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Peter M. J. Hess, Ph.D. Headshot

The Titanic, Climate Change and Avoidable Tragedies

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One of the most legendary maritime disasters was the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic. In a pivotal scene in James Cameron's 1997 film, master shipbuilder Thomas Andrews looks around the magnificent foyer of the grand staircase, swarming with frantic passengers. Rose Bukater asks how serious the situation is. Says Andrews: "In an hour or so, all this will be at the bottom of the Atlantic."

The tragedy that was Titanic presents us with some sobering parallels to the great environmental challenges facing our civilization in the 21st century. Titanic suffered a cascading disaster in which sea water from one ruptured compartment spilled over the bulkhead into the next, inexorably causing the ship to founder. Analogously, as our ever-increasing human demands for energy, water, housing, transportation and agricultural land run up against the immovable iceberg that is human carrying capacity, we are witnessing the cascading failure of our fragile terrestrial support systems. Both calamities are the result of a collision between human over-confidence and the implacable forces of nature.

Titanic was at once an engineering marvel and a monument to human hubris. One of the most sophisticated ocean liners ever constructed, Titanic was declared by some to be "practically unsinkable." To minimize weight, maximize speed and preserve aesthetics, the owners skimped on lifeboats, installed inadequate bulkheads and relied on a single iron hull. Thomas Andrews recognized these design flaws and argued for46 more lifeboats, for bulkheads that reached up to B deck to create sealable watertight compartments and for a double hull. On every point he was overridden by his cost-conscious supervisors.

Like the Titanic, our present-day industrial civilization is a marvel of human ingenuity, and yet -- as with Titanic -- a reckoning looms on the horizon. Our profligate use of coal, oil and gas resources for transportation and food production has allowed humans to flourish in almost every region of the globe. Abundant cheap oil has supported medical advances to increase the birth rate, to extend life spans, and to enable us to expand our human population (if only temporarily) from 1 billion to 7 billion in a century and a half. But in our heedless rush for a better, more comfortable life, we've ignored the signs of impending disaster.

Humanity today is conducting an unprecedented ecological experiment, steaming into the uncharted waters of global climate change, unsure if we have sufficient provisions and lifeboats for all. Like the third-class and steerage passengers on the Titanic, the developing nations will be on their own, as the industrial nations commandeer the world's remaining reserves of oil, water and arable land. The existing problem of ecological refugeeism -- as, for example, when millions of Bangladeshis will be forced to migrate to higher, already occupied ground -- will be exacerbated by the extinction of entire island nations such as Tuvalu and the Maldives.

The burdens imposed by climate change and resource depletion will probably fall unequally. In the case of tens of millions of people who rely for their supply of drinking water on shrinking Asian and South American glaciers, those who have contributed least to greenhouse gas emissions are likely to pay the highest price. We are stressing all of Earth's biogeographical support systems -- from the atmosphere, to rivers and oceans, to forests and food production -- without a clear picture of what the consequences will be.

If we cannot reverse our consumptive course, we can at least make an effort to minimize the impact by reducing human population growth to zero. We can restrain our desire to travel any time to any place we want at whatever the energy cost. And we can "decarbonize" our energy economy by reducing as much as possible the amount of CO2 going into the atmosphere -- through conservation, efficiency, sequestration and converting to renewable sources.

Climate change and resource depletion are avoidable tragedies, and pose urgent ethical questions. What are my environmental obligations as an individual? Ought I to live closer to my work? Should we bring a third child into the world? What energy-intensive creature comforts should affluent societies be willing to sacrifice?

Every Sunday Christians recite the Nicene Creed, professing belief in "the creator of heaven and earth" and in "the life of the world to come." But what about the world we actually inhabit? Does this world really matter? As a theologian, a parent and an ethical person, I affirm that it does matter. It matters that I leave the Earth a habitable place for my children and for countless future generations of humans. It matters that we safeguard the millions of species who are our evolutionary cousins and planet mates. It matters the world to me that with our actions we look after the creation we honor with our lips.

Peter M. J. Hess, Ph.D., is Director of Religious Community Outreach with the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization in Oakland, Calif., that defends and promotes the teaching of evolution and climate science.