Saving the Titanic: Strategies for Sustainability in a Global Economy

The booklet “Saving the Titanic” was originally published by Paul Freundlich, founder of Green America (formerly Co-op America).   It contains a dozen green strategies for our society to avoid the “icebergs” of climate change, nuclear catastrophe, economic collapse, and other ills.  Today, we excerpt the introduction to “Saving the Titanic,” and over the next 12 days, we’ll share Paul’s solutions:

The Doomsday Clock of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists stands at five minutes to midnight. Originally conceived as a warning about nuclear catastrophe, it has broadened to include terrorism and the risks of environmental disaster.

Five minutes? How much time would the Captain of the Titanic have needed to avoid the iceberg that blocked his passage? Not much, because a simple turn of the wheel could have saved the day. Avoiding our date with destiny is a considerably more complex challenge.

  • A global, financial crisis has blown the assumption that a free and unfettered market will self-correct.
  • The damage that has already been done to the environment will not be easily repaired, nor has the pace sufficiently declined.
  • The waste of resources precious to our very survival continues.
  •  A relentless drive to maximize consumption raises expectations even as it creates vast disparities that fuel envy and rage.
  • The public interest in research and innovation that creates long-term value is less than fully served by present entrepreneurial drivers.
  • The village green where our communities may gather is brown at the edges, encroached upon by the mass of concrete, overwhelmed by the inputs of marketing and slogans.
  •  The efforts of nations, much less cities, towns and individuals to behave creatively and responsibly seem wildly insufficient to the scale of the problems.

    The Titanic was built to be impervious to nature. What if its captain concluded that the problem was the ship itself? Would the passengers and crew embrace travel in smaller boats? Could they cheerfully share the rations and settle in for some long, hard paddling?If a major course correction, or even a change of travel, is called for, who is on the bridge, and where is the map we should follow?

    Humans need food, shelter, clothing and the fulfillment of our primal directive to propagate our species. We naturally organize in families, tribes and communities. All the rest is embellishment.

    But oh, what embellishment! Human life in the 2st century ranges from primitive simplicity to complexity that would have invited the envy of ancient gods. We fly through the air, adjust our environments to suit, communicate instantly by word and image, and create institutions that outlast generations. If we don‘t yet live forever, it‘s not for the want of trying.

    From the industrial revolution, the conviction grew that the upward spiral of western civilization, ordered by manifest destiny and delivered by a dynamic market economy, would eventually bring wealth to everyone. If we stopped to thank Mother Earth for this bounty, it was more as a benediction. Occasional nay-sayers like Malthus were brushed off as bad sports, and communism‘s spin on the respective roles of workers and capital seemed passé by the year 2000.

    Even when the spoils of short-term thinking, exploitation of resources, the consolidation and control of capital created huge disparities, so long as the flow of goods was maintained, the market economy remained attractive even to those who were unlikely to share in much of the bounty.

    The recognition that there really might be diminishing returns is a relatively recent conclusion, dramatized by Al Gore‘s In-convenient Truths, and driven home when a great global financial crisis called into question assumptions that ultimate wisdom lies in the marketplace.

    Thus once again, we face the question of how to serve human needs by organizing resources, labor, and the leveraging capacity of technology, but this time within the context of a planetary ecology. How do we balance productivity with equity, long-term with short-term value? Endangered species, falling water table, and who gets what advantage? Is it possible to bargain with financial systems and elites that assume their entitlement will endure no matter what the cost?

    The fear of environmental catastrophe has been like that ice-berg looming in the path of the Titanic. Yet fear is only useful as motivation to launch the lifeboats. If there aren‘t enough boats, if the panic of passengers is itself a disaster, if the seas are too rough – we‘re lost. Better is prescient planning to cope with the challenges when they occur. Best is a change of course.

    We need a model and a time-line that offers not only fear, but also a compelling presentation of what the alternative has to of-fer: Here are the benefits of a just, global economy that respects the environment, human rights and labor. Here are the rewards of a more cooperative society. Here is what corporations, labor, consumers, public interest groups and government (on all levels) will have to contribute at each stage.

    The Titanic on its unconsummated maiden voyage had a destination, a crew and passengers, and a set of structural systems to make the trip both safe and pleasurable (particularly for those traveling first class).

    There were also the environmental conditions which faced a ship deemed too big and powerful to fail. Understanding and integrating what have been written off as externalities is the key to any hopeful planning. There is considerable evidence that given the pace of global warming, expecting to avoid dealing with environmental and social consequences in even the most sanguine scenarios is unrealistic. What we are likely to have is a continuum of response that ranges from doing nothing, to major systemic change, with a big chunk of adjustments in the middle.

    The metaphor of Spaceship Earth has been around at least as long as humans traveled beyond our atmosphere and were humbled and moved by the poetry of our verdant planet. The view of the melting poles and spreading deserts is unlikely to invite such enthusiasm. Will the new epiphany be about a ship threatened by plague, with rats desperately seeking an exit strategy?

    Nursing an organism big as our planet back to health is no mean feat, and will take all our skills. There‘s so much to do, and it is critical to make priorities. Triage identifies relative risk in the light of available resources as the basis on which proper and timely interventions are made. In retrospect, the Titanic disaster could have been averted or at least the consequences improved by a better appreciation of externalities (fear of floating ice castles); a better analysis of internal systems (lifeboats); and the reorganization of roles might have dealt better with the tragedy than the confusion of loading lifeboats half-full.

    If our ship is to survive, we need to reframe the dialog surrounding sustainability.

In the days that follow, we’ll post Paul’s 12 strategies for righting the ship.

Categories: green economy


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