Saturday, December 30, 2006

Deck Chairs

It is the winter holidays 2006.

I’m on vacation, but these days there is no time for relaxation. I write, and I read, and I work, and write more. It seems that every bit of information I receive is a guided message I must respond to, integrate somehow. There is meaning everywhere.

I read the financial reports of a record Dow Jones Industrial Average (12,500 as of this writing), a rebound in the housing sector, low inflation and interest rates, and as a financial advisor, these reports are good news. Growing client account balances, happy customers. The backdrop is certainly convincing. In the past 50 years, the per capita Gross Domestic Product, the measure of goods and services produced in the U.S., has tripled – a remarkable period of growth and prosperity in our history.

We are awash in new technologies, ever-expanding access to information, scientific breakthroughs and advances. Our human potential, our ingenuity and enormous creative energy dazzles. We steam ahead.

But let us pause for a moment - those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.

On Wednesday April 10, 1912, the largest, most luxurious ocean liner ever built left Southampton, England destined for New York. The passengers mirrored the society of the day. Luminaries and celebrities, the rich and powerful, surrounded in luxury, and the steerage class passengers, mostly immigrants, housed three decks below.

The celebration in connection with this event was lavish, and reported worldwide. New technologies were reported, and world record speeds were expected. Almost unnoticed went reports of icy seas, difficult and dangerous conditions. By Sunday, April 14th, five different ships had sent urgent messages, the last being the Californian, reporting that they were stopped, completely surrounded by ice. These warnings were almost completely ignored, compounded by one tragic oversight...the hands on deck had been issued no binoculars.

At 11:40, the unsinkable Titanic struck an iceberg. Two hours and twenty minutes later, the unthinkable happened. The Titanic sank. There were 2,201 passengers aboard, 711 rescued. Seventy five percent of the third class passengers were lost, compared with 37% in first class. There were reports of doors to lower floors left locked.

Let us dial back to today’s news. An Indian island in the Bay of Bengal was reported by researchers to be the first inhabited island on earth swept away by rising seas as a result of global warming. The island, Lohacachara, near the mouth of the Ganges River, had a population of 10,000. The residents of Lohacachara, and most of the neighboring islands, have fled to a larger neighbor, Sagar. They can't stay there long, however, because Sagar, too, is disappearing. Within a few years, say scientists at Calcutta's Jadavpur University, at least 70,000 people in the Sundarban atoll will be homeless, victims of climate change.

It's only the beginning, and it's come much sooner than most scientists had expected.

This article has been relegated to the back pages of our newspapers. I have excerpted facts as reported in The Forward. Mainstream media takes little note, as does the general public, for a number of reasons. We cannot believe that a luxury ship such as ours, with all our wealth and power, technology and innovation, could be in real danger. We are distracted by all that we have, by all that we do. We are in opulent isolation.

Perhaps we believe that any substantial change will be hundreds of years off, this in spite of the fact that some very smart people, Stephen Hawking among them, predict that, in all likelihood, we may have to leave this planet within 30 - 40 years.

We can’t downplay our experience, however. The concerns that we have are real – we feel the constant threat of global terrorism, the realities of war. We must focus on our personal issues and responsibilities – the taxes we pay, the cost of our kid’s education, the quality of our lives. But we must prioritize.

There are many expressions that describe how we may go about our business in the face of imminent danger. Fiddling while Rome is burning would be one. My favorite is

"rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic"

This is a moment in time which may be remembered as the beginning of the end, the end of civilization as we know it – a Waterworld reality show hosted by Kevin Costner.

But we can take comfort for the moment –

after all, the residents of the Bay of Bengal are third class passengers.


At 9:51 AM, Blogger faith murphy said...

The New York Times published an article about Wal-Mart wanting to push energy efficient light bulbs into over 100 million homes. This is being done to get consumers to "reduce energy consumption" while wooing the more affluent customer they need to continue growth in the US. Social responibilty and profit?? Can the two co-exist? If profit is behind the greening of America and the reduction in greenhouse gases is the result, than all power to Wal-Mart for giving it a try. Next of course is a wage that their employees can live on, so they too can purchase energy efficient light bulbs.


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