Yonatan Neril
Founder and director of the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

Message from the Titan: The Titanic Mindset Could Sink Humanity

Diving to explore the ruins of the historic, gigantic ocean liner the Titanic; the small, modern Titan submersible imploded under tremendous water pressure. Now the Titan, like the Titanic lies lifeless on the bottom of the sea. Ironically, “Titan” means “a person or thing of very great strength, intellect, or importance.” In Greek mythology, Titans were giants who ruled the Earth, until they were overthrown. The Titanic was named after them, because it was the biggest ship ever built, and was considered invincible. The fate of the “giants” who captained both the Titanic and the Titan was to be consumed by creatures living deep below the waves.

Stöwer_Titanic By Willy Stöwer – Magazine Die Gartenlaube (Wikimedia commons)

For the past 13 years, in teaching about spirituality and sustainability, I have been using a metaphor of eight ships, including Noah’s Ark and the Titanic. Here are a few insights that connect the Titanic to our current situation:

Humanity is on the ship Titanic and we’re heading dangerously fast for the iceberg; we either need to get into the captain’s room and turn around the ship, or we need to go into the boiler room and reverse the engines. The metaphor is a little bit imperfect, because there’s not really any unified captain on our potential collision course. We might think that political leaders of the world’s 193 countries are the captains, but for the past 35 years, they have been unable to reverse the ecological crisis, which intensifies each year. There are 8 billion human beings on Earth and all of us together have influence on which direction the ship is going. For us to change course, we need to act collectively.

Photo credit: Vivian Azalia

The Titanic’s Captain Smith was disconnected from nature as he considered himself above the natural world. This contributed to his overconfidence and arrogance, which then led to a rude awakening for him and 1,500 passengers. They suddenly found themselves in a terrible “natural disaster,” in the frigid waters of the north Atlantic Ocean in the middle of the night.

Would the Noah of the Bible sail full steam ahead toward an iceberg if he were captain of the ship Titanic? We have to act like Noah and realize that we have on board our ship all of humanity and all fifteen million species on this planet. And we’re leading the ship. Together? We will decide whether the ship stays afloat or sinks—with all species on it. That’s the choice we need to make now, and that’s the mindset we need to have. In our times, all of the ships have become one. It’s the Titanic, and it’s also Noah’s Ark. It’s the ship of Jonah, because God is asking us to repent and to return to proper living. We can even conceive of the Earth as one big ship, with humanity and all species on board.

The Titanic hitting an iceberg is an apt metaphor for, and warning to, humanity melting the icebergs. Where a solid iceberg sank the Titanic, today’s melting icebergs’ water may come to flood humanity and the land masses. Humanity’s collective ship hits a minor iceberg with each subsequent hurricane or typhoon, flood or drought. But the ship can only withstand a limited number of hits, and as we melt the polar ice caps, the “icebergs” that hit us are getting bigger and bigger.

Iceberg Photo by Jean-Christophe André (Pexels)

What is playing out seems to be like the Titanic disaster in slow motion. Instead of a matter of days before inevitable collision, we have warnings and the chance to change over several years. Yet despite all we know, there exists within humanity a huge amount of denial and opposition to changing course.

The Titanic is a state of mind. The Titanic is also a mindset, of acting with arrogance, overconfidence, and short-term thinking. In our times, this way of thinking states, “It is more important that we enjoy our lives now and maintain our current material standard of living than that we devote our energies to ensuring that our children can simply live.”

Photo credit: The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development

The Titanic holds another metaphor for civilization today, as though the people on the Titanic have resolved to make revision of the restaurant menu their top priority. There are other groups of people who have decided to make rearranging the deck chairs their top priority, and other people who are just busy with other pleasant aspects of human society. What would it mean to really devote our energy to addressing our current challenges? To throw everything we’ve got at addressing these challenges? To say we’ve got to stop sunbathing on the pool deck and go to the engine room and work together to reverse the engines?

The Book of Proverbs states (ch. 29 verse 18) “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” And the Talmud states (Tractate Tamid 32a) “Who is wise? The person who sees the long-term effect of their action.” For humanity, spiritual maturity means being able to see now what impacts the long-term impact of our lifestyles will have, and to change course so that the next generation inherits a thriving and sustainable planet.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs The Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development and its Jewish Eco Seminars branch. Raised in California, Yonatan completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a global environmental focus , and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He speaks internationally on religion and the environment, and co-organized twelve interfaith environmental conferences in Israel and the U.S. He is the lead author and general editor of three books on Jewish environmental ethics, including Eco Bible, a bestseller in several Amazon Kindle categories. He lives with his wife, Shana and their two children in Jerusalem.
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