tsunami were a horrible tragedy. I am not trying to lay the blame for the shifting of continents at the feet of humans or global warming. But surely no one in their sanest mind can possibly look at the disaster with the Nuclear plants in Japan and say that this horrible event wasn't made infinitely worse by our desire and, indeed, need (like a junkie in need of a fix of heroine) for cheap energy- a need so strong that we will harness a resource that we are not capable of controlling once nature's ferocity is loosed upon it. In a thought provoking article on the Guardian UK, Bill McKibben writes,
Global warming didn't cause the earthquake and tsunami that devastated the Miyagi coast, but global warming daily is shrinking the leeway on which civilisation everywhere depends. Consider: sea levels have begun to rise. We're seeing record temperatures that depress harvests – the amount of grain per capita on the planet has been falling for years. Because warm air holds more water vapour than cold, the chance of severe flooding keeps going up and in the last year countries from Pakistan to Australia have recently ended up on the wrong side of those odds. 
Those changes steadily eat away at that safety margin. With less food stored in our warehouses, each harvest becomes critical. With each massive flood, we have to spend more money rebuilding what was there before: there are still as many as 4 million homeless from Pakistan's floods, which means "development" has given way to "getting a tarp over your head". Even rich countries face this trouble: Australia cut much of its budget for renewable energy to help pay the recovery bill for soggy Queensland. Warmer temperatures are helping dengue fever spread; treating one case can use up the annual health budget for a dozen people in some Asian nation, meaning that much less for immunisations or nutrition. Just the increasing cost of insurance can be a big drag on economies: a study by Harvard and Swiss Re found that even in rich nations such as the US, larger and more frequent storms could "overwhelm adaptive capacities", rendering "large areas and sectors uninsurable". The bottom line was that, "in effect, parts of developed countries would experience developing nation conditions for prolonged periods".
That we continue to argue about the reality of global warming when we see the results of eroded shorelines and rising sea-levels all around us is baffling and a bit scandalous to me. In a recent conversation with a co-worker, (a republican and conservative christian) she told me she did not deny climate change but sees it as the earth's natural cycle and, as she sees it, is not so "arrogant" to believe that humans could affect nature in such a huge way. To further discussion I agreed, the earth does indeed have climate cycles BUT the changes that are now occurring are occurring much faster than ever before and, I added, we have improved the earth's ozone layer with many of the regulations we have put in place. If we can improve part of what is causing the problem then the obvious connection is that people can cause climate change. To this statement she had no response. We had reached the heavy metal doors of her mind and they were securely locked.

And it is this dead end, on a societal level, which can cause me to despair when I consider the disaster in Japan. We amble on, burning fossil fuels and using the resources of our planet with pell mell abandon as though there were an unlimited supply. And when we do take these limits seriously, instead of creating real clean solutions (and I am not talking about "clean" coal.. as if!) or cutting back on the amount of oil we burn through (why is it so hard to get people to stop using plastic bags?), we accept short term, high cost "solutions" like building Nuclear facilities to fill up our need for cheap energy that, in the end, creates more chaos. 

But, my purpose is not to write an essay on global warming. There are many scientists more equipped than I to blog on the subject. My purpose is to merely observe that we are on a great big ship headed straight toward an iceberg. We know it's out there and we know we can do something about it but the will to change seems to be, to say the least, lacking.

So I hear you saying, But I am just one person! I try to ride the bus and it doesn't get me where I need to go! I recycle!!! What more can I do??? Even my brain reacts like this as I think about the need for a real change so I understand if your protests are similar. The reality is that we aren't going to change the world with baby steps toward a greener planet as individuals. What is needed is a genuine shift in how we do business on a daily basis and this isn't going to happen in today's political climate.  

There are different, real things That could be done, actually, but on an individual level it will take some work... we have to pay more attention to our political stage as painful as that is. It is simply too important to vote only on what is in an individual's best interest ("it's the economy, stupid"). Here is an example of what we should be supporting through our vote (although many are needed and should be brought to the table): We need to be push our politicians to support public transportation with tax dollars. It should be more affordable and available for those that live in big cities. In cities that are debating over light rail systems, the politicians should be nudged- okay, shoved into getting more efficient systems going (and they still need to be affordable!) so that people can drive less. Less driving=less oil used. Less oil used means we don't need to build more nuclear facilities because we won't be depleting as much oil with cars...again, this is just a simple example but it does require work because our politicians are not voting in the best interest of the population at large and the media is not helping us in making informed decisions about our politicians. 

In an article in Mother Jones, Kevin Drum exposes how politician's vote in the best interest of the wealthiest 1% of our population nearly every time. And while the article is primarily concerned with Wisconsin and the current political struggle with the unions there, the concluding message is a call to all citizens who are concerned about the well being of the ship we're on and watching out for the icebergs and the too few lifeboats. So this is what I will leave you with today... 
"If the left ever wants to regain the vigor that powered earlier eras of liberal reform, it needs to rebuild the infrastructure of economic populism that we've ignored for too long. Figuring out how to do that is the central task of the new decade."   
(Oh and I am looking forward to comments/discussion on this!)

*I am not blaming global warming for earthquakes, but there is some discussion among scientists that warmer subterranean waters and rising sea levels may affect earthquakes. For more information read this.  


  1. Thought-provoking post.

    First, I understand that the catastrophe in Japan is far LESS worse than it could have been because of the strict building codes and safe buildings. No country is better prepared for earthquakes than Japan.

    Second, global warming... a huge problem. Makes me sad to think of what we are doing to our fragile planet and in what condition we are leaving it for future generations... We must do all we can to stop global warming!

  2. This may be a little bit off the topic, but I read the article about global warming possibly having a link to earthquakes with great interest -- because we (here in Finland !) had a small earthquake yesterday. It was only 2.8 but this magnitude is huge for our region and we haven't experienced anything like it in 10 years. Makes you think.

    Thanks for a great post. I will make the effort to ditch plastic bags from now on.

  3. ladyfi: Thanks for your response! You are so right, the building codes did prevent the situation from being much worse which also makes a case for a strong regulatory system which we here in the states continue weaken. Yet another reason to push our politicians here for change!

    Zella: I read your post about the earthquake there and wondered about it too... and I am always glad to hear that people are attempting to quit using plastic bags- they cause so many bad things (my daughter's puppy strangled itself on one that he inadvertently got a hold of- but sadly that happens all of the time in the wild.)

  4. The Titanic was a catalogue of human error, which is poignant.
    Global warming is a very emotive issue and it woud be great if the world were able to save their planet, though as with the ice age and the dinosaurs, while it is inevitable, humans are speeding up thr action. :O)

  5. Hi Madeline: Thanks for the comment! It may be too late for us to turn back the clock on Climate Change, but I hope for my children's sake it is not. It will be a grim world indeed if we cannot do what needs to be done. There are already food & water shortages in many parts of the world and if people cannot get the necessities of life where they are, they will leave their homes and go where they can. This may mean massive migrations- more people from South America and Mexico coming here for instance- and we don't have jobs the way it is. And if there are no jobs then there will be increasing crime rates because people need food! and that is just the beginning of the discomfort that could be coming our way!! And it won't be my generation that is affected most by it, it will be my kids and their children and their children's children that will see the worst of it.

    It would be really too bad if there were things that could have been done and weren't because we refused to even try.


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