Pundits love to say that humanity and the United States are on the Titanic. To elaborate, the pundits say we are on a doomed ship sailing to destruction because of Climate Change and other avoidable catastrophes.
All the pundits show with these analogies is their ignorance of history. If we are on a historical ship sailing into disaster, it is the Lusitania, not the Titanic.
To explain, the passengers on the Titanic thought they were on a routine Atlantic crossing. Nobody on the great liner, except the bridge crew, was thinking about icebergs. Indeed, I think many of the Titanic’s passengers did not know what an iceberg was.
We’re on the Lusitania
In contrast, the passengers on the RMS Lusitania were well aware of the danger the ship was sailing into. World War I had been raging for 10 months when the Lusitania set sail from New York in May 1915.
The Lusitania was a British ship, flying the Union Jack, and the British Empire and Imperial Germany were at war. German submarines or U-Boats had been attacking British ships for some time. Moreover, the Lusitania was sailing to a British port, Liverpool.
Astonishingly, the German Embassy in the United States even published warnings not to sail on British ships in American newspapers. Here is one of them:
TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY
Washington, D.C., 22 April 1915.”
They published this notice three weeks before the Lusitania set sail.
A Voyage to Doom
On 7 May 1915, the crew of the German submarine U-20 spotted the Lusitania 11 miles off the coast of Ireland (then part of the United Kingdom). The U-20 had one torpedo left after several attacks on British shipping.
Captain Walther Schwieger ordered the crew to fire the torpedo. The torpedo hit the Lusitania, which was rocked by two explosions. Within minutes, the liner sank.
The Lusitania sank so fast they could only launch six of the 48 lifeboats. Around 1,198 of the people onboard, went down with the ship. However, rescuers pulled 764 survivors from the sea.
The reasons for the Lusitania’s fast demise are unclear, but the Germans alleged she was carrying munitions for British troops on the Western Front. Hence, the Lusitania was a legitimate military target.
A “Business Trip to a War Zone”
Hence, anybody who read a newspaper in 1915 knew there was a war and that the Lusitania was a target.
Yet the passengers; who included some of the smartest, best-informed, and best educated people of the era, got on the Lusitania. For example, millionaire Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt Sr.
Unlike the people on the Titanic, Vanderbilt was well aware of the U-Boat threat, yet he took the Lusitania. Apparently, Vanderbilt went on a “business trip” to a war zone.
Vanderbilt’s business is unclear, but some reports claim he was traveling to England to inspect his stables. Notably, Vanderbilt did not take his family with him on the Lusitania. However, he brought his valet.
What the Lusitania can teach us about human behavior
Frighteningly, I think the Lusitania’s last voyage can teach us a great deal about human behavior.
Some lessons we can learn from the Lusitania tragedy include:
First, human beings have a hard time discerning new realities. Few people in 1915 could grasp the reality of an all-out war in which civilians were targets.
Notably, there had been many wars in the 19th Century. For example, the Franco-Prussian War. Yet none of those conflicts affected Atlantic travel. Even the American Civil War had little effect on travel between New York and England. Thus, many people assumed the war would not affect their travel plans.
The reality that travel between New York and Liverpool was no longer safe was unimaginable to many people in 1915. It took the Lusitania’s sinking to bring the reality of war home to many people.
Second, even danger will not change human behavior. The passengers on the Lusitania, like today’s antivaxers and anti-maskers, refused to change their behavior in the face of obvious danger. Not even warnings from the German government could dissuade them from traveling to England.
Similarly, many people today cannot imagine burning fossil fuels is a danger to humanity’s future. These people ignore the effects of Climate Change, just as the Lusitania passengers ignored the war news and German warnings.
Third, it can take a long time for people to grasp new threats and change their behavior.
Neither submarines nor torpedoes were a new or unknown technology in 1915. Robert Whitehead demonstrated the first successful torpedo in 1866.
The first attack sub, the USS Holland, went into service with the United States Navy in 1900. By 1905, the US Navy had several submarines in service.
Submarines were common in popular culture in 1915. Jules Verne’s novel Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas first appeared in 1869. In the novel, a mad genius Captain Nemo goes on a ship-sinking rampage in a submarine.
Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle went further in his July 1914 story Danger! Being the log of Captain John Sirius. In the story, a fleet of submarines from the tiny nation of Norland defeats the United Kingdom by sinking ships hauling food to Britain. Incredibly, Danger! first appeared in the Strand magazine in July 1914, one month before the outbreak of World War I.
Thus, the submarine danger was widely publicized before World War I. Yet, people booked passage through a war zone on the Lusitania.
The Lusitania’s passengers, like today’s human race, had ample warning, yet they sailed straight into danger. Moreover, the passengers paid for the privilege of sailing through a war zone.
Rationalizing Danger Away
Fourth, people will rationalize dangers away.
In 1915, two false rationalizations convinced people to board the Lusitania. Many people assumed that ships such as the Lusitania could outrun torpedoes and submarines. The events of 7 May 1915 show that belief was pure fantasy.
Additionally, many people assumed sailors from “civilized nations” would never sink civilian ships or unarmed ships. In response to Doyle’s Danger!, British Admiral CC Penrose Fitzgerald wrote: “I do not myself think that any civilized nation will torpedo unarmed and defenceless merchant ships.”
The U-20 torpedoed the Lusitania less than 10 months after Fitzgerald’s claim. Bizarrely, history shows Doyle’s fiction was more accurate than the military expert.
Today people rationalize dangers such as COVID-19 and Climate Change away. For example, fossil fuel producers waste millions of dollars financing climate change denial while social media brims with denials of COVID-19.
The rationalizers cannot change realities anymore than the Lusitania could outrun the torpedo, but they will try. One reason such rationalization is attractive is that its more comfortable than reality.
The rationalizers do not have to change their behavior. For example, they do not have to lose the money they could make from fossil fuels, wear uncomfortable masks, or face their fear of hypodermic needles. In addition, the rationalizers do not have to admit they are wrong.
Forcing People to Change their Behavior
Fifth, some people will have to be forced to change their behavior.
In 1915, the only way to have kept some people off the Lusitania would have been to keep the ship out of US ports, or post guards at the dock, to keep Americans from boarding her.
Such actions could have been controversial, so President Woodrow Wilson (D-New Jersey) ignored Americans’ presence on British ships until the Lusitania went down. World War I was unpopular in America, so Wilson refused to take any action that could favor either side until after the 1916 presidential election.
Today, some people will have to be forced to get vaccinated, wear masks, social distance, and stop using fossil fuels. Predictably, today’s politicians refuse to force people to get vaccinated and stop using fossil fuels because such actions will be unpopular.
Hence, like the passengers on the Lusitania, we are sailing to our dooms because we refuse to realize the world has changed. The Titanic’s voyage was a pleasure cruise compared to the trip we are taking.