In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin set out from England with 129 men in two ships to traverse the Northwest Passage. Both ships got stuck in the ice and every single expedition member eventually died of scurvy, lead poisoning, starvation, or hypothermia.
Over the last 40 years or so, a fairly comprehensive understanding of the expedition’s demise has emerged, and I was struck by how their failure to survive in a hostile, unfamiliar environment is a lesson that is very relevant to our current efforts to find technological solutions to a challenging and unfamiliar set of circumstances related to climate change.
At first, Franklin and the crews of the ships Erebus and Terror made camp on King William Island, near where the ships were ice-bound, perhaps in the hopes that the ice would melt, and they could continue as planned. But the ice didn’t melt—in fact, they stayed camped for two years and the ships stayed frozen in place through two arctic summers. Worse still, Franklin died after the first winter… so there they were, without their leader, starving and sick, and running out of alternatives.
I am particularly fascinated by what happened next.
Based on the evidence recovered, the 100 or so remaining crew decided to attempt to travel over land, south, in search of human settlements and survival. They equipped a heavy ship’s lifeboat with runners like a large sled, to carry items to bring with them. The lifeboat, recovered by a search expedition in 1859, contained “a heavy heap of items like cutlery, books, plates, soap, chocolate and worsted-work slippers… Franklin’s crew members probably planned on trading their things with the Inuit they hoped to encounter, but the sheer weight of the load — estimated at 1,400 pounds — would have exhausted the suffering men.” The seafaring technology of the 1840s (lifeboats, clothing, etc.) was designed to function in a very different environment, and was not readily adaptable for travel on snow and ice. Franklin’s crew also had limited experience and understanding of the techniques and equipment required for the harsh reality of arctic survival.
Franklin’s men did not recognize the technology that might have saved them.
The expedition party encountered Inuit along their route who did have the technology appropriate for survival, but for whatever reason, Franklin’s men did not recognize the technology that might have saved them. The Inuit would have been equipped with appropriate clothing for the environment, light sleds for efficient travel over the tundra, and (barring the language barrier), would have had expert knowledge of the terrain and survival resources in the area. “The Inuit traded whale blubber and seal meat for a knife, then watched as the men melted the blubber and cooked the meat over it, losing the blood and fat considered by the Inuit to be the most nutritious parts.” . Inuit accounts, given to a search party in 1854, told that 35 to 40 men had made it off the island to the mainland but had then starved to death.
How is modern Western civilization not like the Franklin Expedition?
Quite literally, we are also “stuck”—on a finite planet, surrounded by cold, empty endless space. We are confronted by very serious problems of climate change, resource depletion, and degradation of the natural systems we depend on for survival—we face disease, starvation and death if these challenges go unmet.
Like the thin clothing, heavy sleds, and useless items carried by Franklin’s crew, many of our current-day technologies are still not well-aligned to our long term survival. They are so energy, resource, and capital intensive—they can actually worsen the problems they’re trying to solve.
When we encounter advanced technologies that are suitable for long-term survival and stewardship of the ecosystem we rely on, do we recognize them as such—any more than Franklin’s crew recognized the superior technology of the Inuit for arctic survival? Or are we dismissing the people and knowledge that might save us as ‘primitive’ and ‘technologically backwards’?
I do not believe that technology can save us from our problems on its own, and definitely not if technology only means a progression of ever-more complex machines and devices that rely wholly on cheap energy from fossil fuels and revenues from a global consumer economy. I do believe that technology—in particular applied technical knowledge and processes—will be as essential to our long-term survival as it always has been, as long as it is consistent with the inherent limits and thresholds of the social and environmental context where they are deployed.
I do believe that technology will be as essential to our long-term survival, as long as it is consistent with the inherent limits and thresholds of the social and environmental context where they are deployed.
Junxion’s approach to strategy and CSR encourages our clients to articulate their best possible vision of a future that is sustainable and that is also grounded in the reality of the challenges we collectively face. Mission-driven organizations cannot ignore the big-picture and long-term sustainability context around appropriate technologies when their ambitions are to achieve big-picture and long-term social impacts. This is especially true when our ideas about how social innovation and social change happen are so intertwined with emerging technological innovations.
In a follow-up post I will explore the criteria by which we might recognize appropriate technology when we see it—and find our way back to safety and survival.
Garth Yule is a Senior Consultant in Junxion’s Vancouver office. He supports clients in for-profit, non-profit, and blended models, supporting efforts to shift entrenched systems and solve complex societal problems.