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Of Tipping Points and Sinking Ships: A Conversation between James Marriott and Suzi Gablik

by Suzi Gablik

[This conversation took place in Blacksburg, Virginia on April 16, 2006, when James Marriott was visiting from England.]

James Marriott: Can we talk more about that line you wrote the other day, which was "What do we do when perfume has no future, and the ship is sinking?" What exactly did you mean by that?

Suzi Gablik: It really does seem like that is the $64,000 question, but I am not the first one to ask it. James Hillman and Michael Ventura first asked what we should be doing when the ship is going down, in their book "We've Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—and the World's Getting Worse"; and indeed, the world has got steadily worse ever since then. I only threw in the part about perfume to show my solidarity, because, as far as I am concerned, I can't think of a more pressing question. It's something I think about all the time, although I've never found any ultimate answer. Our present circumstances seem to have taken us to a whole new context for living that the human race has never had to confront before, so it's difficult to refer to any historical precedents or even to one's own personal experience to know what to do.

Portrait of Ernest H. Shackleton. In:
Portrait of Ernest H. Shackleton. In: "The Heart of the Antarctic", Volume I, by E. H. Shackleton, 1909.
One thing that keeps coming to mind is the image of Sir Ernest Shackleton and his crew of 27 men, who really did lose their ship on an expedition to the Antarctic in l914, and were stranded, helpless and isolated from the world for nearly two years, on an ice floe. They lived through two sunless, totally dark Arctic winters, and survived by hunting seal and penguins, never sure if they would be rescued or not. I see this as a kind of symbolic metaphor of things to come for the human race. We are like sailors who have lost our ship. For the first time, our future is uncertain.

JM: We were also talking yesterday about the significance of beauty—what do you think about the role of beauty in these difficult times?

SG: I think beauty is intrinsic to life on earth, as many other things are also intrinsic to life on earth. One of our problems is that we have not learned to honor this intrinsicality. As humans, we are in constant violation of the value of things in and for themselves--including beauty—things that are vital to existence. In our refusal to give adequate meaning and value to intrinsic things, we are ruining life for ourselves (pace Chief Seattle).

JM: It's true. It seems to me that the ways to address the challenges we're talking about are very different to how we've been doing things in the modern era. The archetype for addressing big changes in the modern era has been revolution, which implies sacrifice now for rewards later, so we go through the blood of a revolution in order to arrive at some future Utopia.

SG: I'd probably frame the archetype of the modern age as: whatever problems we have, science and technology will find a solution and fix it, and we have yet to really get it that, much like revolution, this doesn't work either. We haven't invented any kind of technology that can bring back to life all that technology so insidiously destroys.

JM: I agree. To my mind, the teleology of science and technology is much the same in its structure as revolution. The basic belief is that there's always a better future around the corner. The whole structure is, you could say, one of delayed Nirvana. The more I look at it, the more that approach seems completely flawed.

SG: The notion of delayed Nirvana may be nothing more than a pretext for accepting our sins in the present—getting away with doing what we want to do when we want to do it. Our culture thrives on it.

JM: Yes, that's a core understanding I've gleaned from critiquing corporate culture. The manner in which companies run themselves has a kind of engineer's mentality that assumes everything can be solved by technology. You make a mess in terms of oil spillage, but you can clean it up. You pollute the atmosphere with toxic chemicals, but you can fix it. If you look at corporate literature, especially the in-house magazines for the staff, they're constantly focusing on this kind of crazed fiction.

SG: Don't you think the world has run up against the outer limits of that?

JM: Absolutely! But what is so sad is that so many people want to believe it's true, because it gets them through the day more easily. Just look at the studies our group [PLATFORM, an arts-activist collaborative] has done on the oil wars in Nigeria. We read Shell's sustainability reports; they will address pollution by saying, we've done very bad things, we admit it, but here are the good things we're going to be doing, so we'll sort it out. Year after year, you see the same statements, but the same problems keep re-occurring— and have been for fifty years. So there's this constant delayed Nirvana, like I said.

SG: It can hardly be called Nirvana when you restore something you've destroyed back to the state it was in before you destroyed it. These days we're pretty far from Nirvana, and we're losing even more ground as we speak. However, I think we need to have some compassion for the human plight—for the fact that we aren't doing better than we are. How can we condemn others—the people in corporations, for instance, who claim they will fix things up afterwards—when the truth is that none of us, including you and me, really knows how to save the ship. Things may just not be fixable.

JM: Yes, I agree. But there may be a worthwhile function in trying to find some kind of narrative to help us deal with this possibility. I certainly agree with the premise that our current problems may not be solvable. Let's take the example of the Polar ice caps melting. This is what makes climate change very different from other environmental issues, I think. If you take other classic cases of environmental struggles, such as the one over DDT in the 1960s, we could, in a sense, win that. We could address the question of whales being made extinct by not hunting them. But we can't keep New Orleans from being flooded. Climate change seems like it is something completely different, intractable, in a class by itself. It creates a challenge to cope with something which may, in fact, be unsolvable. What can we do in the face of something that's unsolvable? This is very difficult, I think, for our frame of thinking and for our "fix-it" mentality.

