Titanic: a centennial reflection aboard Spaceship Earth

[2 February 2012 | Arthur Marcel]

Arthur Marcel

Arthur Marcel

WIKIPEDIA: “The RMS Titanic was a passenger liner that struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage from Southampton, England, to New York City, United States, and sank on 15 April 1912, resulting in the deaths of 1,517 people in one of the deadliest peacetime maritime disasters in history.”

The following essay by Arthur Marcel (bio below) was broadcast on ABC Radio National’s Ockham’s Razor last year, introduced by Robin Williams. (Click here for a full transcript of that broadcast.) The only change to the original essay is in the opening phrase, to bring it up to the present in Titanic‘s centenary year, 2012.

IN ABOUT TWO MONTHS’ TIME, a century will have passed since the Royal Mail Ship Titanic sank to the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean after colliding with an iceberg on its maiden voyage. The tale of the Titanic is probably more established in popular modern memory than that of any other historic disaster, peacetime ones at least, thanks in part to several Hollywood movies of the same name. The Titanic has metaphoric status in English and American culture as the iconic stuff-up. A well-known English simile describes ineffective problem-solving actions as being akin to rearranging the great ship’s deckchairs, the gist being that such actions do not even address the problem. This simile perfectly describes the way the world’s governments are tackling the issue of global warming. With the Titanic it was too much ice, and today it’s a case of too much heat, but the similarities between the situation on board the Titanic that fateful night and the present global one, are undeniable. These similarities are more than figurative too, with the Bruce Ismays of the modern corporate and political world telling their respective Captain Smiths to shovel on ever more coal for the good of the bottom line.

Bruce Ismay is the popular villain of the Titanic story. As Chairman and Managing Director of the White Star Line, which owned the ship, he was on board, and is generally supposed to have been obsessed with the Titanic breaking the transatlantic crossing record and claiming the Blue Riband on its maiden voyage. This, of course, would have been very good for the company’s bottom line. Captain Edward Smith was an enormously experienced officer almost at the end of his career, one who would not normally be thought of as likely to break the rules of good seamanship. But for nautically experienced people, he has always been more the villain than Ismay, because, after all, he steamed his command at near top speed, through the night into an area of known ice. Just how much he knew about the ice is open to question; however, radio messages had been arriving all that day from other ships indicating the presence of field ice in the Titanic’s path. A radio operator, one of either Messrs Bride or Philips, is also villainously implicated because at 9.40pm, only two hours before the collision, a very unambiguous message arrived indicating ‘pack ice, field ice and icebergs’, completely straddling the Titanic’s immediate course. This message was never delivered to the bridge.

Today, with global warming, there are also vital messages not getting through. Never before have communications been so technically sophisticated, but never before has there been so much villainy in the form of misinformation, deliberate deception and self-interested covering up in the popular media. Well credentialed, peer reviewed authorship is given little air time compared to emotive, illogical, corporate and political spin. For instance, one of the most chilling messages ever transmitted in human history came recently from the Goddard Centre, NASA’s prestigious scientific body for space research, but it was barely heard above the noise.

The motto of the Goddard Centre is ‘Yesterday’s vision, tomorrow’s reality’. The Centre spent several years covering carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and concluded that the uppermost level at which life as we know it can be expected to continue is about 350 parts per million. For all of human history up to the present time, the carbon dioxide level was more or less constant at 275 parts per million. In 2009, it reached 382 parts per million, and is rising at an accelerating yearly rate of 2 to 3 parts per million.

There have been suggestions that the Titanic’s rudder was too small, perhaps even wrongly shaped, and that this was why she unable to miss the iceberg. Calculations based on the ship’s length, weight and draught in comparison to other more modern ships, however, tend to put this theory to rest. What is true, though, is that the officer on watch, one William Murdoch, at the time of sighting the iceberg, made two snap decisions which, taken together, effectively sealed the ship’s fate. Firstly, he ordered the ship to turn hard to port. Then he rang down to the engine room for the massive steam engines to be put into full reverse rotation. If he had only made the first of these two decisions, the ship may have missed the iceberg altogether because by ordering the propellers to be put into reverse thrust, he began robbing the rudder of its ability to turn the ship. The rudder was directly behind the central of the three water screws and required the water flow across its surface generated by this screw to maximise its turning moment. As it was, the ship almost cleared the ice so it is easy to surmise that with that extra bit of steering available from a forward thrusting central propeller, she might have made it past unscathed.

The Titanic’s lookouts saw the iceberg at about a quarter of a nautical mile. At 22 knots, it took the ship less than 45 seconds to reach it. There was very little time for the officer of the watch to analyse the circumstance in which he found himself and he can hardly be blamed for issuing those two orders. With global warming, however, our executive officers have had a lot of time to study the situation. Their lookouts saw the global warming iceberg dead ahead more than 35 years ago. So far, the Titanic’s helmsman, even with his two inauspicious decisions, is far to the fore in his efforts to avoid calamity. The miserable efforts of our leaders, as far as they go, are concerned with the ability of the planet to cope with the impact, not with how to avoid it. They are much more preoccupied with the trivialities of everyday life and issues that go with economic growth. Most of the world’s population are generally of the same persuasion as their leaders. Some commentators see global warming simply as something to adapt to, or even as having potential benefits, sort of like the occasional encounter with an iceberg adding to the thrill of early 20th century transatlantic tourism.

