Not Enough Lifeboats
by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – Do you suppose that anybody boarding the RMS Titanic in 1912 took the trouble to count the lifeboats, calculate their capacity, and measure that against the number of people on board? It’s very unlikely, and would have been unnecessary, since the ship was deemed unsinkable. But when, in spite of warnings about icebergs, the ship steamed flat-out at night into the outlet of Iceberg Alley, two facts became ineluctable: The ship wasn’t unsinkable as claimed, and there weren’t enough lifeboats to accommodate what in those days were still called “SOBs” – souls on board.
It’s de rigueur, at the turn of each year, decade, or century, for us pundits to try to characterize the coming period. The 1900s, for example, have been called “The American Century,” and the current one, for pretty good reasons, is termed – rather darkly in the West – “The Chinese Century.” That may turn out to be true, but I doubt it. In this age of ever-increasing connectedness, I don’t think it possible to build and sustain an essentially mercantile empire while repressing by force so many ethnic minorities and smaller states. Without, however, dismissing the possibility – you have but to read articles on the use of many millions of surveillance cameras connected by artificial intelligence algorithms to hear echoes of “1984” – I’d instead predict the eventual collapse of the authoritarian Xi regime, and call the 21st century The Age of Emigration.
Not Immigration; that was the 19th century. Foreigners, almost universally despised, swarmed into our land of unlimited opportunity. They built our railroads, mined our coal, smelted our iron, staffed the constabulary (in the lines of an old song: “Irish judges and police; begorra, the Irish are keepin’ the peace!”), mended our shoes, ironed our laundry, and raised our kids and cattle.
Now, once again, almost two hundred years later, great numbers of people are on the move globally. But they’re not so much seeking jobs as fleeing intolerable situations in their homelands. Once again, they’re almost universally despised. The leaders of the world, both free and autocratic, have long pretended that the rate of global warming can be checked or reversed by “reasonable” efforts to slow humanity’s emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. It can’t; so the ancient myth of Noah and his naysayers is being played out in our time. Sensing finally – after catastrophic fires in Australia, Siberia, and our West; after Arctic blasts propelled south by a weakening polar vortex; after hurricanes that run out of alphabet to name them – that this thing is out of control, we’re beginning to squabble over space in the lifeboats. People are trying to get to places of safety, inaugurating the Age of Emigration: across the Mediterranean in boats overloaded by murderous scoundrels; through the Sonoran Desert, where they find caches of water left by good Samaritans smashed by border guards; or anywhere that, possibly, they and their children might sleep in safety.
Even New Englanders are beginning to feel the restlessness, and sniff the winds of change. My friend Tom Ryan, an author currently fleeing New Hampshire, writes: “We were not prepared for how the little towns we lived in would change, how the COVID migration of the wealthy wanting out of the cities would impact our regions. Soon, peaceful places we loved grew crowded, grocery stores became danger zones, and our little world was rocked by trails being crowded with folks from other parts of New England who complained of dogs being off-leash in places they’ve always been allowed off-leash. In some instances, particularly the areas we sought out in winter to walk, one of which we pay an annual fee to use since it has groomed trails, changed their rules. Signs began going up, ‘Dogs must be leashed.’”
Now that may not seem like much to some, but the bedrock of my relationship with Atticus, Will, Samwise, and Emily has been to treat them as I would want to be treated if our roles were reversed. This means a mostly-off-leash life. Knowing we were staying home, staying safe, keeping others safe, I felt like I was doing my part to fight the pandemic. Then the world came to the White Mountains and every other attractive, quiet outpost around the globe.”
Irresistible change is here, whether we like it or not, and could hardly come at a worse time or in a more difficult setting. What we make of it – how we either rise or succumb to its challenges – will determine whether we all still even deserve to be here on this green, but troubled earth.