Years ago, Warren Lambert, a history professor at Berea College, where I taught for nearly 40 years, wrote an essay on the Titanic.
He saw it as an image of Western culture at the turn of the 20th century. The great ship that could not be sunk seemed to embody the triumph of Western culture traveling towards an unlimited horizon of power and prosperity.
In the 17th century, Newton and his laws of motion had explained the universe, providing the keys for human manipulation of nature. In the 18th century, Adam Smith had done something similar for economics. His Utilitarian successors promised that unfettered application of Smith's laws would inevitably maximize material good for the greatest possible number.
By the 19th century, engineers employing laws of both physics and economics had brought to our planet the steam engine, railroads, electricity and other scientific wonders, portending a future without limit to human achievement.
Meanwhile, Charles Darwin had unlocked the secrets of biology and of evolution, promising a trajectory of species development without end. There was even talk of telephones, radios, television, airplanes and automobiles.
Who could not believe that every day in every way, the world was getting better and better? The unsinkable Titanic was an image of it all.
But then came the unforeseen icebergs. World War I with its millions slaughtered did its part to debunk the idea of constant human improvement. The Great Crash of '29 undermined confidence in the inevitable triumph of Smith's laws.
World War II, the Jewish Holocaust (and Nazi "social Darwinism"), Hiroshima and Nagasaki all ripped the Titanic hull of Western optimism, hubris and belief in inevitable progress.
The 20th century, once so full of promise, turned out to be the bloodiest in the history of the world. And the West was responsible for it all; it was indeed eminently sinkable. Could it even hope to survive?
I was reminded of Lambert's essay last week as I watched unfold the plight of the more than 4,000 passengers on the cruise ship, ironically named Triumph, and floundering precisely at the time of pre-Lenten Carnival.
An engine fire had caused the ship's systems to shut down, and travelers were left without power.
As a result, everyone on the Triumph sweltered in their rooms as people were virtually forced to live on deck. Food became scarce. People started hoarding, looting and going off on each other over trivial matters.
Perhaps worst of all, toilets stopped functioning. And passengers were reduced to urinating in showers and defecating in plastic bags which they then handed over to crew members for sequestration and disposal once the liner reached shore. "It was the most embarrassing thing I've had to do in my life," one woman passenger complained.
People who just days earlier had been so delighted to be on the cruise of a lifetime found themselves holding up SOS signs and shouting in vain for help to helicopter pilots bringing generators and food supplies. Everyone was talking about lawsuits.
The fate of the Triumph seemed as eerily prophetic of the 21st century as the Titanic's did of the 20th. This time we can see what's coming — not icebergs, but a complete breakdown of systems providing food, shelter, law and order.
I'm referring, of course, to the effects of climate change and the massive disruptions that promise to shut down entire ecosystems. Except to the willfully blind, the signs of approaching disaster are unmistakable: unprecedented drought, flooding, superstorms, earthquakes and tsunamis.
As we saw with Hurricane Sandy last fall, those acts of man (we can no longer blame them on God) cause widespread loss of power and the associated problems related to sewage, food shortage, looting, hoarding, violence and loss of human dignity and fellow-feeling.
Yes, the impending breakdowns are apparent. Nonetheless, our insane captains keep shouting "full steam ahead," drawing us further and further into the deep, where we will soon find ourselves stranded with no one to answer our desperate appeals for help.
Do you want to see where it's all going, where our captains are leading us? Watch the news. Look at the pyrrhic Triumph of Carnival as it limped into port. When the portended breakdown happens, there'll be no harbor awaiting the stranded.