On an admittedly slow news weekend, there was something about this photograph that tugged at me.
The picture was front page above fold for a story entitled “An Icy Rescue As Seas Claim A Cruise Ship.” An iceberg punched a hole below the waterline, those aboard spent a few hours in lifeboats before being rescued, and the ship eventually went to the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean.
The story is sappy from start to finish. The Explorer was “fondly known in the maritime world as ‘the little red ship,’” as in The Little Engine that Could, perhaps. It closes with a staffer playing the role of the Old Salt who says, “‘She doesn’t want to give up, I can tell you. I still believe that perhaps it is not the last time that we see her.’” Well, maybe someone will try to salvage a 40-year-old single-hulled craft at the bottom of the world, but don’t bet on it.
If you don’t like the yarn, you won’t like the facts. Although named Explorer, the ship is a cruise ship, carrying “modern adventure travelers” for $7,000-$16,000 a pop. To put it bluntly, those on the ship don’t explore anything. Instead, they go on a set route to have preprogrammed experiences. No wonder they were in such “good spirits”after the rescue: the disaster was a genuine novelty, and one that proved to be just as safe as the trip to Shackleton’s grave. I have no doubt that the episode will be good for business.
Given the reasons to be cynical about this soft news story, why does the image take me down a different path? Perhaps because it looks like one of the toy boats powered by baking soda that I played with in the tub long ago. Or it could be the color: lying on its side on the cold ice flow, it resembles an animal bleeding to death in some lonely winter field. Or the name might matter after all: not just this explorer, but exploration is over, and the challenge now is not discovering some new region but rather living amidst natural scarcity. The ship is disappearing, and so are the ice flows around it. Although they are far more important, no one in the story romanticizes their loss.
Let me add something more to the allegory. Roland Barthes once remarked somewhere that the attraction of a cruise ship, which everyone knows is an antique technology, was that it created the sense of living in an autarky, that is, a self-contained, self-sufficient place. That sense of being a world onto itself is an illusion, of course, one similar to the notion that “modern adventure travelers” are exploring the unknown.
Both myths die hard. If the photo is poignant, it may be because we can imagine not just a ship but a civilization going under. That is, if modern civilization is to avoid disaster, it needs more than a double hull or other technological backups. Instead, we have to give up the idea that we are a law onto ourselves, that we can provide adequately and sustain indefinitely without regard to the natural limits and complex dynamics of the rest of the planet.
Photograph from Fuerza Aerea de Chile [Chilean Air Force] via European Presssphoto Agency.