What does the Titanic have to do with the Climate Emergency?

I have recently started to watch the “Just In Case” lecture and interview series hosted by Mee Yan Cheung-Judge on her YouTube channel, Quality and Equality. This is a great resource for anyone interested in Organisation Development and I recommend if you haven’t come across it before.

Recently I was watching an episode with Glenda Eoyang, who is the founder of the Human Systems Dynamics Institute. She explores the concept of complexity, and reframing ‘wicked problems’ as ‘wicked patterns’.

Glenda gave the following verbal definition of a wicked problem:

…”a wicked problem is one that is so deeply entrenched, that there’s no solution, like poverty and social justice…where no solution is possible, but all kinds of action are possible. We’re able to take action and shift those wicked issues, even though we can’t solve them”

The climate and ecological crisis that we are currently experiencing is one such wicked problem. It has been created by human patterns and systems of deeply entrenched behaviours, beliefs, structures and stories – replicated in myriad ways across all levels of our global culture; led and reinforced by the world’s dominant economies which have benefited and exploited these to grow and maintain their power and resources. There is no one fix-all solution to climate and ecological breakdown; there exists actions we can take on an individual and collective level to mitigate, adapt and possibly ‘soften the landing’ as our climate becomes more erratic and unpredictable. Yes, actions are happening, behaviours are changing and narratives are shifting; these are all helping. But is it enough?

Perhaps we now face a situation similar to the fate of the ship Titanic. If I may borrow her as a metaphor to explore what might be happening for us in relation to the climate emergency:

We’ve already crashed into the iceberg and the ship is taking on water.

Those in basic living quarters situated at the bottom of the ship are starting to suffer – some have already drowned; many are crying out for help and unable to reach safer parts of the ship (they do not have the power, privilege or resources to do so).

Some of the more privileged people at the top of the ship are already out to save themselves and have commandeered a lifeboat for themselves, their families, mates and servants – too afraid, self-absorbed or overwhelmed to help others in need.

Meanwhile other passengers throughout the ship continue to be in denial, or argue with one another about the right thing to do.

Countless others are running around in various stages of panic, despair, resignation, helplessness; a few are jumping ship, many holding on for dear life, some are trying to establish some order and calm and encouraging everyone to hold onto hope.

And what about the orchestra? Well, they know the ship is going down yet continue to play their music (to boost morale, and in support of those who blithely continue dining and dancing), acting as if everything Is. Just. Fine. And heck – if this is their time, they will go down doing smiling and creating music they love.

Only 32% of Titanic passengers and crew survived her sinking. Factors that led to such high death rates included: hubris and lack of preparation (“this ship will never sink”, not installing enough life boats); not listening to warnings of icebergs or taking preventative action quickly enough; beliefs about class and privilege (3rd class passengers were prevented from going to upper decks and therefore drowned); selfishness and fear (lifeboats could have held many more people; only 5 people were rescued from the freezing waters); ignoring distress calls and misinterpretation of the situation (another ship 19 miles away, the Californian, assumed the Titanic’s flares were much further away; they’d also turned off their own engines to avoid crashing into an iceberg themselves).

There are many similarities between how people acted when the Titanic was sinking, and how large numbers of the population, along with Governments and media maybe thinking and behaving towards the Climate and Ecological Emergency, such as:

  • Thinking/hoping “it will all be OK in the end, somehow”
  • Assuming/hoping that some new technology or a Messiah will ‘save us’ from ourselves, somehow
  • Not listening or taking action soon enough
  • Ignoring the warning signs and downplaying distress calls
  • Not believing it’s really happening
  • Giving up (“F*ck it”); helplessness (“it’s too late”)
  • In a cruel twist of fate, those in the northern hemisphere and Western/developed nations – who already have considerable power and resources, and have contributed the most to the climate emergency as a result of their lifestyle – will overall suffer least and likely feel the worst effects of the climate emergency later than the rest of the world – potentially leading to an “I am alright, jack” mentality – we’ll be OK/it won’t be so bad where we live

Unlike the climate and ecological emergency, the Titanic was an isolated event which directly impacted a relatively small number of people. Nonetheless, her lessons have relevance for us today.

It’s a coincidence, perhaps, that the actor Leonardo Di Caprio played a starring role in the 1997 blockbuster film ‘Titanic’; and more recently played a lead role in the 2021 Netflix hit film ‘Don’t Look Up’. Many have remarked that Don’t Look Up is an allegory for our times when responding to the climate emergency. This imaginary (?) comet-hitting-earth scenario mirrors similar human responses as to the Titanic sinking, as to the potential collapse of the climate and breakdown of the norms of civilisation we have become accustomed to.

There’s still enough time to stop our ship sinking/stop the comet hitting earth.

Seeing as you’re still reading this, I invite you to now spend a few moments reflecting on these questions – perhaps whilst you sip a cup of hot steaming tea or coffee – and see what responses emerge for you:

  • Where am I ignorant on the climate and ecological emergency?
    Do I need to learn more about anything?
  • What assumptions might I be making about the Climate and Ecological Emergency, and my level of agency in this space?
    Do I think my assumptions are valid?
  • Where and when do I notice I am switching off, feeling resistance/annoyance/boredom, or going into denial/helplessness/despair about the climate emergency?
    Why do I do this?
    What might this tell me about myself?
    What support and care might I need to give to myself, or receive from others, in this area?
  • If the Titanic is a metaphor for the climate emergency, whereabouts am I on the ship right now? What role am I playing? What are my behaviours?
    Am I happy with where I am and with what I am doing?
    Do I want to move to different part of the ship and take on a new role?
    If so, what would I be doing differently in my life?
    What would that mean for me?
  • What actions can we take to shift society’s patterns and cultivate a healthier, more honest and loving response to the challenges which we are facing?

I have used the Titanic story as a lens to explore with curiosity some of the individual and collective responses to the climate and ecological emergency. It is neither wholly right or wrong, and is an imperfect lens. There may be more fitting metaphors out there, or one which resonates with you better.

What other metaphors or historical scenarios would you use to illustrate humanity’s current dilemma around the climate and ecological emergency? I’d love to hear them!

2 responses to “What does the Titanic have to do with the Climate Emergency?”

  1. I like the Titanic metaphor and the challenge to the reader… Truly the challenge of our times.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. To me, Leo DiCaprio is the main actor of Titanic and he is a climate activist. Thank you 😊🌍


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