Vessel in distress

“When your life-support system is threatened, all other problems fit inside that problem.”

Naomi Klein
No is Not Enough

As 2018 draws to a close, you might well be looking for some comfort and understanding. The last few months have delivered an onslaught of bad news and the coming year seems poised to bring us more of the same. In fact, you might well feel like you’re living on the cusp of the hockey stick, the exponential curve of radical acceleration that describes so much of our modern predicament. So maybe it’s time for an explanatory metaphor that will clarify our thinking and give us a functional sense of meaning. For this, the lifeboat is ideal.

red lifeboat.png

People have explored this metaphor before, most notably ecologist Garrett Hardin (who also gave us “the tragedy of the commons”), but the idea is worth another look. Surrounded by an endless expanse of oceanic space, we are completely and utterly dependent on the integrity of our biospheric craft. Lose the boat and you’ve lost everything. And thus the first rule of living on a lifeboat: take care of the boat. This is–or should be–our culture’s prime directive, the alpha issue of our day. No boat = no health and no future.

The bad news is that the hull of our beautiful craft has been breached by relentless human activity, a fact that’s been amply documented by thousands of sober scientists around the world and reported by equally sober journalists in respected publications. Carbon emissions, overpopulation, intensive agriculture, habitat destruction and over-consumption are the culprits. Barring some exceptionally heroic effort by the inhabitants of the lifeboat, the craft is going to “sink,” which is to say, ecosystems are going to collapse and large portions of the planet will become uninhabitable. There will still be life on Earth, but most of us aren’t going to be able to enjoy it. A great sorrow will be upon us, and upon the land.

As it stands, there are some 7 billion humans on the boat, but we can lump them into a few groups. Most notorious are the corporate hole choppers. These groups have little or no regard for the state of the lifeboat. On the contrary, corporations are designed specifically to internalize profits and externalize costs. That is, reap the wealth and let the public pay for the consequences. Corporate actors and their defenders rationalize this behavior by saying that it’s really for the common good. Don’t worry, an invisible hand will simply make everything right. Just keep chopping and the hole will take care of itself and even better, we’ll all get rich in the process.

Closely related are the deniers, individuals and organizations who insist that “There is no hole.” Donald Trump, our denier-in-chief, has rejected the climate findings of his own administration with the blanket statement “I don’t believe it.” Fellow Republicans have been quick to agree: “That’s right, there is no hole…and even if there was a hole, it would cost a lot to patch it, so it’s best not to think about it.” And besides, if the lifeboat sinks, we can just buy a new one.

Then there are the wishful thinkers, the well-intentioned but mostly ineffective bystanders. They see the water pouring in and know that the boat is in real trouble, but feel powerless to make a change. Intimidated by the prospect of a radically challenging future, they resort to hopium to get through the day. Surely the technologists will dream up some magical fix. Surely the non-profits will lobby for all the right legislation and better candidates. So we try to focus on the positive, keep a good attitude and hope for the best. Of course, this doesn’t really do much for the seaworthiness of the vessel.

Finally, there are the patchers. These are people who actually show up and change their lives in significant ways to help plug the leaks. Activists of all stripes are doing their level best: teachers, environmental attorneys, health professionals, social workers, and artists are bailing the lifeboat for all they’re worth. These people are heroes.

intelligence test

The hole is nothing less than a cultural intelligence test. If your lifeboat has a hole in it, you make the effort, pay the price and patch the hole. But what are we to say about a culture that treats its own lifeboat with indifference and even hostility? To deny that the hole exists is not just poor judgment, it’s a kind of psycho-pathology, a cognitive illness and ultimately, a criminal act against the future. In no way is it acceptable to deny the reality of climate change or the rampant destruction of the natural world. The hole cannot be wished away.

But we fail to see our predicament clearly. Paradoxically, our vision is compromised by our nearly exclusive focus on human problems and human welfare. In fact, most of us are lost in what’s been called “the homosphere.” Raised in a culture that assumes human supremacy over the rest of the natural world, we focus the lion’s share of our attention on one another. We talk endlessly about human-human relationships while we mostly ignore the plants, animals and ecosystems that keep us alive and healthy.

The hole is the alpha issue of the day, but it’s also wicked, multi-layered and highly inconvenient. Not only is it daunting in its own right, it also suggests that our energy-intensive civilization has been on the wrong path for a very long time. To plug the hole, we’d have to radically re-arrange our lifestyle, our culture, our value system and our behavior. But it’s a scary proposition; the future looks radically uncertain and many of our familiar touchstones are in danger of disappearing. This ambiguity sets off waves of fear, anxiety, xenophobia and polarization. Blaming other people is a lot easier than actually patching the hole.


lifeboat culture

Some passengers see the hole as a mere technical problem. All we need are some clever new devices that can suck the carbon out of the atmosphere, generate clean energy and replenish fresh water. But even if such technologies worked as advertised, they would fail to address the core problem of human attention, spirit and culture–the value system that justifies hole-chopping behaviors in the first place. When your culture says “the Earth belongs to man,” you’re giving license to any kind of raft-hostile behaviors. Obviously, this is no way to run a boat.

This calls for a new lifeboat culture and curriculum, one that explicitly honors the alpha issue and acts with intention and focus. Legend has it that the Iroquois advised each other to “make no decision without considering the impact on the 7th generation.” Likewise, we might well advise ourselves, “Make no decision without considering the condition and the consequences for the lifeboat.”

Lifeboat culture would ask a whole new set of questions about human life, policy, legislation and behavior. What is the nature and history of the hole? How did it come to be such a wicked problem? How can we re-create human economies and systems to sustain the boat? And most importantly, what can we do to patch the hole?

Lifeboat culture would move us away from boat-hostile economic systems and fossil capitalism. Instead of paying people to chop holes in the boat, we’d pay them to patch the holes. Conventional debates assume that we’re faced with a binary choice between economy or environment, but it’s perfectly possible to imagine a robust economy that improves the state of the boat. It’s simply a question of values. If individuals, organizations and governments believe that hull-patching is important, they’ll find a way to pay for it. Change human values and the economic system will follow.

Lifeboat culture would also inspire us to take a fresh look at our health practices and priorities. In the context of a lifeboat in trouble, our conventional body-beautiful fitness obsessions begin to look irrelevant if not downright ridiculous. But health practices do have an essential place on the boat. The destruction of the biosphere is a chronic stressor that taxes our bodies, our cognition and our ability to craft new, more appropriate behaviors. This is where exercise, good diet and similar practices come into play. We practice these behaviors, not because we’ll look good in the mirror, but because they make us more resilient and effective hole-patchers.

the boat is us

As we voyage into the year ahead, the waters continue to rise and the sea looks forbidding. This is a time for courage, resolve and situational honesty. It’s a time to redouble our efforts and focus our attention on the alpha issue, the health of the biosphere.

Patching the hole will require policy changes, regulatory changes and technical changes, but even more importantly, cultural transformation. This means redefining who we are, what we value and what’s appropriate. This means actually living in new, lifeboat-appropriate ways. Stop thinking of the lifeboat as something apart from us. Stop treating the Earth like resource, an object, a commodity or a development opportunity. As a spiritual sage might put it, “Do unto the boat as you would have the boat do unto you.” Treat her like your lover, your dearest friend, your tribe, your community. And above all, get to work on the hole. Hope won’t float the boat. Culture-as-usual won’t float the boat. But cultural creativity and courage just might give us a fighting chance.

Frank Forencich2 Comments