On 15 April 1912, the Titanic, the largest ship afloat at the time it entered service, sank in the North Atlantic Ocean after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage. The large and unnecessary death toll — more than 1,500 passengers and crew — was the result of many factors.
Understanding the psychology that underpins these factors teaches us why so many people died in the Titanic disaster. This, in turn, gives us insight into how we might be able to improve our chances of averting the sinking of the Good Ship Earth and losing most of its passengers in the years now immediately ahead.
Two key factors in the sinking of the Titanic were the ship’s design, including the limited number of watertight compartments in the hull, and the ship’s speed at the time of the incident despite the risk of hitting an iceberg (which could only be detected visually, rather than technologically, in 1912).
Separately from this, other factors in the huge death toll were the inadequate number of lifeboats and the failures in telegraph communications — see ‘The ITU and the Internet’s Titanic Moment’ — which meant that the Californian, just five to ten miles away, did not respond to the distress signals, although the Carpathia travelled considerably further to arrive less than two hours after the Titanic foundered, thus saving over 700 lives.
Moreover, the decisions to prioritise the access of wealthy passengers to the lifeboats (by locking many ‘lower deck’ passengers below), the decisions to launch many lifeboats before they were full, and the decisions by virtually all lifeboat occupants to not row the lifeboats the short distance back to rescue passengers stranded in the water after the ship had sunk also significantly contributed to the unnecessarily high death toll.
So what can we learn from the sinking of the Titanic and its huge death toll that can help us to avert sinking the Good Ship Earth and killing off most, if not all, humans and many other species besides? Let me consider each item above in turn.
From a design perspective, the Earth is without peer in the known Universe if life support is the primary consideration. The Earth took more than four billion years to evolve into the state it had reached by 1790. It was perfectly functional as a life-support system for billions of species interacting in a phenomenal web of life that nurtured not only species but each individual as well.
But then the industrial revolution, fuelled by coal, oil and gas, starting adversely impacting on that life-support system, although it wasn’t until the twentieth century that scientists worked this out. Fortunately, we know now — see ‘Game Over for the Climate’ — and there is still a little time left to take the profound action necessary to halt and, in some key ways, reverse the design alterations to the Earth that we have been making for the past 200 years. But will we act?
Many people won’t act, particularly those people whose fear works in the same way as most of those involved in the Titanic disaster. ‘Fear?’ you say. Yes, fear. Or, more accurately, unconscious terror.
Why weren’t there more watertight compartments in the hull of the Titanic? Fear (of the cost). Why weren’t there more lifeboats? Fear (again, of the cost). Many business decisions are based on fear although businesspeople have developed a substantial language to obscure this fact (mainly from themselves): emphasising the importance of ‘maximising short-term shareholder profits’ (at the expense of socially or environmentally desirable outcomes) is an obvious example.
Why was the Titanic travelling at high speed? Fear. In the conditions, the speed was clearly foolish but the owner couldn’t feel this because it was overshadowed by his focus on ‘showing off’ the ship’s speed and the ship’s captain was too frightened to refuse the owner’s request for greater speed even though he was well aware of the danger of hitting an iceberg.
What caused the failure in telegraph communications? Fear (of losing their jobs). The Telefunken-employed radio operators on the Californian, which was just a few miles away, were not allowed to communicate with the Marconi-employed radio operators on the Titanic.
Why did officers prioritise the access of wealthy passengers to the lifeboats (by locking many ‘lower deck’ passengers below deck)? Fear (of disobeying orders and overloading lifeboats).
Why were many lifeboats launched before they were full? Fear (on the part of passengers already in lifeboats who wanted to get away from the sinking ship quickly).
Why did virtually all lifeboat occupants not row back the short distance necessary to rescue passengers stranded in the water after the ship had sunk? Fear (of being swamped and ending in the water themselves, although this could be easily avoided).
Of course, most of the time when people seek to explain dysfunctional human behaviour, they come up with an explanation that is more palatable. But when I observe dysfunctional human behaviour, I always see the fear, irrespective of other superficial justifications that are offered.
And that is what I see when I observe elite and most other responses to our current epidemic of violence whether in the form of war, exploitation of countries in the global ‘South’, environmental destruction, domestic violence or otherwise. I see their (unconscious) fear lead them away from insightful analyses and visionary solutions because they are compelled by their fear to live in delusion (which requires no action). See ‘Why Violence?’ and ‘Fearless Psychology and Fearful Psychology: Principles and Practice’.
So if you are like those people on the one lifeboat on the Titanic who returned to rescue passengers after the ship had submerged and you reckon your fear hasn’t gotten the better of you, then I invite you to consider participating in the fifteen-year strategy outlined in ‘The Flame Tree Project to Save Life on Earth’ and to consider joining those people in 81 countries who have signed the online pledge of ‘The People’s Charter to Create a Nonviolent World’.
There is still just enough time to save most of the passengers on the Good Ship Earth but we must be courageous and resolute. If we let the cowardice and delusion of elites and their agents guide us, we will join the dead passengers of the Titanic.
Biodata: Robert J. Burrowes has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is here.