The Carnival Cruise Ship Fiasco: A preview of what awaits us all


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 Dr. Lambert’s essay last week as I watched unfold the plight of the more than 4000 passengers on the Cruise ship, ironically named Triumph and floundering precisely at the time of pre-Lenten Carnival.

An engine fire had caused the ships 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 hording, 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.

In the light of Warren Lambert’s essay, 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 eco-systems. Except to the willfully blind, the signs of approaching disaster are unmistakable – unprecedented drought, flooding, super-storms, earthquakes, and tsunamis.

As we saw with “Sandy” last fall, those “Acts of Man”(we can no longer blame them on God) cause massive 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.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

8 thoughts on “The Carnival Cruise Ship Fiasco: A preview of what awaits us all”

  1. Mike, I applaud you for calling attention to the disaster that is unfolding in our world. The silence on this from the pulpits of mainstream chuches is deafening. The churches only echo the happy talk that fills our TV screens. We are being waltzed into disaster. Those who would awaken us to our real situation are ridiculed as Casandras of doom, while the band plays on….


    1. This article was picked up by OpEdNews and by the Lexington Herald-Leader. It got lots of response — mostly from climate-change deniers. Very interesting. There seem to be a lot of people in denial out there — especially in Republican Kentucky.


  2. contrast the looting and violence of the victims of these “western” disasters – carnival cruise, Haiti earthquake and hurricanes Sandy and Katrina – with the courage and dignity of the victims of Japan’s 3-11 triple disaster. Some of their survivors are still living in govt disaster centers. Without looting or lashing out.


  3. Hi Mike
    Meaning full! Packed full, really.
    It is hard to keep up with you.
    However I sense you have a solution!
    If you do it must be connected with education – of the young? If not you got me worried.
    Berea (1855!) like, Macalester, where my son put his feet up, may be an exception as most of our other educational centers just turn out slaves for the corporates, who $ponsor the curriculum.
    R2-D2. In Ireland of course the Min of Ed concurs.
    But Charlie can make my point so much better.
    And silly old me always though it was comedy!!


    1. Thanks, Jim. I love “Modern Times.” We used to watch it every spring in a team-taught “Great Books” course I taught for years at Berea, “Religious and Historical Perspectives” (R&HP). All sophomores had to take the two-semester course. And that speaks to your point about education. Eliminating those kind of courses in favor of pre-professional electives is a big mistake. Unfortunately, Berea eliminated R&HP years ago and substituted a one-semester “Western Civilization” course. But it didn’t centralize the primary sources that R&HP did. I learned so much from that course team-taught with faculty from many disciplines. The best education I ever got.


      1. Mike
        You ask.quote
        Do you want to see where it’s all going – where our captains are leading us? end quote
        I would like to try briefly to answer that fundamental question when I consider it more.
        It takes me time to clear my mind. But I have absolutely no confidence that the Church leadership are addressing it.
        Just like learning to hate which we all did a little of – we also got to be taught how to love.
        Like learning to walk”’it is not optional.
        An over simplification would be to say we shud change the R in the R&P to stand for Respect rather than religion.


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