Sailing on the Titanic

Nearly everyone knows the story of the Titanic, the luxury ocean liner that sank in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912.  The ship was huge. From bow to stern the Titanic was nearly three football fields long and almost one field wide. There was room for 3547 passengers and crew. The amenities included swimming pools, a gymnasium, a turkish bath, libraries and a squash court. This ship was touted as the latest in technological advances in ocean travel. It was claimed by her owners, the White Star Line, to be unsinkable.

While the Titanic was fast and luxurious, it was tragically not unsinkable. The ship simply could not maneuver fast enough to miss hitting the iceberg that punched a hole in her side. Smaller ships traveling at slower speeds had maneuvered around the same floating ice without a problem.

We seem to have only increased our fascination with size. We measure success in agriculture by number of acres, yields per acre, and horsepower of equipment owned. We measure business success in market share, not only on a national scale, but a global one. We puff ourselves up if our kids work for the “largest company” in the midwest, the country, the world.

Like the Titanic, big also means inflexible. We have been told that we bailed out investment banks because they were “too big to fail.” We helped the Big Three car companies because they were not able to alter course to meet the needs of a changing world.

Like the vortex created by the sinking Titanic which sucked down some of those who had escaped the ship, businesses supplying the Big Three car makers found themselves without customers. Workers, not only in related businesses, but those who earned a living in close proximity to affected businesses were also sucked into the downward economic spiral.

It is not just Wall Street investors and car manufacturers that have pursued the “bigger is better” philosophy. Two of the country’s five largest health insurance companies are seeking to buy two of the other three. Bayer is buying Monsanto, pending regulatory review, for an estimated $66 billion. Our economy is dominated by multinational corporations and near monopoly companies. The oil companies, meat packers, grocers, seed companies are huge with a few entities controlling a major market share.

There are icebergs floating in front of us: the environment and global warming, the economic downturn, the disparity between the rich and the poor, continuing wars, peaking (or possibly peaked) oil reserves. Our Titanic-sized systems of production and distribution–which we have come to accept as the status quo–refuse to acknowledge that there is a problem. There is so much invested in doing things the way we have for the last 50 years that changing direction is nearly impossible. We seem to be concerned about the number of deck chairs while we turn our heads to the fact that there are not enough life boats.

We have choices. We can advocate for a change. We can demand that laws prohibiting market concentration and monopolies are enforced. When we look for opportunities for economic development, we can look for companies which provide products or services for a regional market. We can seek ways to provide services on a community scale. We can reward and encourage flexible, agile, easily changed businesses with the policies and opportunities we offer. We can find ways to encourage local food production, expand farmers markets, local processing and marketing. We can fund research to develop community scale technology, locally adapted seed varieties and regional distribution systems.

We can choose to book a berth on a smaller more maneuverable boat.

Copyright © 2016 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains