Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Contemplating Equity from the Deck of the Titanic: A Metaphoric Meditation for a 4°C World

Indulge an extended metaphor.

The deck chairs on the Titanic are not arranged so that all passengers have fair access to them. For that matter, all the ship’s amenities are inequitably distributed, from food to medical care to cabin space. Many of the passengers enjoying the benefits of first class can afford to be there only because their parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents seized and exploited the wealth and labor of colonized people in the Global South, establishing the white privilege from which these passengers have benefitted their entire lives. In contrast, many of the passengers in steerage (third class) don’t really deserve to be there, either, having been trapped by an exploitative capitalistic system of labor in the lower classes. But they still benefit from white privilege, as evidenced by the almost complete lack of non-white passengers on this oh-so-prestigious crossing. Nevertheless, their safety is far less protected, and if someone below decks dies in a fight belowdecks, it is questionable whether anyone will do anything about it. The environment that these people must live in is also far less pleasant, although, admittedly, often better than what they were used to at home—close quarters, poor air circulation, shared meals and sanitation facilities, and fellow travelers who are often sick, both from seasickness and shared contagions.

No doubt about it: the Titanic needs an equity overhaul.


The ship is on a collision course with an iceberg, and there aren’t enough lifeboats for everyone.

So, pop quiz: Do you put energy into rearranging the deck chairs (and other amenities)? Or do you try to get a few more lifeboats built before the ship goes down?

Accepting the real possibility of a 4°C increase in global average temperature by the end of this century or very soon thereafter (and maybe earlier) complicates how one thinks about every aspect of human society, and that includes equity. At the very least, as the Titanic metaphor suggests, a 4°C world raises the possibility that the actions we should be taking now to promote survival equity (e.g., build more lifeboats) are not the same as the actions we want to take now to promote day-to-day equity (e.g., ensure more equitable access to societal amenities and, perhaps, redress past exploitations). However, there is also a possibility—one that J.B. Ruhl and I raise in our article 4°C—that this radically warmer world is a disruptive opportunity, that the dislocations and rearrangements it demands in response to its impacts are what will allow the full range of social transformations needed to greatly improve equitable distribution of amenities and access to opportunity. In other words, there’s the distinct possibility that a radical survival-based adaptation modality (what we call redesign adaptation) is exactly what will finally allow for radical progress in day-to-day equity, somewhat analogous to how the social transformations of World War II helped to pave the way to the Civil Rights movement.

But, of course, there’s an added complication that the Titanic metaphor elides through the immediacy of the oncoming iceberg catastrophe: Improving day-to-day equity now—at least in some respects—might also promote survival equity later. That proposition seems intuitively obvious. Indeed, it helps hone the narrative edge of one of the opening scenes in Kim Stanley Robinson’s CliFi novel Ministry for the Future: During a disastrous extreme heat wave in India, a lone American aid worker survives being parboiled in the lake that everyone has entered in an attempt to keep (relatively) cooler. As the reader learns before this gruesome scene, the American has been keeping the limited supply of cold, clean, fresh water available at his office to himself, the last of which he takes with him to the lake. As another character suggests later, this relatively small advantage in hydration, coupled with a lifetime of being well-fed and medically cared for in the United States, might be the only explanation of why he survived and the local Indians did not.

Which raises the last and most difficult part of contemplating equity in connection with a future that is 4°C warmer than the present: People are going to die. How to keep that reality from devolving into “them versus us” politics is a serious governance challenge for a 4°C future. On the real Titantic, after all, status was a major determinant of whether a person survived: Approximately 76% of both the crew and third-class passengers perished, compared to 68% of the total number of people on board, 58% of the second-class passengers, and 39% of the first-class passengers. First-class women and children passengers, in contrast, survived at a rate of about 97%.

Given that the risk of death increases dramatically as the global average temperature increases, what does 4°C survival equity actually mean? To get the discussion going, I posit that 4°C equity means that any individual’s chances of surviving and thriving are not statistically correlated with the person’s race, class, socially assigned gender-based status, or relationship to colonialism. Instead, the 4°C world will be a lot more equitable if a person’s chances of survival are, on the whole, either: (1) relatively random from a social policy perspective (e.g., genetics, getting caught in freak disasters); (2) based on characteristics that we all will share (e.g., vulnerabilities associated with aging or special protections accorded children); or (3) the result of individual choice (e.g., refusing to move out of harm’s way when there is real opportunity and ability to do so).

Let the debate commence. But where the heck did that deck chair go?

- Robin Kundis Craig, Robert C. Packard Trustee Chair in Law, USC Gould School of Law.

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