For the week of December 16 thru December 22, 1998  

Remember the unsinkable Titanic

Commentary by DICK DORWORTH


Titanic. Everyone has heard of the British luxury liner of that name which sank in 13,000 feet of water about 400 miles south of Newfoundland on the night of April 14-15, 1912. The Titanic was on its way to New York City from Southampton, England, when it struck an iceberg and, in less than three hours, sank.

Because of the most modern and clever technology and industry with which it was built, the Titanic was considered unsinkable. It was the largest and must luxurious ship afloat and designed so that it could never sink. Everyone said so.

After April 15, 1912, everyone quit saying so, but by then it was too late. About 1,500 people sank with the ship or died in the water. The water was cold. And deep. The rich and famous and wise and good died as easily and ignominiously as the poor and unknown and foolish and venal. The courageous and the cowardly went down side by side. About 700 people survived with memories of a night they would never forget.

Perhaps there were none more foolish than those in command of the Titanic who knew icebergs lay in the waters ahead, but who chose not to alter course to avoid them. After all, everyone said the ship was unsinkable, and a mere, if natural, chunk of ice was not considered significant enough to change the path of the latest marvel of the technological/industrial age.

The more than 2,200 passengers and crew ate, slept, drank champagne, danced, loved, argued and both celebrated and anguished over the small and large details of their lives, all the time encapsulated in a technological bubble called Titanic. Outside that thin sac of steel, however, lay the biologic world in which all things are connected and where nothing is unsinkable.

During the past year the film about the Titanic has been an entertainment superstar, clearly striking a nerve in the popular imagination.

During this same year I heard for the first time the story of the unsinkable ship Titanic used as a parable for the biologic life of the good ship Earth today. I first heard the allegory last summer from my Zen Buddhist teacher, Jakusho Kwong Roshi, during a talk about human relationship with the rest of the natural world and how far out of balance this relationship has become because of man’s dependence on technology. He had seen the film "Titanic" on a flight to Poland, a country with some of the worst industrial pollution on earth. He said the film reminded him of modern man’s blind, addictive reliance on his own technology that is steering earth to the brink of biologic collapse.

The technologies of humankind have superseded and are destroying the technologies of Earth’s biological communities at an alarming rate. These communities give and maintain all life on earth, including that of man’s own technologies.

Such unbounded confidence in man’s technology combined with the human lack of capacity for connection with (and respect for) the natural world has been called "autistic" by Thomas Berry, the American writer, historian, teacher and Catholic monk. Berry, who was born in 1914, says, "My own description of what has happened is that my generation has been autistic. My generation has been so locked into itself that it was totally without any capacity for rapport with the natural world. My generation could not get outside itself and the outer world could not get in. There was a total barrier between the human and non-human. This is what needs to be explained. This autism did not begin with modern centuries."

Indeed, it did not. The evolution of mankind’s moral sense has developed over thousands of years and it has arrived at a curious and dangerous place. Berry says, "We have a moral sense of suicide, homicide and genocide, but no moral sense of biocide or geocide, the killing of the life systems and even the killing of the earth."

Berry, so far as I know, was the first major thinker to use the image of the Titanic to describe life on earth today. In a talk entitled "Ethics and Ecology," given at Harvard University in April 1996 Berry said, "What happened to that ‘unsinkable’ ship is a kind of parable for us since only in the most dire situation do we have the psychic energy needed to examine our way of acting on the scale that is now required. The daily concerns of the ship and its passengers needed to be set aside for a more urgent concern for the well being of the ship itself. Microphase concerns needed to give way to a macrophase issue. So now there was a need to recognize that the planet Earth is threatened in its survival by our industrial economy. Already the well-being and basic functioning of the planet in its air, its water, its soil and its basic life systems have been so disrupted that a biologist as extensively acquainted with the life functioning of the planet as Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Gardens has addressed scientific groups under the title "We Are Killing the Earth."

Pursuing the Titanic theme, Berry referred to a paper signed by more than a thousand of the world’s most illustrious scientists entitled "A Warning to Humanity." The introduction states: "Human beings and the Natural World are set on a collision course. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and Animal Kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know."

The captains of our industrial/technological civilization would be wise to change course. There are icebergs ahead.

 

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