Cruising over the Edge

I am very grateful to the Free Inquiry for permission to republish this article!

I am a subscriber to the print edition of Free Inquiry. Have been for quite a while. In the last issue, the April/May magazine, there was an article by Ophelia Benson that just seemed to ‘speak’ to me. I was sure that I was not alone. It was an OP-ED.

I emailed Julia Lavarnway, the Permissions Editor, to enquire what the chances were of me being granted permission to share the story. Frankly, I was not hopeful!

So imagine my surprise when Julia wrote back to say that she had contacted the author, Ophelia, and she had said ‘Yes’.


Cruising over the Edge

By Ophelia Benson

The trouble with humans is that we never know when to stop. We know how to invent things, but we seem to be completely unable to figure out how to uninvent them—or even just stop using them once we’ve invented them. We can commission like crazy but we can’t decommission.

Like, for instance, cruise ships the size of condo towers. They’re feats of engineering and ship building no doubt, but as examples of sustainable tourism, a small carbon footprint, a sensible approach to global warning, not so much. How many gallons of fuel do you suppose they burn while cruising? Eighty thousand a day, for one ship.

We can’t uninvent, we can’t let go, we can’t stop. We can as individuals, but that’s useless when most people are doing the opposite. It’s useless when cruise ships keep cruising, SUVs keep getting bigger, container ships are so massive they get stuck in canals, more people move to Phoenix as the Colorado River dries up, more people build houses in the Sierras just in time for more wildfires, air travel is almost back to “normal,” and Christmas lights stay up until spring.

So heads of state go to meetings on climate change and sign agreements and pretend they’ve achieved something, but how can they have? Have any of them promised to shut down nonessential enterprises such as the cruise industry? Will they ever? The CEOs and lobbyists and legislatures would eat their lunch if they did. They can’t mess with profitable industries like that unless they’re autocrats like Putin or Xi … and of course Putin and Xi and other autocrats have zero inclination to act in the interests of the planet.

Janos Pasztor wrote in Foreign Policy after COP26, the UN climate change conference in Glasgow this past November:

Even if all Glasgow pledges are fulfilled, we are still facing a temperature overshoot of approximately 2 degrees Celsius. In the more likely scenario of not all pledges being fulfilled, warming will be more: perhaps 3 degrees Celsius. This would be catastrophic in nearly every sense for large parts of humanity, especially the poorest and most vulnerable who are suffering first and worst from escalating climate impacts.

Ironically, the technologies we can’t uninvent aren’t just the material luxuries such as huge cars, they’re also intangibles like democracy and freedom and individual rights. It may be our very best inventions along these lines that are the biggest obstacles to doing anything about the destruction we’ve wrought. We believe in democracy, and a downside of democracy is that governments that do unpopular things, no matter how necessary, are seldom governments for long. Biden and Macron and Trudeau and Johnson probably can’t do anything really serious about global warming and still stay in office to carry the work through.

Pasztor went on to ask a pressing question:

So how do we avoid temperature overshoot? The most urgent and important task is to slash emissions, including in the hard-to-abate sectors (such as air transport, agriculture, and industry), which will require substantial lifestyle changes.

Yes, those substantial lifestyle changes—the ones we show absolutely no sign of making. Maybe the biggest luxury we have, and the one we can least afford to sustain, is democracy.

Democracy at this point is thoroughly entangled with consumerism or, to put it less harshly, with standards of living. We’re used to what we’re used to, and anybody who tries to take it away from us would be stripped of power before the signature dried.

This is why beach condos in Florida aren’t the only kind of luxury we have to give up; we also have to give up the “consent” part of the “consent of the governed” idea when it comes to this issue. Not that I have the faintest idea how that would happen, but it seems all too obvious that democratic governance as we know it can’t do what needs to be done to avoid catastrophe.

We don’t usually think of democracy as a luxury alongside skiing in Gstaad or quick trips into space, but it is. It relies on enough peace and prosperity to be able to afford a few mistakes.

We take it for granted because we’ve always had it, at least notionally (some of us were excluded from it until recently), but it’s not universal in either time or place. To some it’s far more intuitive and natural to have “the best” people in charge, because they are the best. It’s a luxury of time and location to have grown up in a moment when non-aristocrats got a say.

