Women and Children First

When I was a kid I was taught that when in danger, women andchildren were saved first.

I don’t know where I heard first the expression, perhaps itwas in one of the disaster movies I adored, or the books about the Titanic Iread under the covers after I was supposed to be asleep. Regardless of thesource an impression was imprinted.

Perhaps it was sexist, but I didn’t take it literally.Instead I remember the suggestion more broadly as the appropriate way torespond when the lives of a group of people are at stake. The vulnerable shouldbe saved.

Apparently the tradition started in 1852 when the HMS Birkenheadsailed from Ireland to southern Africa with 638 people, including 476 Britishsoldiers and 20 women and children. After an uneventful voyage the HMS Birkenheadran on to a pinnacle of rock on 26 February 1852. The metal hull was torn openand just over a hundred soldiers drowned as they lay sleeping. The rest of thetroops rushed on deck and tried to help the crew to man the pumps and free thelifeboats. However the lifeboats had rarely, if ever, been used and the riggingwas clogged with paint and they were only able to free three of the lifeboats.The women and children were ushered into the three lifeboats. The ship wassinking, and the captain knew that time had run out. He shouted out the words”Every man for himself.” The soldier’s commanding officer drew hissword and ordered his men to stand fast. He threatened to use his sword to stopanyone who panicked and tried to rush the lifeboats putting the women andchildren at risk. He had no need to use the sword – each soldier remained intheir ranks.

When these words are spoken three things were likely tohappen, two terrible, one heroic:

  1. Bad things were going to happen;
  2. People were likely going to die; and
  3. Some courageous people would step up and put theneeds of others-those less prepared to handle the hardship-ahead of their ownpreservation.

I have been thinking about how we choose to respond tolife-or-death crises a lot over the last few years. Initially, because I becamethe father of four month premature daughter who faced long odds. More recently,because of the alarming scientific predictions about the climate crisis.

When confronted by life-or- death situations at a personalor societal scale, how do we respond?

Do we climb over those weaker than us to benefit ourselvesor do we first do what we can for those most vulnerable?

In my daughter’s situation the collective response wasextraordinary.  The nurses and doctors atthe Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) went to extraordinary lengths to keepmy daughter alive and give her a chance to thrive. Virtually everyone seemed tobe willing to go that extra step outside their job descriptions and comfortzones to help. And our extended family and friends came through for us withwords of kindness, food and help with all the menial tasks that seemoverwhelming when a loved one is in hospital.

The same can’t be said for the collective response to theclimate crisis. Scientists couldn’t be clearer; we face the death of BILLIONSof critter
s and people unless we change course and stop polluting with heattrapping gasses. Scientists predict that if we burn all the easily accessiblefossil fuels now available we can expect average global temperatures to rise 6degrees. This will lead to the death of civilization as we know it. 3 to 5billion people will perish as will many species. Emergency action is needed nowor people will die… lots of people.

The victims of inaction will initially be those mostvulnerable: Poor people the world over, but particularly those barely survivingon the margins in the developing world. The elderly and the young, those withchronic illnesses will also be vulnerable. But ultimately, if our inactioncontinues and the climate crisis moves toward 6 degrees, all of us, includingthe rich will be impacted.

We may notwant to admit it, but the scientist are telling us that as residents of earthwe getting close to close to a planetary “women and children first!’ moments.

Unfortunately,instead of facing this growing global crisis with courage North Americanleaders are taking a “me first” attitude and pushing the mostvulnerable overboard into the warming ocean.

NorthAmerican countries (particularly Canada and the U.S.) have used much more thantheir fair share of any equitable carbon allotment. Most of the toxicoversupply of heat warming gasses poisoning our world result from ourproduction and consumption. But instead of reigning in our profligateconsumerism – and the wasteful emissions that result – we are telling thedeveloping world we are not prepared to cut our emissions unless you do sofirst.

In otherwords “me first, not “women and children first!”.

Thissuicidal selfishness is most visible in the talks leading up to Copenhagen,where the next Climate treaty will be negotiated this December. Canada’srepresentative has been singled out as a key obstacle to getting an effectiveagreement.

Why?

BecauseStephen Harper’s Conservatives are doing everything in their power to preventany rules that would slow down the rapid expansion of the tar sands, Canada’sfastest growing producer of heat trapping gasses. And ironically, Mr. Harpersalivates over future riches by opening up the arctic to mining and oil and gasas northern sea ice melts because of climate change.

Under Mr.Harper’s leadership Canada has abdicated its historic role as world leader oncollective problems such as peacekeeping, Apartheid and land mines.

Instead ofbeing courageous leaders looking out for the most vulnerable, Canada is pushingothers out of the way to be the first into the lifeboat.

But thereis no lifeboat that can save just us Canadians. Trying to become an “energysuperpower” by pushing tar sands oil is like opening the throttle instead ofturning away from the rocks. It leads to certain catastrophe.

We are allin this together and if we don’t act quickly it isn’t going to matter much whetheryou were the child of a multi -millionaire oil executive or a postal worker, theson of a $1000 a day oil rig worker or a welfare mom, Stephen Harper’s nephewor the child of a factory worker . There will be no safe havens in a rapidlywarming world. 

Nolifeboat can save us all, but there is just time enough to turn the ship aroundbefore we hit the rocks. It’s time for us all to wake up and demand that ourpolitician show the courage necessary to avert the worst of this crisis.

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