The passengers and crew on the Titanic were likewise slow to comprehend their dire circumstances. The collision was just as subtle as the gradual onset of global warming, just a passing scrape so to speak. Commander Lightoller, Titanic’s second-in-command, later reported, ‘I was lying in my bunk when I felt the slight jar, not any sense of collision but more a kind of shiver that ran through the ship. Anyway, it was enough to bring me out of my bunk in one jump. Out on deck, I ran over one side and then to the other, but there wasn’t a trace of anything we’d struck. So back I went to my bunk …’

The first indication that something was up for most of the passengers was that the vibration from the ship’s motors had stopped. A little while later, when the crew began asking them to climb aboard the lifeboats, most didn’t believe it necessary. As Edwina Mackenzie, then Edwina Troutt, one of the survivors, recalled in a 1975 BBC interview, ‘You could not get people to go on lifeboats, you could not. They felt safer on the Titanic than in the lifeboats.’

Another survivor, a Major F.W. Prentice, interviewed by the BBC in 1966 said, ‘The first boats that got away were only half-filled … nobody realised then that she would sink, you know. She was supposed to be unsinkable, absolutely. She had a double bottom …’

And Commander Lightoller, interviewed in 1936 stated, ‘Up to the time of getting away the first few boats, no-one believed that the ship was actually in any danger. I’m afraid my own confidence that she wouldn’t or couldn’t sink rather conveyed itself to others, for there were actually cases where women absolutely refused to be put in a boat.’

Eva Hart in a 1983 BBC interview stated, ‘In fact, I believe some people did go back to bed. But he (my father) said, ‘Stay here and I’ll see if I can find one of the officers’, and away he went again. And he came back and said, ‘They are going to launch the boats, purely a precaution. You will all be back on board for breakfast.’

It was not the moment of the collision that marked the change in the fortune of the crew and passengers of the Titanic, but the moment of inevitability, a moment that navigators refer to as the point of no return. This moment may have already passed by the time the iceberg was sighted or, at the very latest, would have occurred barely seconds after. At this moment in time, the fate of the ship became well and truly sealed. There was nothing that could be done after that time to change the course of history. In the parlance of global warming, this moment is sometimes referred to as the ‘tipping point’, the point when biospheric systems move from stability to instability. Some climatologists are saying that at 382 parts per million atmospheric carbon dioxide, the Earth may have reached this point already. Downstream of the tipping point, positive feedback in the form of such terrestrial phenomena as melting permafrost and a vanished Arctic ice sheet takes the reins out of the hands of human polluters and digs in the spurs.

It was the Titanic’s chief designer, Thomas Andrews, who was the first to realise the inevitability of his mighty ship going so quickly to the bottom. As pointed out, his conclusions were met with initial disbelief. The mythology of the unsinkable ship was firmly rooted in the consciousness of most of those on board. When confronted with the expert advice of the very man who designed the ship, the only man on board who had such an intimate knowledge of every nut, bolt and rivet, the ultimate available authority, so to speak, that they were doomed, the passengers would have devised arguments to prove him wrong or strategies to circumvent the problem. The engineers would have commented on the strength of the steel in the hull and the comparative weakness of ice. The business tycoons and their managers would have factored the delay into their schedules and adjusted their precious bottom lines. The lawyers would have rubbed their palms together at the prospect of litigation. The stock brokers would have protested that the market was on the way up, not down.

If Ian Plimer had been there, he would no doubt have argued that there was nothing in the geological record (nor anywhere else under Heaven or Earth for that matter) to indicate that an iceberg had ever before sunk a ship. If Christopher Monckton had been present, he would have alerted the other first class passengers to a lower deck conspiracy. Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull would have collaborated on an extraordinarily complicated scheme to balance the boat by cutting a matching hole in the other side. Tony Abbott would have described Andrews’ sinking prognosis as a load of crap. Matt Ridley would have told Andrews to be more rationally optimistic. Likewise, John Howard would have had the black armbands off and the boat turned around in no time. George Bush would have had another go at the iceberg.

The big difference between the Titanic and the Earth is that, although far too few in numbers, the Titanic had lifeboats. Apart from various expectations of divine deliverance, if they think about it at all, most of the Earth’s passengers seem to be placing their faith in future technology. Certainly, global warming is open to a technical fix. However, this fix is not the lifeboat kind. The technological solution is to avoid hitting the iceberg altogether by rapidly reducing the amount of carbon being pumped into the atmosphere and removing a lot of what is already there. This simple solution is, however, getting little support and with each passing day its viability is diminishing. There is little wonder that the ranks of informed, rational, but deeply pessimistic observers of the progress of the good ship Earth are growing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Arthur Marcel lives in Brisbane where he teaches English to International Students at Queensland University of Technology. He has a wide range of interests, from philosophy to aviation. He runs an online sport aviation newsletter, the Brisbane Valley Flyer, and also writes articles for Sport Pilot magazine. He has written three Okham’s Razor talks for Radio National. Arthur is disillusioned with Australian politics, but believes the current minority government is light years ahead of what went on under John Howard. He believes Australians are generally treated like mushrooms by both their leaders and the media, but also realises that many of them prefer it this way. Arthur is an unreserved admirer of comedian Rod Quantock and shares his views in relation to climate change. He denounces the deceit of many climate change deniers and is dismayed at the ignorance of others.

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