The British experience in the Second World War is an interesting exception to the “take people’s pleasures away and lose the next election” pattern. Hitler’s blockade on shipping created a very real threat of starvation, and the Churchill government had to take almost all remaining pleasures away in pursuit of defeating the Nazis. Rationing, the blackouts, conscription, censorship, evacuation, commandeering of houses and extra bedrooms were all commonplace. Much of the dismal impoverished atmosphere of George Orwell’s 1984 is a picture not of Stalin’s Russia but of Churchill’s Britain. Life was grim and difficult, but Hitler was worse, so people drank their weak tea without sugar and planted root vegetables where the roses had been.

It’s disastrous but not surprising that it doesn’t work that way with a threat that’s unfolding swiftly but not so swiftly that everyone can see how bad it’s going to get. We can see what’s in front of us but not what’s too far down the road, especially if our contemporary pleasures depend on our failure to see. We’re default optimists until we’re forced to be otherwise, Micawbers assuring ourselves that “something will turn up”—until the wildfires or crop failures or mass migrations appear over our horizons.


I do not know what the answer is? But I do know that we have to change our ways and change in the relatively near future; say, ten years maximum.

Because as Janos wrote, quoted in part above: “This would be catastrophic in nearly every sense for large parts of humanity…”

We are in a war. Not a military one but a war with the reality of where we are, all of us, heading. We have to stop ducking and weaving and come out fighting. Fighting for the very survival of our species. Do I think it will happen? I am afraid I do not. Not soon enough anyway: not without the backing of every government in the free world.

I really wonder what will become of us all!

14 thoughts on “Cruising over the Edge

  1. Paul, of course, this is a thought-provoking article. The answers are not coming from us common folk. We are at the mercy of those in power. I just have to wonder how the “governments” will go in each country. Seems during our health crisis pandemic, they varied tremendously in response. I get it about cruise ships etc. I never even wanted to “take a cruise.” And huge SUVs? I have smaller a Ford Focus hatchback. Luxury condos? I have a mid-century small house. My footprint on the earth is modestly small. And I think there are many more people like me, who are giving it their all. We are the small people fighting for survival. Hoping the government will come through for us. 📚🎶 Christine

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Christine, the reason I liked this article, and sought to republish it, was that the inference in the writings was that we had to, temporarily, abandon our democratic principles and fight this ‘war’ soon. As much as I laud such imperatives I am afraid I do not see governments responding until it is way too late. I sincerely hope I am wrong but unless there is a major change in priorities, across many countries, nothing will happen. You, and others, are doing the right thing but it is too little, too late.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Fighting a loosing war? Temporarily abandon our democratic principles? God help us! And let’s fight for the right people in power to help us! 📚🎶 Christine


      2. As I said, I hope, hope, hope that I am wrong. But re-read that item that Janos Pasztor wrote in Foreign Policy last year. Even if all the pledges that were made at COP26 we are still in for an overshoot of 2 degrees C. And is there any government enacting those pledges? Not that I can see.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Too many other immediate challenges/disruptions are getting in the way. Today it’s Russia/ Ukraine, etc. And the latest viral strain! There is no end! 📚🎶


  2. ABSOLUTELY. We used to watch those horrid cruise ships come in to Port when we had to go into Kona for supplies. The most obscene site on the water, ever. They completely ruined Bar Harbor, Maine, where we lived near to, before we move to Hawaii. All of the sweet galleries and inventive restaurants turned into crappy Kitch and vulgar food. What a bloody shame. Good article.


  3. Thanks for publishing this. I’ve been on a cruise ship and I really had no idea how many gallons of fuel were being burned up, and it’s not even redeemable by the fact of being a very fun thing to do. Bad comedy, bad stage shows, bad piano bar, bad karaoke. The only part I enjoyed was that I woke up the second day and wandered the ship while it was deserted. 0 out of 5 stars, would not recommend.

    The very difficult part of this is that the continued escalation of global warming leads to the wars, as battles for resources become even more intense. Drought here, flood there, seas being overfished while the corals are bleached leading to a reduction in food source for the fish, all leading to illegal aliens crossing over borders in hope of not starving. We will have more Syrian and Ukrainian wars.

    I don’t see much hope either, no miracle on the horizon. For now, it’s best just to not look up.


    1. Mike, apologies for the delay in approving your comment.

      Your experience of going on a cruise ship was very interesting. It’s not something I have done, simply because I haven’t considered it, not from any serious opinions one way or another.
      The question about global warming is deeply worrying. Here, in Southern Oregon, we are already experiencing weird weather, a spell of rain and snow lasting some five days. Not unique but very unusual. That was shortly after a day of 84 deg F (29 deg C).

      As you say, it is best not to look up. I am 77 and very happy with my life at the local level. But, despite the age and its ramifications, I wouldn’t want to be younger. The world is getting to be very strange.


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