Captain Trump Seizes The Helm Of The Titanic

New evidence on a famous disaster offers key lessons for 2017[1]

The Titanic leaves for sea trials on April 2 1912. Photo by Harland & Wolff official photographer (via Wikipedia)

One of the most intriguing women I encountered in the last century was a granddaughter of the man blamed for sinking the Titanic, J. Bruce Ismay. When I visited Diane Bruce Ismay, some 40 years ago, she was busily grinding a large telescope lens. Perhaps it was the curse of the Ismays, but sadly she died a few years later, in her early fifties. And some may detect a dark symbolism in that lens-in-the-making, given her grandfather’s role in sending his “unsinkable” wonder of the world hurtling to the ocean floor.

But new evidence — and there’s always new evidence concerning this tragedy that claimed 1,517 lives in 1912 — suggests that the looming iceberg may have blinded us to an even more serious risk to the liner. And, at the same time, to the deeper culpability of the owners and others on the vessel’s bridge.

No question, without the iceberg the ship could have sailed merrily on. And had Frederick Fleet, who spotted the iceberg from the crow’s nest, been issued with binoculars the berg might have been avoided.

But, instead, it now seems that Fleet and his shipmates should have been issued with X-ray lenses. He might then have spotted the fact that the ship left on its maiden voyage with a fire already raging in one (and possibly two) of her coal bunkers. The only way to dispose of the coal extracted to get at the seat of the fire was to shovel it into the boilers. Maybe that’s an unsuspected reason why, despite urgent warnings of ice ahead, the Titanic plowed on at full speed.

Many people have used the Titanic story as a metaphor for lurking business risks. I have, particularly in the wake of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster. And there’s a personal connection: at the time of the disaster, the father of one of my step-grandfathers was a lowly employee at Harland and Wolff, the Belfast shipyard that built the Titanic. The death of key staff, including the chief naval architect, meant that he promptly rocketed up the ranks.

Sadly, though, it is spectacularly rare for industrial or corporate disasters to kill their main architects. Picking through the debris of scores of disasters, I have often wondered whether the business leaders responsible might have paid more attention to potential safety, health and environmental hazards had their own lives — and the lives of their close families — been in the line of fire.

Too often, those most to blame have done what J. Bruce Ismay notoriously did. Unlike Captain Ted Smith, who went down with his ship, the Chairman of the White Star Line scrambled into one of the last lifeboats to leave before the Titanic began its shuddering 2.4 mile journey to the bottom.

Those of us who have used the Titanic metaphor to snag the attention of distracted business leaders have typically zoomed in on the iceberg. But maybe we should have been paying more attention to the fire raging in the coal hold. Ismay and Smith must have known about the fire when setting sail — but equally must have judged the risk acceptable given the perceived greater risk of reputational damage if the sailing was postponed, again.

From Ismay’s behaviour after the disaster, it seems that he not only knew of the fire, or fires, but tried to ensure that the stokers who had seen the problems at close quarters were whisked away from beneath the noses of American investigators. Then the inquiry by British Wrecks Commissioner Lord Mersey seemed at great pains to sweep evidence of the fires under the judicial carpet.

Titanic lies on the ocean floor (source: NOAA)

But when the discovery of the ship’s wreck revealed that the hole in its hull was smaller than reported, the focus expanded to other factors. Strikingly, mathematical modelling now suggests that the coal blaze could have weakened the bulkhead that eventually burst by as much as 75%.

Now let’s switch the focus from the Ismays and Smiths of this world to the Trumps and Tillersons. Many years ago, in Stavanger, the heartland of the Norwegian oil industry, I had a stand-up row with ExxonMobil CEO Tillerson. I was on stage spotlighting ExxonMobil’s subversion of the climate change debate when he entered the back of the hall, roaring “That’s a goddamn lie!”

Subsequent evidence showed he was wrong — but now he’s in line to be at an even bigger tiller, as Trump’s Secretary of State. The new President has been at pains to tell anyone who would listen — or read his twitterings — that the fossil fuel industry is the future — and that he will champion the American coal industry, which did so much to secure his election. (Good luck with that, given that the coal industry is now locked in a long, losing battle with cleaner technologies.)

So what can the events of 1912 tell us about the world of 2017? Well, with the Arctic Report Card warning that the Arctic is warming at an “astonishing” rate, the Titanic story takes on a different symbolism. In pursuing its “drill, baby, drill” vision, the incoming Trump Administration risks not only betraying future generations of Americans but people — particularly poor people — around the world.

Recall for a moment the class differences exposed by the Titanic death roll. Of first class passengers, 39% died, compared to 58% of standard class passengers. Worse still, the death rate among third class passengers was higher again, at 76%. Or consider the children: 1 first class child died, compared with 49 of those sailing in steerage.

When it comes to climate change, the world’s poor are travelling in steerage. Then picture the incoming U.S. cabinet, stuffed with more wealthy people than the Titanic’s first class lounges. Think of the disregard of science and market intelligence that has marked both the Trump presidential campaign and the selection of appointees for top offices in the new administration. Think of the political icebergs in America’s course, including North Korea and China. But above all think of that fire raging below decks, with the American fossil fuels industry helping to drive tomorrow’s climate chaos.

The conflicts of interest that wreath Trump and his colleagues operate like a thick sea fog, masking hazards that modern technology is now revealing to those with the eyes to see. Like Wrecks Commissioner Lord Mersey, with his links to the shipping industry, the conflicting interests of companies like ExxonMobil and the Trump Organization could yet sink the best-laid plans for a better future for all.

But then recall that lens Diane Bruce Ismay was grinding. What if we swapped out the short focal point lenses forced on us by the reverses of 2016 with longer focal point optics? What if we could see in a different spectrum, observing very different futures evolving out of the media’s gaze?

That’s what we are now doing with the United Nations Global Compact [a politically non-aligned initiative], with help from the Generation Foundation. And it’s interesting that former UNGC Director Georg Kell said this as 2017 dawned: “What the X-ray did to medicine, ESG [environmental, social and governance analysis] is now doing to the financial world.”

Gary Cohen of Health Care Without Harm frames his manifesto (source: Project Breakthrough)

Change is coming — and the recent election result may simply be evidence of old order interests desperately clinging onto the economic wreckage. So, to conclude, here are five of the extraordinary ventures we have surfaced to date:

· Planet Labs are giving us new eyes to see what’s going on in the global environment

· Health Care Without Harm are revolutionizing the health care sector’s relationship with the environment

· Plastic Bank are working to turn marine plastic debris into a new currency

· Philips are beginning the switch to a “pay-per-lux” business model in their lighting business

· Covestro, an “80-year-old start-up”, plans to boost the carbon productivity of next generation materials

When the almost inevitable political shipwrecks happen, it will be fascinating to see who then rockets up the ranks. Happily, as indicated by the cases above, a new generation of innovators, entrepreneurs, investors and policy-makers is now surging into the mainstream, as noted in our recent report for the Business & Sustainable Development Commission: Breakthrough Business Models: Exponentially More Social, Lean, Integrated and Circular.

So, a Happy New Year to our readers — and let’s resolve to help the burgeoning sustainability industry switch to an exponential change mindset, potentially giving us a trump card to trump all others.

[1] Disclaimer: The views expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any other organization mentioned in the piece.