Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Human Titanic: steering a safe passage for civilisation part 1

The Human Titanic is the name of the book I have been dreaming of since at least 2000. It builds on my doctoral thesis but is aimed at a much larger audience. It is an analogy for the vessel, our planet that we live on, in one of four decks, each occupied by a different global "claste", who rarely interact except within their own level, other than by rule-giving (or taking) or by ritualised hand-touching or foot kissing.

Four decks

High up are the Mary Antoinette suites, though they could be also be named after deceased members of this fabulously wealthy and powerful class: Mobuto, Markos, Mengistu or for that matter still-living icons like Gina Rinehart. There are cabins, decks and on-board casinos inhabited by people who are fabulously wealthy and act as though the fate of civilisation that the ship hosts (and on which you and I also live) does not matter to them.

I live on the second claste deck, and so does virtually everyone I have ever met, and who will ever read this, though some of us live on more or less privileged parts of this layer. But some of us from this deck work on the upper floors, trained to be discreet and servile, such as by Institutes of Butling and Household Management, producing butlers, as they used to be called (I don't think I am related). Robert Frank has a long description of the production process for these butlers to the elite in his book Richistan.

Below us live the Precariat and below them, in steerage, are people who are unimagineably poor, at least to most of us on the higher decks. They may number as many as a billion. I have encountered a few of them, for example in a village in Meghalaya, India, near the Bangladeshi border. Few birds live in the remnants of forest on the steep hillside, near the wet desert of Cherrapunjee. Most of the people I met there are less than 1.5 metres (5 feet) tall, due to lifelong undernutrition. Many are chronically infected with parasites. They could become become radicalised, as Arundhati Roy describes but are more likely to live a short life in poverty.  I also once met a precariat member - he was from somewhere in South Asia and was flying back from Nigeria, maybe to Singapore. He'd been in Nigeria for about 24 hours, some mistake had occurred, over which he had very little control. Life in economy class at 35,000 feet beyond about 60 hours a week surely classifies as a hell realm, but at least he was well-fed, literate, and skilled. 

You could argue my temporary companion on that flight really belonged on the second deck, but, like a lot of things in life, the boundaries of these claste decks are not absolutely precise. And some people can definitely move between decks, in either direction. President Mobutu Sesu Seko, of Zaire, wasn't born to wealth or power, but for a while he achieved sufficient of both to be a genuine first-claste member. In fact, according to this article by the BBC, it was Mobuto's rule that first popularised the term "kleptocracy" - rule by thieves.

The roots of this book

The title of this book (The Human Titanic) was suggested to me by Robert Chambers, who I worked with in 2002, and who had been involved with writing Voices of the Poor, for the World Bank. We met for three days in San Francisco, finalising the titular chapter of the conceptual framework on human well-being and ecosystem services for the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. Robert was a famous academic, but unlike the rest of us he looked like a backpacker, travelled with a back pack, and didn't seem at home in five star hotels. But Robert also wasn't perfectly at home when interviewing the extremely poor, one of whom had asked him his salary. Robert couldn't bring himself to tell him.

In 1997 I had hoped to undertake a PhD on tropical medicine, preferably on malaria. But I changed my mind during the conference to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Ronald Ross's discovery that malaria was transmitted by mosquitoes, in Secunderabad, India. One of the keynote speakers, before several hundred delegates, mainly Indian, spoke frankly of the futility of lobbying for further research funds, and suggested instead that malaria researchers would need to learn to better use their limited funds.

My immediate reaction was that though brutally honest, this was only true because those who suffer from malaria are overwhelmingly poor. It then occurred to me, with an intensity previously sensed comparatively faintly, that the way the population of the First World views and treats that of the Third World parallels the way some upper caste Hindus treat the dalits.

The claste system

These thoughts led to coining of the word “claste” and a substantially econometric analysis of the global claste system that my thesis comprised. But it soon also occurred to me that global economic discrimination also provided a previously under-recognised causal explanation for the process that I called “environmental brinkmanship”, akin to nuclear brinkmanship.

During my thesis I published two long articles in journals, each in 2000. One was called Inequality, global change and the sustainability of civilisation. In it, I wrote: "The powerful exhibit contempt - for the poor, for nature, and for the future - of breathtaking scale. In this paper, humanity is compared to the travellers on the Titanic. Most live in steerage, unable to sense the iceberg’s proximity or to escape. Above deck, the privileged enjoy entrancing conversation and entertainment. If, as in 1912, the unthinkable should happen, they know they have disproportionate access to the lifeboats.

Those who escaped the Titanic reached the safety of New York. But if human demands on natural capital exceed the “environmental Plimsoll Line” then we risk not only the failure of civilisation, but its collapse. Even New York may be an inadequate haven for those sufficiently privileged to access the lifeboats; the hegemony of the currently wealthy may not guarantee future security."

I see that to read that paper, which was once open access, now costs $45. Good thing I have a copy. I will have to post a copy on my website (at least the text).

I have been trying to write this book, as I mentioned, for over a decade. I keep getting obstructed - there is always something more urgent, usually that is doing something that I'll get paid for, or meeting an obligation that I rashly promised I'd do. But, now I feel, getting these ideas to a wider audience is perhaps the most important thing I can do. At least I can write these installments.

I did write part 2.


  1. Bet Hart says:

    Shut up! shut up! I am working Cape Race

    So sent wireless operator John “Jack” Phillips on the night of April 14th, 1912, and likely sealed the fate of some 1,514 passengers and crew of the RMS Titanic, radio call sign MGY. That message was sent in response to the radio operator on the SS Californian/MWL, who was attempting to report icebergs nearby.
    Cape Race was the transmitting station on a point of land located at the southeastern tip of the Avalon Peninsula on the island of Newfoundland. As an example of one of many system failures, there was no prioritising system so passengers monopolised the network with what would become comparatively frivolous communications such as buying and selling shares.

  2. Thanks Bret for this interesting detail; we have a system with a lot of redundancy, but complacency and its occupation by other interests is managing to exhaust and clog it up.

  3. "The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there is no place for it in the endeavor of science." - Carl Sagan, 1934-1996

    Scientific misconduct takes many forms, including deliberate omissions that can be located within the unethical practices of cloaking scientific knowledge in silence by 'stonewalling' and collectively colluding to willfully deny extant, virtually irrefutable research. When it comes to acquiring the best available scientific knowledge of human population dynamics/overpopulation, it appears that many too many experts in leading professional societies and top rank scientists on high level panels inside and outside the scientific community are ceasing to function properly by ignoring and omitting findings of apparently unforeseen scientific research. They are refusing to speak out and, by so doing, failing to accept responsibilities and perform duties associated with their recognized professional expertise and public standing. Their silence is forsaking science and humanity as well as delaying the development of, and qualitatively "damaging the shared body of knowledge scientists are working to build". Such suppression cannot be construed as either ethical or somehow right because it anathematizes intellectual honesty, moral courage, the evolution of science and the gathering momentum required for making necessary behavioral changes while there is still time.

    “Speak out as if you were a million voices. It is silence that kills the world.” - St. Catherine of Siena, 1347-1380