The Birkenhead Protocol

If the image of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, washed lifeless upon the Turkish shore, personifies the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East, we might also consider the last images Aylan himself ever saw as symbolic of humanity’s greater moment of peril.

The biblical proportions of climate change—the storms and rising seas, the mass migrations of dispossessed—distill to Aylan’s lone wooden boat, adrift in the sea, crowded, left to its fate, like a vision fit for the Black Paintings of Goya. A bleak and haunting spectre of civilization’s undoing. (No less poignant for the fact climate change helped ignite the Syrian conflict, ultimately driving Aylan’s family into the sea.)

And since, because of the climate system’s inertia, we have only felt the effects of half of the greenhouse gasses already in our atmosphere, we are as a culture witness to the same kind of uncertainty and terror that ended Aylan’s journey. All around us our biotic shipmates are floundering: fish are escaping to northern waters; butterflies are searching for less arid habitat; trees are moving uphill. Every biome on Earth is in the throes of adaptation. But where will life go when all of life, the entire planet, migrates at once?

In the moments before he drowned, Aylan was abandoned. The Birkenhead protocol of evacuating woman and children first is only possible if there is a safe place to evacuate to. When the life raft itself begins to sink it is every man—and child—for himself.

The abandonment of civility is our true descent. It is the sinking of even the possibility of compassion. And already we see its dark waters in Hungary’s caging of refugees, and the foment of ultra-right nationalists. In the anger of those who have lost their grip on decency, who are overcome by fear, and swallowed into the bottomless swells of bigotry.

In a time when even rainforests burn and lakes dry to bone, when the slipping of the entire southern continent into the ocean cannot be stopped, what reserves of mercy do we imagine will be enough? What pity, what forbearance will survive the entreaties of a hundredfold refugee crisis? What succour will remain for the less fortunate in a less abundant world?

Already, murmurs of panic filter amongst the few calculating our provisions. The calm we have known, the calm that allows for aid and accommodation, the calm that depends on a civil society, faces an unforgiving future of scarcity. And with it, the justifications of every barbarity.

When the HMS Birkenhead hit an uncharted reef off the coast of South Africa in 1852, Captain Robert Salmond issued the earliest recorded order for “women and children first,” later upheld as a model for “the height of courageous behaviour in hopeless circumstances.” The crew, ordered to “stand fast,” watched as the life boats sailed for shore and out of danger of being swamped once the ship was fully abandoned. Four hundred and fifty drowned, were dashed on rocks, or consumed by sharks.

Despite maritime mythology, the observance of the Birkenhead protocol has since proven the exception and not the rule. “Hopeless circumstances”, it seems, inspires only the very few. But the principle at least provides some gauge of admirable conduct. A model to preserve in moments of mortal hazard. An expectation of human dignity’s resilience that if not upheld, admits to failure.

It might be easier to adhere to the amoral reductionisms issued from today’s captains of industry, but they are more anchor than buoy to our drowning world. If Aylan’s limp form speaks of anything, it is the pricelessness of life. Glib, bottom-line reasonings about the costs of mitigation betray their indecency in the presence of those, like Aylan, who fail to adapt.

The mercenary logic of capitalism would see the fates of the Birkenhead’s manifest reversed. Only the fittest would sail to safety (no doubt lamenting the unfortunate constrictions of economic reality with each backward glance), while quietly reassured that a kind of market-providence prevailed to save them, in substitute for the sacrifices of the “height of courageous behaviour.”

We are in a new world. And for the thousands of species and millions of people already forced to adapt environs, it is a literal new world, where the problems of climate change are no longer abstract. And where, as the image of Aylan Kurdi demonstrates, a new moral territory awaits.

These are uncharted domains, requiring the invention and normalization of a humanitarian protocol. An imperative for the preservation of life. A code of conduct to define ourselves in proportion to our willingness to suffer personal consequence. Because in hopeless circumstances the only thing possible—and worthy—of saving, is the metaphysical equivalency between one life and another.

While simple charity provides a veneer of respectability to capitalism’s appetites, it is inadequate for our present emergency so long as it protects the status quo. Without the honest admission of the shared fates of the first world, the developing world, and the natural world, all—eventually—is lost.

History affords few chances to stand in testament to the things we cherish—and no second chances. Now is such a time. Because no matter who or what we are on this planet, we are all in the same boat.


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