Titanic Choices

RMS Titanic was just a ship.

For all the mythology surrounding the Titanic — its voyage, its sinking and the aftermath through to the romance of Hollywood’s portrayal — it was just a ship.

It might have been the largest passenger ship, but that claim had been made before. It might have been intended to make the fastest passage to New York on its maiden voyage, but that claim had been made before, too.

It was said to be unsinkable, but any experienced mariner would shake his head at such an absurd claim.

There had been many other ships with their own claims to fame, and more were to come. The fact so few photographs were taken of its departure shows that while it was significant, it was not monumentally so.

Titanic was just a ship. 100 years ago today it was close to its collision, not just with the iceberg, but with history.

Much ink has been spilled over that disaster and its centennial has heightened the public appetite for details.

What is it about the Titanic that, alone of many marine disasters, keeps that interest alive?

A first response would be that what lingers in our minds about Titanic was its claim to be unsinkable. It was hubris, an arrogant pride that lay behind its claims to invulnerability.

Yet hubris was the hallmark of 19th century industrial culture, as the new century counted down the days to the outbreak of a Great War in 1914 that would shatter many other mythologies.

The Titanic was merely one in a long series of iron monuments to arrogance and ambition.

The various Industrial Exhibitions from the Crystal Palace in 1851 to Brussels in 1910 were littered with tributes to engineering prowess and mechanical ingenuity, claiming some gadget or process to be the first of its kind, the best of its kind, the largest, the fastest, or the strongest.

If it couldn’t be exhibited, it still could be trumpeted – just as the Peterborough Lift-lock made the cover of Scientific American in 1909 as the largest mass (unreinforced) concrete structure in the world – a claim that I think it still holds.

New technology did play its part in making this event more dramatic, with the telegraph messages transmitted as the ship sank and the rescue efforts were mounted. Ships sank — all the time — but none had done so before and had the consequences reported in such a public manner.

For the first time, anxiety and tragedy was simultaneous on two continents and in real time.

But it was 1912, the excitement was building, the crowds of passengers and well-wishers gathering on the docks, queuing expectations for its departure and maiden voyage.

For many, it was about the thrill of being there on such a ship, on such a voyage. For others, it was a job, the next step on their careers with White Star Lines. For still others, it just happened to be the next ship with a vacant spot to carry them to America where a new life for them and their families was going to begin.

It is more likely something about these kinds of stories that still captures the public’s imagination and makes the strongest case for why 100 years later we are still so interested. Artifacts from the wreck are most poignant when they make personal the events of April 15, 1912 – clothing, a shoe, personal papers, a suitcase, or dishes from the dining room.

So there are stories about the band that kept playing, the families separated at the rail by heart-rending choices, the contrasted experiences of the poor and emigrating against the rich and privileged heading home

Yet it is not just the fact of these stories, I think, that is the key to our fascination with Titanic. Any ship in those days, just as any passenger airliner these days, would be swirling with stories about the lives and expectations of its passengers as it departed for its destination. The drama of Titanic’s end and what happened afterward – that we know some of the rest of those stories – gives the events of 1912 more poignancy, but any tragedy could be spun in such a fashion.

From the first, however, it was the lifeboat drama that caught public attention — the choices that determined who lived and who died, how they were made and by whom – and for what reasons.

Had both of the protagonists lived, James Cameron’s Titanic would have been just another in a series of disaster movies.

It was the choice and the need to make it that glorified those who perished with the ship and (if male) shamed those who survived. The recent travelling display of Titanic artifacts featured a mock life boat scenario. Those who visited were also given mock tickets that included biographical details of passengers whose fate was learned (and thus their own, too) only at the end of the exhibit on the ceiling-height passenger manifest

How people faced the reality of their own imminent death, I think, is at the core of our fascination. RMS Titanic has become a metaphor of our own journey toward oblivion, raising questions about values and meaning for passengers on RMS Earth.

I would interested to track the public fascination with Titanic against the timeline of awareness of the Earth as a planet since Apollo 8’s mission brought back those pictures of our planet viewed from space.

Whether there is a causal link between the rise of environmental awareness and the reignition of interest in the Titanic or not, there is certainly a correlation. It is the Titanic as metaphor of impending catastrophe, of people living their lives not knowing of the disaster about to strike, of the choices needing to be made (without warning) that may mean life and death, that keeps our interest.

Whether it was the looming peril of nuclear war or the lingering peril of environmental collapse, we are all together quite literally on the same boat. For us, however, while we may play games about sorting people into categories that are more likely to survive – in terms of where they live, what their economic and social status might be, and so on – we worry about being sorted out. We also worry about what we might do, or be willing to do, when the lifeboat scenario confronts us.

There are generational changes, as studies of more recent marine disasters have demonstrated. On Titanic, if you were female or a child, you were more likely to live. If you were wealthy, even if older or male, you had a better chance than the poor. Today, the survivors are overwhelmingly young, fit males; women and children, or older people, are far less likely to make it into the few seats the lifeboat holds.

So the Titanic is a metaphor for the life-and-death choices that will confront us, as we move along on a voyage beyond our control.

But it is also a metaphor for other choices. Despite the hubris, the arrogant pride, the slipshod workmanship, the ill-judged economies, the disaster might have been avoided, still, had the people in charge made better choices on the voyage.

There was no single mistake that sank the Titanic. Going through the record of its design and construction, the way in which it was set out, the numbers and kinds of lifeboats were only one of the mistakes that can be easily identified.

The route was dangerous, because of icebergs ahead. The desire to set speed records for the passage to New York as dangerous because this led the captain not to divert around the icebergs. More lookouts with more binoculars might have meant more warning to change course.

Had any of these choices been different, so, too, would have been the outcome of that ill-fated voyage.

As the world heads to Rio de Janeiro in June for the next round in talks toward a sustainable future, I think of the Titanic.

There is hubris and arrogant pride in abundance. There are the rich and poor living separate lives. There are those just doing their jobs. There are all the inherent problems and mistakes in design and structure.

But the key is, still, on the bridge — the choices to be made about route, and speed, and precautions to take along that course.

What sealed the fate of RMS Titanic and her passengers and crew was the attitudes and choices of the leadership.

What will seal our fate will be the same. As governments – including Canada’s government – consider their attitudes and positions in relation to climate change and sustainability, they need to take their responsibility seriously and soberly.

It is not a time for posturing, for scoring political points, for arranging better trade deals or polishing the silverware in the first class dining room.

There are mere hours ahead of us in which RMS Earth can either change course or head straight through the icebergs.

This time, there are no lifeboats at all. There will be no SS Carpathia to steam to our rescue.

And it doesn’t matter what our address happens to be on the ship.