Are we still on the Titanic?

After passing through a relentlessly warm Norwegian 2018 summer, we may remember that this year James Cameron´s blockbuster movie "Titanic" had a 20th year anniversary for its release. It turned out to be the highest grossing motion picture of all times. Moreover, it disclosed what fascination the fate of the famous ocean liner still has in popular culture. On many blogs and internet pages the Titanic is used as a metaphor for today´s global climate crisis. "We are on the deck of the Titanic", writes one blogger. Is this a completely untenable doomsday metaphor? Perhaps the famous wrecked ship invites one to learn from history.

There are indeed heavy, symbolic motifs attached to the story of how R.M.S Titanic, the world´s largest and most luxurious ocean liner, foundered during her maiden voyage on the 14th of April 1912. The story reminds one of a greek tragedy: human hubris, nature´s capricious victory over logic and strategy, heroic self-sacrifice and the end of the Edwardian era (ca 1900-12). From the symbolism that surrounds the Titanic catastrophy, several red threads can be traced to the present situation.

In 1912, few people believed that ice could represent any real danger to the most advanced example of British maritim-engineering. Nevertheless, a collision where the ship scraped along the sides of an iceberg in a speed of about 21 knots proved to be fatal. The Titanic had received several warnings about ice on this destiny laden sunday in April. These warnings, however, had no impact on her course through the North Atlantic.

That lack of response is not unlike the treatment warnings about our global climate get in the political course nowadays. Only a few hours prior to the collision with the looming iceberg one crucially important ice warning wasn`t even delivered to the bridge by the wireless operator. This operator was then presently absorbed in sending off messages from the more than well-to-do passengers on board. The messages were mostly congratulations on this and that, petty personal matters and stock bids. Again not very unlike the priorities that overrule environmental concerns in our day. So the wireless operator duly told the warning ship to "shut up" as he was engaged in more pressing matters.

Ice is still dangerous

This spring of 1912 was somewhat peculiar. It had been an unusually mild winter, with greater quantitites of ice drifting from the Greenland ice to this area (the Grand banks, off Newfounland) than in a normal year. The result was in the end that more icebergs were gathered at a more southerly position than expected. As a matter of fact, right in the Titanic`s course. Today one hears that the North West passage is ice free for the first time in recorded history. One quickly contemplates opening up this Arctic passage for shipping. This is approached as a possibility, but can represent grave danger to eventual ships.

It`s a striking feature of today`s climate crisis that ice plays an important role through sea level rise, glacier melting, diminished reflection of sun rays as well as for heightened risks of maritim disasters in the polar areas. A positive consequence of the Titanic disaster was that one learnt some of its lessons. Thus, in 1914 an international Ice patrol for the North Atlantic was established. This patrol is still today keeping track of icebergs and ice formations in the region. According to the patrol, the only way to discover icebergs of lesser size remains in the naked human eye. A radar is not sufficient. Another insight from the Titanic´s plight was that, save from fire, ice is the paramount danger a ship may encounter on the sea. Some ten years ago a tourist ship was pierced open in the Antarctic ocean. Fortunately, rescue was near at hand.

The Titanic was doomed on a placid, icy cold sea, in a starlit, moonless night. The sinking giant did not succeed in contacting any ship near enough to rescue her in time. Todays ships have far better chances of being heard. Yet in a global perspective we might be more isolated. Since times untold, the ship has been used as a metaphor for the earth itself. Who are going to rescue us if our course proves to be fatal?

Superstition and progress

The proportions of the Titanic and her sister ships the Olympic and the Britannic, were simply enormous for the ship building of that time. The latter was originally intended to be named the Gigantic, only to be changed to Britannic after the Titanic sunk on her maiden voyage.This precaution shows that even business men of that time shared a certain potential for superstition. This superstition is even more marked among the passengers and crew onboard the Titanic. For example, there happened a near collision at the moment the Titanic set out from Southhampton, England to embark on her maiden voyage. A ship that was docked, the New York (Ironically, a namesake of the planned port of arrival) broke loose from her ropes and headed directly towards the giant ship that was passing. The accident averted by seconds, this incident was taken as a particularly bad omen for a maiden voyage by several bystanders. Second officer Lightoller, who survived the sinking, describes the incident as one that takes hold of a ship`screw and dominates them with morose and fearful feelings.

This theme points to the question of whether people in our time believe they can challenge the conditions and power of nature. Today`s world is just as marked by materialism and futuristic optimism to technology as society was in 1912. One should add, a lot more so than in 1912. However, we seem to lack some of the fear of the retribuition of the gods (or the forces of nature) that was expressed among the crew and passengers on the Titanic. This fear did not save the Titanic from her end, but perhaps it helped to motivate some of the heroism and self-sacrifice that prevailed among many of the passengers and crew that fateful night?

Mass production and the influence of the U.S.A

The enormous proportions of the Titanic and her sister ships illuminate another important feature of today`s climate crisis: the increasing economic influence of the U.S.A. Titanic`s end symbolise that an entire cultural world went away with it. It was, in fact, J. P.Morgan (still today the name of a leading American actor in finance) who early in the 1900s raided the respectable shipping company the White Star Line and introduced the idea of three gigantic ships of which the Titanic was destined to be the largest. The idea of the ship was markedly American. style, yet interior furnishing and taste among the different classes of passengers were still clearly British and Continental.

There is a well known idea that World War 1 (1914-18) introduced the modern era. In the age of mass production, enormous loss of life in war was one possibility, whereas relaxed sexual puritanism, increased consumption, extreme hedonism and "individualism", became other new possibilities

This development highlights the growing global hegemony of values of the United States. This hegemony, which still shapes the life style, consumption level and culture among millions, can be said to have affected the very building and planning of the Titanic. The idea behind seems to be "bigger is better". This dogma can also be said to have important effects in today`s climate crisis. Titanic`s enormous coal consumption reflects the later consumer´s society.

The captain of the Titanic, Edward J. Smith, lay in his cabin as the ship suddenly struck the iceberg at 23:45 on April the 14th 1912. In the minutes before the ship sank, little over two hours later at 02.20, the captain was heard shouting out to the remaing panic ridden people through a megaphone: "Now it is every man for himself!". If the global climate crisis is not met with an urgent political change of course, these words may gain unfortunate relevance in the decades to come.

. Jørgen Flatabø