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Titanic or Shuttle?
Alex Steffen, 15 Mar 04

So, a couple weeks ago, Alan gave a talk at Berkeley which I meant to blog, but, well, events interceded.

His essential point, though, is a vital one, and one which we discuss often here at worldchanging, but which deserves still wider debate: the gap between what we are accomplishing in our efforts to make our civilization sustainable and what we are coming to understand as the empirical and absolute standards for sustainability imposed on us by the planet's natural systems is growing, not shrinking. Put another way, the better we understand the situation we're in, the worse it looks and the worse it seems to be getting. If we hope to close that gap in time to avert disaster, we need tools and models for action which will let us quickly transform our systems into profoundly more sustainable ones. This is pretty much what we're all about, 'round here.

But for me, the highlight of Alan's talk was when he explained why he thought environmentalists needed to retire the Titanic as a metaphor for our civilization's problems, and start using the Space Shuttle program instead:

"It is traditional at this point in a talk on sustainable development to invoke the Titanic metaphor.  We are heading toward an iceberg, the leadership is cavalierly steaming forward as fast as possible, rearranging deckchairs instead of making a change in direction, etc.

"But the more appropriate metaphor for our situation is the Space Shuttle program. Our entire society is like the Shuttle: based on incredibly complex, once-admired, now out-of-date technology that is not just theoretically dangerous" but has repreatedly failed with catastophic consequences. In order to save the Shuttle program (our civilization) we need "comprehensive transformative change to make our society line up with those empirical absolutes" which nature imposes on us, "a complete technological redesign" of our system and its components to respect the realities of life on our planet.

I love this. I find it deeply consonent with my own sense of the challenge at hand. Sustainability will be achieved not by some simple moral choice (as in steering the Titanic on a different course) but though innovation, creativity and collaboration, measured against clear standards within an incredible complex technological system with many, many moving parts, any of which can ultimately prove the source of a cascading series of societal failures.

I, for one, will never use the Titanic metaphor again.

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Time to reread _Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth_?

And how come there doesn't seem to be a good "control panel" for ecological systems on the Web?

Posted by: gmoke on 15 Mar 04

Moral choice is rarely simple Alex.

I like the Space Shuttle metaphor too although it worries me more than the Titanic metaphor.

Posted by: Zaid on 15 Mar 04


There are some complex technologies that work, and some that don't.

The internet. Semiconductor microcircuits. Modern jet aircraft. Hybrid cars. A 2004 CPU chip has a thousand times the complexity of a space shuttle.

The secret, which was never followed for the Shuttle, is incremental improvement, continuous innovation, and creating things in large, not small, numbers. And learning from and progressing beyond early repeated failure. Which the private sector tends to do quite well...

To every complex problem there is a solution which is obvious, simple, and wrong. The complexity of modernity is likely irreducible. Over time some things will help simplify our lives, but likely only at the cost of increasing the complexity of our overall civilization.

The real question is whether our complexity is fragile, or robust. Fragility comes from dependence on some single vulnerable component of the web of modernity. The one I particularly worry about there is our dependence on oil. But in general, the vast multiplicity available to us is a sign of robustness, not fragility - if one thing fails us, we are left with dozens of alternatives to choose from.

Titanic was a great symbol of humanity's hubris in the face of nature. Shuttle is mostly just a symbol of bureaucratic stupidity.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 15 Mar 04

University of Toronto professor Thomas Homer-Dixon has written a book called "The Ingenuity Gap" ( in which he addresses the gaps that humanity is facing between our collective ability to solve problems and the exponential increase in problems to solve.

I think the spaceshuttle anaology is incredibly apt, particularly with respect to the growing complexity of our technological systems, and their level of interact with natural forces.

Consider the explosion of the Columbia shuttle--believed to have been caused by a protective panel damaged by exploding debris on launch. Scientists acutally ran simulations to model the path of projected debris, yet (obviously incorrectly) concluded that there was no danger.

Even with powerful computer models working to predict seemingly insignificant effects, things still slip past and create hazards. We need ingenuious solutions faster and at a greater volume now more than ever before. Do we have it in us?

Posted by: Chris Evans on 15 Mar 04

Read the Columbia accident report -

and you'll find that the failure was quite predictable, and was in fact predicted by a number of engineers, who were very worried about the issue. The same thing that happened with Challenger's O Rings - the engineers were worried, but were ignored or suppressed by the bureaucracy. Not a good example of anything but disfunctionality, really.

Do we have similar systems where high-level management or the people in general deliberately or through ignorance suppresses the warnings of underlings? Happens all the time - if you look at last year's electric grid failure, it was predicted in warning after warning by electric supply experts for the past decade or so, and even made it up to discussions in congress. But nobody acted to fix the fundamental problem - a lack of top-level accountability for transmission systems under deregulatory mania. It still hasn't been fixed though there's more awareness now at least.

The issue here is one of taking risks and accepting responsibility. Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" is wonderful testimony to the fact that this is nothing new - and the problem seems to really lie with the mass of people, not with the scientists and engineers... Eventually they get a wake up call and get things right, but will it happen before massive disaster strikes?

Our reaction to global warming is not a good sign.

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 16 Mar 04

Titanic 1912 - the death knell of the British Empire. Space Shuttles - disaster upon disaster. Arrogance beyond belief.

Posted by: Stefan Thomas on 17 Mar 04

Well the thing that worries me about the Shuttle metaphor isn't the fragility or robustness of our complexity.

Rather it's the mode of problem solving that goes into creating a/the Shuttle, a mode that can be thought of as de-contextualisation. As Futurehype author Max Dublin puts it, few things in life are like moonshots.

My fear is that we're really good at projecting the problems far, far away from far away from our own nature as possible. In fact if we could say that all our problems were caused by the far side of the moon we would...and then we'd set about building a machine that took us there and blasted the problem from the universe.

Anything to keep us from focusing on the fact that in large part its modern consciousness that's at the root of our problems.

I'll stop ranting :-)

Posted by: Zaid on 18 Mar 04


Don't stop ranting! It makes sense!

Posted by: Stefan Thomas on 22 Mar 04



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