100 years ago last night, the passenger liner Titanic struck an iceberg on her maiden voyage and sank two hours later. She carried over 2200 people – some of the world’s richest, and maybe 1000 of the poorest, the latter seeking a new start in the America of 1912. Some 1500 of those on board died, most within minutes of exposure to the frigid Arctic waters when the ship sank. There were lifeboats on board for only 1100-1200 of the passengers; in the event, only some seven hundred successfully made their way aboard these.
The tragedy has developed an iconic stature over the century since, entering the realm of metaphor and story. The sinking inspired hundreds of books, major movies, and re-releases of those movies. It has also motivated research. The oceanographer Robert Ballard achieved a measure of fame for finding the submerged and deteriorating wreckage of the Titanic in 1985, using the research submersible Argo, and later returning with the Alvin and Jason Junior. The studies not only established his reputation but gave the entire field of oceanography great media exposure and a welcome boost.
Could it be that after hundreds of millions of words over past weeks and the countless media retrospectives, what’s standing between most people and fulfillment is another few hundred words on the topic?
Just in case…here they are.
In the world of hazards and catastrophe, the goal is to learn from experience, and the failure to do so results in repetitive loss. The model for the former? The world of aviation and the National Transportation Safety Board. For the latter? Flood loss.
Remarkably, the Titanic embodies both.
Learning from Experience. The sinking of the Titanic prompted thought and new ways of doing business with respect to every aspect of the threat. Improved hull design for ships. More lifeboats – even for “unsinkable” vessels. Lifeboat drills for passengers and crew. Improved surveillance of icebergs (and eventually, with the invention of shipboard radar, the capacity for doing this on ship). Improved regulations for ship-to-ship communication. It triggered the establishment in 1914 of the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS). The science, technology, and attention (the NTSB provides oversight in marine navigation as well as aviation) have paid off. Ship safety may have been helped by the advent of air travel. Speed of passage – and the accompanying recklessness – is no longer an issue. Passengers in a hurry have better options.
Bottom line? Travel by ship is much safer today.
Repetitive loss. But the sinking of the Titanic has also come to be a metaphor for misplaced pride, for blind-sightedness. It was deemed unsinkable, by its builders, its captain, and its crew, and its passengers. The White Star Line and the others involved saw no need for any lifeboats…the few that they allowed were merely a bow to what they saw as an old and outdated tradition. Those who boarded the Titanic anticipated an exciting trip…but only because they’d break those speed records for the crossing.
In these respects, it wasn’t the first such tragedy, nor has it proved to be the last. This pride is one of the seven deadly sins. Proverbs 16:18 (NIV) says “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Think Goliath. Think the Tower of Babel. The Maginot Line. Lehmann brothers and for that matter the entire global financial establishment in 2008.
Do you and I want to reduce repetitive catastrophe in our world? Then let’s continue to learn from experience and advance our science and technology. But let’s start from within, at the spiritual level. Let’s admit to our lack of vision…and our universal, unjustified… smug… complacency.