It was a Facebook moment. A friend posted a link to some photos of modern downtown Detroit. Here were buildings of exquisite beauty, like the wonderfully ornate United Artists Theater, abandoned, vandalized and decaying. The title of the collection by photographers Marchand and Meffre was The Ruins of Detroit.
Eerily, the photos reminded me of the photos James Cameron took of the Titanic a few years ago. I was not alone in thinking this. A piece in the UK’s Guardian made the same comparison, and tells us that a third of Detroit’s 140 square mile area lies abandoned and derelict.
When we think of the Titanic that went down exactly a century ago this weekend, we think about the paradox between the engineering, wealth and craftsmanship that went into building her and the sinking and loss of life on her first trans-Atlantic run. It’s a mythic tale with dimensions so profound and numerous they don’t need explaining.
I think the great fascination with the Titanic has to do with the minds of the designers and owners: the popular idea that Titanic was above mere physical laws of nature, an industrial era version of the old Daedalus and Icarus tale.
With the 100th anniversary of the sinking this Sunday, the fascination shows no signs of abating. Old movies and documentaries are being dusted off, enhanced—think Titanic 3D—and reshown. There’s even a pop-out book with a cardboard Titanic model that I bought for my son.
But I also have a personal connection to the Titanic. Researchers from my old hometown, Thunder Bay, did some DNA work a decade ago to identify one of the unknown victims buried in Halifax. That turned into a whole story of itself, complete with protests about digging up the graves, the nearly total disappearance of DNA due to the decomposition of the bodies acidic soil and the misidentification of the “unknown boy” as Eino Panula which was later revised, identifying the victim as 19-month old Sidney Leslie Goodwin.
Ironically, while the molecular science was as infallible as the Titanic, it raised powerful memories to the surface. The young victim didn’t die alone. His father, Fred, 42, his mother Augusta, 43, and his siblings Lillian,16; Charles, 14; William, 11; Jessie, 10; and Harold, 9, all died. They were an Irish family on their way to Niagara where Fred had found work at the hydro generating station. They’d been booked on another steamer, but transferred to the Titanic when a coal strike kept the first ship tied up at dock. Bad luck all around.
Their story affected me. We have five kids roughly the same age and I have fears that the same turn of luck could affect any of us. It’s the unpredictable intersection between personal and world events.
And I can’t help comparing the Titanic to our world. The Titanic was a floating city on the ocean, with everything that means: a complex set of systems, management teams and routines working together to dominate a hostile environment while the passengers—some at least—travelled in sybaritic comfort.
Here on the Mothership we’re a highly engineered civilization floating in space. Our interwoven systems are far more complex and interdependent than any city, nation or empire in history. By nature we’re parasitic; we’ve had to be to survive, and today our complex civilization mines resources at an astonishingly voracious rate. The scale of our consumption is beyond any easy calculation, and the environmental impacts are simply incalculable. We can’t even seem to agree on the effects of CO2 we pump into the atmosphere—on the order of 20+ billion tonnes a year—but there must be some effect. The Arctic is still heating up, global temperatures keep rising.
I don’t want to get into reciting a list of environmental threats. None of us does. And so the whole idea of looking at ourselves as a whole becomes nearly impossible. A common reaction people have is “take the blue pill” and forget about it.
Conveniently, that means no one is at the helm of the Titanic. As the first global civilization we are too new at it to have any global system of governance, not that I’m advocating any kind of New World Order style one-world government. But what we have instead are what national governments pursuing what we euphemistically call “geostrategic interests” using a cobbled together collection of trade agreements based on economic benefits.
What gets left out, and I’ve seen behind that particular curtain, are the more profound strategic issues lurking beyond trade-economics such as regional development and energy, not to mention culture, human rights or the rest of what makes up a compassionate, future-oriented, globally-interdependent society.
But the biggest changes are happening at the personal level, on the deck of the Titantic. And it’s getting a bit crazy down here. David Suzuki even noted it a few weeks ago, in his blog post, “Is it Just Me, Or is the World Getting Nuttier?” Suzuki was talking about government nuttiness. The stuff I’m talking about is closer to the ground.
Like what’s on the online news feeds. My wife had insomnia last night and spent some time net surfing. So I woke up to a story about a kid jumping out a third storey window after shooting a cop in the face, and then showing up in court with his face swollen and smashed to a pulp by police. And another one, a video this time, about a gang of guys beating, robbing and stripping a drunk tourist in front of a bar in Baltimore while bystanders laughed and recorded it on cell-cams. I looked up the video; it happened a couple of days ago. The worst bit was hearing the guy’s head crack on the sidewalk.
This kind of stuff is happening the world over. Women in the Middle East being killed for the “crime” of being raped. Racial street violence in London and Paris. Tibetans lighting themselves on fire to protest the government. Sex trade trafficking of eastern European women. And one old man who’d lost everything in the recent Greek financial meltdown committing suicide in Athens.
The institutional answer in Canada and the U.S. is to build more prisons for the wrong-doers while cutting away the social safety net. The personal answer for most Canadians is to care less as terminal media fatigue sets in, while the unlucky or less fortunate among us grow ever more desperate.
Depending on the point of view, I think most of us feel we’ve already hit the iceberg—or flown too close to the sun.
Are there answers? You bet. Getting rid of the idea that “technology will save us” for one (about which Chris Hedges has something to say). Moving off the capitalist page. Setting goals for full employment. Moving from a ‘specialist’ society back toward a ‘generalist’ culture. Building innovation economies rather than resource-based economies. Creating a culturally-enriching, nobler and kinder society. Focusing on equity rather than superiority. And electing representatives and governments that get it.
Instead, what we’re electing are small-minded people who don’t believe we can do anything about globalism or the environment, and so must drive us to do anything and everything we can to compete.
Compete against whom? Against whom are we racing and where is this exponential growth race leading us?
Perhaps it’s time to call a time-out so we can all find our bearings. Say a mandatory National Survival Month holiday. Before big corporations, lending institutions, ad agencies, Fox News and its worldwide roboclones sink our environmental survival IQ even lower than it is right now.
The best we might do this Sunday is to put our hands on our hearts and give thanks to the Titanic and its victims for the object lesson on technology and survival.