Two months ago, many around the world were fixated on news of a deep-sea submersible craft missing on a dive to view the sunken ship, RMS Titanic. News coverage was extensive and long-lasting. Tragically, it became clear that the submersible was gone because of an implosion in deep, high-pressure water, probably on the first day of its descent.
I was one caught up in the drama of the attempted sea rescue and subsequent recovery effort. My interest in the Titanic story and the adventures of those undertaking interesting, high-risk journeys intrigued me. But as the news unfolded, especially after remnants of the submersible were recovered, I wondered anew why anyone would venture to such depths in a “tin can,” a newly modified, somewhat untested craft.
I admire risk-takers, those who take daring, calculated risks. I know for the most part they are trained and knowledgeable to assess and undertake their adventures, but the risk is still there, perhaps high and likely a big driver for them. But if the risk is merely for thrills or “because it’s there,” and for no morally justifiable reason, you’ve got to wonder about the sanity of it, especially if the least risky part of the trip is the enormous individual expense of undertaking it. The OceanGate dive, like some suborbital space flights, is a fun junket for only very wealthy people. And if they die doing so, how does it impact their legacy and what message does it send to the rest of us?
Another disaster occurred about the same time as the OceanGate tragedy, one that served as a slap across my face. Worldwide interest in the submersible news completely overshadowed news of another maritime disaster which occurred less than a week before. A smuggler’s boat carrying refugees travelling from Libya to Europe capsized in the Mediterranean Sea near Greece. Eighty people survived; the rest, perhaps as many as 600 or more, were lost at sea. These were poor people fleeing for a better life. The smuggling of refugees is a common story; the tragedies maybe less so, but still too common and heart-wrenching (try to find and add up the number of deaths at sea of immigrant boat people over the years). The recent Mediterranean disaster received scant news coverage, especially compared to the OceanGate coverage. Former US president Barak Obama was the first person I read who brought the realities of the two disasters into focus; our fascination with rich people on a boating holiday gone wrong, versus the loss of poor people seeking a better world for themselves. The risks for the participants may be similar but not the rationales.
These are stories of extremes in wealth and opportunity, and in public miscalculation of what’s important in human adventure and survival. It’s an age-old contrast and controversy, and it seems we’re no closer to addressing the problem of disparate wealth or fully appreciating risk versus reward. It may be hard for many of us to comprehend it properly because we’re mostly middle class, neither poor nor rich. We do not identify and are not identified with those two bookends of class society. However, we are generally the dominant class, at least in numbers and societal influence. That puts us in a good position to ponder and address the plights of the very poor versus the excesses of the very rich.