SG: We are very invested in our own inventiveness. Humans have always risen to the challenge, and so they always will.

JM: Mm, but I don't think that's possible now.

SG: So that's maybe where the analogy with Shackleton's men doesn't hold.

JM: Because there's no rescue mission coming from outside.

SG: In Shackleton's case, when it finally became clear to him that no one was coming to rescue them—they had been gone for so long people assumed they must all be dead—Shackleton set out with five of his men in a ridiculously small boat to find help. They had to travel 800 miles by sea from Elephant Island to South Georgia, then travel 29 more miles on foot across the island, which required scaling perpendicular headlands and glaciers, to arrive at the small whaling station of Stromness. Miraculously, they did it. But then it took 3 more months and several failed attempts before they were able to rescue the other men who had been left behind. Everyone was alive—it's such a great story! What is so amazing is how those men survived under such unthinkable conditions. From everything I've read, it seems that the primary reason was hidden in the character and personality of Shackleton himself, a man with leadership abilities comparable to Martin Luther King or Gandhi.

JM: Presumably one way Shackleton was able to keep his crew alive was because he gave them an optimistic picture that eventually somebody would come from outside and rescue them.

The Endurance trapped in pack ice during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914.
The Endurance trapped in pack ice during the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition, 1914.
SG: Nobody knew that for sure, least of all Shackleton. But here's another fascinating bit of the story: the men who made that final perilous journey to the whaling settlement felt the whole time that there was an invisible, otherworldly presence accompanying them—something like a guiding angel—and that this was the only reason they survived.

JM: There seems to be two relevant parts to the story you're telling. One might be applicable to our own situation today, the other not. The first, which is applicable, is that sense of living, and trying to survive, in circumstances where there is little chance of being rescued, and so how do you cope with that? How do you do that? What isn't applicable is the sense that there is some other place that you can go to where, if you can only get there, rescue is possible. I'm not somebody who believes we can move to another planet!

SG: It's true, now that the problem is global and worldwide, there's no place else to go. Shackleton was dealing with a small community of stalwart men, and he managed, through the force of his own personality, to hold them together. But I'm not sure that today, no matter which leader might emerge on the world stage, that the global community can be held together—it is so at odds with itself. Plus, the new scale of the disasters happening is just so enormous.

JM: Do you think one of the challenges we face is vision—literally, sight? Even in the face of catastrophe? If you consider Shackleton's story, there must have been period of time—I don't know how long, maybe a few days or hours when they were all thinking Help! Are we going to get stuck in the ice? Are we not going to get stuck in the ice? And then there's suddenly the point when they go—Help! We're stuck in the ice! It's very difficult to project just when that moment will come for us, for us to see it. In a sense, we need to heighten our perception to be able to say, okay, this is the moment when we're stuck in the ice.

SG: Others have likened that moment to throwing a frog into boiling water. If the water is already boiling, the frog will jump out, but if the water is heating up slowly, the frog won't recognize the dangerous moment when the boiling point comes, and it will die. Now the phrase being used for this moment is the "tipping point." It seems as if we may have now reached the tipping point. For several decades we had all those World Watch studies foretelling disaster scenarios, and saying that we had a window of opportunity—20 or 30 years to turn things around. But when does the window of opportunity close? Al Gore says we've reached the tipping point.

JM: What intrigues me is the means by which we perceive the tipping point. Generally it comes out of scientific data and information. But I wonder whether there's a way for culture to visualize this tipping point to be able to see it more clearly?

SG: There might be, but once the tipping point is reached, will seeing it more clearly cut the mustard?

JM: In terms of Shackleton's plight, it was pretty useful. He had to come to the point of saying, okay, we're obviously stuck in the ice. Now what are we going to do? At the moment, I don't think we collectively understand the fact that we're stuck in the ice. Maybe that moment hasn't yet arrived, but when it does, we will need to see it clearly. Maybe science isn't the only means for doing this.

SG: Well, if you're right, and the only reason that we haven't done anything is because we don't yet see the tipping point, I wonder if, when the revelation of it does happen, we will still be in a position to do anything about it. I think we've had pretty strong intimations of a tipping point with things like hurricane Katrina. More than half the city of New Orleans was destroyed in a single day. And still the question remains—it hangs in the air with great divided opinions—do we enlist all the best technology and spend billions of dollars to fight the forces of nature? Do we rebuild this city, and show the world that we have the will to do it? Or do we capitulate, knowing that the same thing could easily happen all over again? It's another version of our starting question, really: what do you do when the ship is sinking? If you take Katrina as the canary in the coal mine with regard to situations we will be facing in the future, I don't think the human race has figured out what it needs to do. I just hope we end up with some kind of guiding angel, rather like Shackleton's.

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