Aboard The Titanic

I am working my way through another of Barbara Kingsolver’s excellent novels, titled Flight Behavior. The reading goes slowly because the book, while extremely well-written, is so dense and so disturbing. One can take only so much at a sitting. This one is about climate change and the effect it is having on monarch butterflies. Actually, the odd behavior of the monarchs is the result of climate change and the stupidity of humans who have clear-cut a huge area in Mexico where the Monarchs usually Winter over. Because of the clear-cutting, torrential rains in that part of Mexico have destroyed the entire mountain area where the butterflies usually end their migration. As a result, they have found themselves in the Tennessee mountains and the question is “why?” The climate in southern Tennessee is not conducive to the survival of the butterflies over the Winter. Something has gone seriously wrong with the inherent navigational system they have relied upon for thousands of years, and the novel centers around a small group of people who are determined to discover the reasons and try to understand what is happening to their world — and to ours.

The novel’s focus is upon its hero, Dellarobia Turnbow, a young woman with very little education but a bright and inquiring mind, her slow-witted husband, and two very small children. They are dirt poor, but Dellarobia has discovered something extraordinary when she walks up on the mountain one day in a fit of despair over what she regards as a wasted life. She suddenly comes upon millions and millions of beautiful monarchs who have appeared from nowhere and seem determined to stay for a while. The novel recounts the results of her discovery: her mother-in-law’s determination to profit from the discovery by giving tours, her father-in-law’s determination to log the area for the money that he desperately needs after a series of financial disasters, Dellarobia’s fame as the news media seek her out and delight in romanticizing her story, without mentioning the terrible fact that there is something very wrong to bring those creatures to this place in such great numbers. But the discovery also brings a lepidopterist from New Mexico, an expert on Monarch behavior, with a small crew of three graduate students who are very much concerned to find out why this has happened.

I won’t spoil your surprise should you decide to read the novel, which I highly recommend to those with steady nerves. But at one point in the novel, after Dellarobia has gone to work for the scientific team helping with odds and ends around the laboratory they have set up in her barn, a discussion is taking place between the lead scientist, Ovid Byron, his somewhat cynical graduate assistant Pete, and Dellarobia. At one point Byron explodes in anger at Pete’s glib dismissals of the unconcerned, “For God’s sake, man, the damn globe is catching fire, and islands are drowning. The evidence is staring them in the face.” Later, Dellarobia reflects on the apathy of humans who choose to ignore the obvious.

“She spoke carefully to the room. ‘I think people are scared to face up to a bad outcome. That’s just human. Like not going to the doctor when you’ve found a lump. If fight or flight is the choice, it’s way easier to fly'”

The novel puts me in mind of a ride on the Titanic with all of us aboard. The captain and those in charge of the vessel have all the confidence in the world in the invincibility of this ship. After all, it’s the greatest thing men have come up with and the epitome of technological expertise. The passengers are all busy entertaining themselves in hundreds of different ways, in the lounge dancing and dining; in their staterooms making love or playing with their electronic toys (or both); a small group clusters in the stern, heads bowed in prayer, eyes shut tight, fingers in their ears; and a few scientists are standing in the bow of the ship pointing to the huge iceberg that is dead ahead and shouting against the wind. We all choose to ignore it, to “fly” as Dellarobia says, rather than fight. We are in group denial: it’s too painful to take into our consciousness. As she says, “It’s impossible.” So we continue to dine, dance, play with our toys, and keep our fingers firmly in our ears. The captain is certain that the ship can withstand any collision with an iceberg and denies that there is any real danger.

But there is danger; it is dead ahead, and we cannot survive if we continue to ignore it — especially since there are no lifeboats on this ship. The only possible option is for enough passengers to take the scientists seriously, band together and take control of the ship and steer it to safety. The question is whether enough people will realize that the scientists are right before it is too late.


8 thoughts on “Aboard The Titanic

  1. Hugh, thank you so much for this review; I have not heard of this novel by Kingsolver, but it surely is her best yet. Wow, and double wow – good for her for taking a very serious issue – the Monarchs are one type of canary that’s falling over in the cage and === you’re right, few people are taking note. Our planet is in serious trouble.

    I actually have lots of material/links for a post about our runaway train, and my sense of foreboding equals yours.

    You’ve set a great example and hopefully others will take note.

    Thanks again..

  2. Thanks Hugh. I had not heard of the book. Comparing our plight with the Titanic is a good one. I do agree we would rather not face bad news, hoping it will go away. Yet, there is quote from Andy Rooney’s collection that said “Just because you ignore the facts, do not make them less real.” You will be not surprised that ALEC, the conservative think tank, has modified its position slightly on climate change, but not as far as it needs to be. Yet, ALEC now contends its organization was never denying climate change existed, which is news to many, especially in the party they support. It is kind of “1984” like. Have a great weekend and thanks for the book recommendation. BTG

    • As Byron says in the novel: “The evidence is staring them in the face.” Continued denial at this point is the mark of one of three things: (1) stupidity, (2) denial, or (3) insanity. Scientists no longer debate the question. The only debate is over the question whether even if we stopped doing what we are doing right now would it be enough to stop the runaway train. For people top take notice, I suspect, it will take such things as a major panic, much higher food prices or even rationing. These are well within the realm of possibility.

  3. Great review, Hugh. Kingsolver is a favorite author, though as you note, sometimes difficult to read.

    I admit to a certain fascination over the climate debate. As one who frequents Monterey, Ca, the other end of the Monarch migration, I can testify to the significantly reduced numbers of Monarchs in recent years.

    It’s the climate deniers that fascinate me. Why do they do that? We can account for the certain percentage that are plainly stupid, and have no concept nor observations of the changes already taking place. But what of the others?

    The politicians claiming they are “not a scientist.” OK, but as I’ve noted in the past, neither are they pilots, but they willingly get on airplanes every day. Is it simply the greed of going after the Koch brothers money that allows them this position? Are they sincere in their denials, or merely cynical. Some members of congress are stupid, see Inhoue of Oklahoma, but what of the others?

    Finally, I do believe most people do have an inkling that something is terribly wrong, only perhaps debating the total magnitude of the change. But like voting, I also see many who have thrown their hands up in disgust, feeling that no one is listening. If Obama, an acknowledged bright individual, is still allowing oil exploration in the seas and supporting its growth in the arctic, what’s an individual to do?

    Thanks for a great post, and a place for me to do a little ranting.

    • Always a pleasure! I think that many people simply “can’t handle the truth.” Others don’t understand the problem, and the media tend to stay away from it — it’s not a hot topic! When someone dares to bring it up he is denigrated as a “nay-sayer,” a “chicken-little.” TV viewers would simply surf to another channel. The issue demands a public debate but the debate is simply not happening. As Delarobia says, it’s “fly of fight,” and most folks would prefer to fly. But we really do need to start taking the problem seriously. Many politicians admit there is a problem privately, but deny it publicly because they are in the pockets of the fossil fuel industry and think their jobs are more important than saving the planet. There are, then, many reasons, but none of them are compelling. Thanks for ranting — and allowing me to do so in reply!

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