It is especially when trying to speak of unfamiliar territory that a person of words finds the metaphor most useful as a tool. How else can you describe what is unknown except in terms of the known?
That is why metaphors have been indispensable to humankind's great spiritual teachers, for they are often trying to tell us about the ineffable. When Jesus seeks to tell us about "the kingdom of heaven," he says it is like a bit of leaven hidden in a bowl of meal until the whole is leavened. When Chuang Tzu tells us about the Tao, he likens it to the coursing of water that, without effort, flows along its way.
With a metaphor, a speaker can say, "This, about which you do not know, can be understood in terms of that with which you are familiar."
I've been thinking about metaphors recently because of the debate about whether we should change our course in order to avoid the catastrophes from man-made global climate change that some think we face.
Here, the rhetorical challenge is not to capture some ineffable spiritual reality: The notions of droughts on our farms and of sea levels engulfing shorelines are tangible enough. Rather, we're dealing with a different kind of unfamiliar territory: Humankind has been moving into the terra incognita of having unprecedented powers in the biosphere, without our having historical precedent to show us what our impact may be.
There are some who regard environmentalists as being like Chicken Little, who became foolishly alarmed about the sky falling, or the Little Boy Who Cried Wolf, who raised false alarms for his own immature purposes. But my concern - persuaded as I am that those characterizations are coming from people seeking to avoid real danger by hiding their heads in the sand - is that those who raise the alarm will end up like Cassandra, cursed to be able to foresee the disaster awaiting her people but also unable to persuade anyone to heed her warnings.
Hence I have been reaching into my quiver to find metaphors that will penetrate the complacency of my fellow humans. And just recently, upon seeing the blockbuster movie "Titanic," I found another metaphor that might be useful.
Admittedly, over the years people have gotten more mileage out of the Titanic as a metaphor than those who built that monumental vessel ever got out of her as an actual ship to traverse the oceans. During the debates on the nuclear arms race, the image of "rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic" was used to deride what one speaker or another thought to be irrelevant in the effort to avoid nuclear holocaust. For even longer, the Titanic has served as an image of human hubris, which is the pride (like that manifested by the belief that such a ship was "unsinkable") that leads (via the failure to exercise adequate precautions) to a fall (the sinking of the unsinkable and the perishing of 1,500 people).
But in the current film, the voice of the narrator supplies what seems to me still another useful Titanic metaphor. The issue is the captain's complacent decision, despite warnings that icebergs have been spotted, to continue at full speed. The captain, the narrator says, was "betrayed by his 30 years of experience." From his long experience as the captain of lesser boats, he had "learned" that he would have time after any iceberg might be spotted to steer his ship away from danger. "But everything the captain had learned," the narrator tells us, "was wrong."
The captain was wrong because, unlike other ships he had sailed, any real change of course on the Titanic would take more time and more distance. To go full speed ahead, therefore, was to court catastrophe.
Here's how that works as a metaphor. Many of the voices that tell us to keep running our industrial economies full speed ahead have "learned" from history that we needn't worry about our impact on the earth. For one thing, they think, history shows humankind to be too puny in relation to the earth to constitute much of a disruption. For another, they feel confident that if an environmental problem does become clearly visible, there will be time enough to adapt technology and economic activity to change course and avoid real harm.
They seek to reassure us with their own metaphor, claiming that the future, which we do not know, can safely be understood in terms of what our past has made familiar to us.
Bull in a china shop
But this metaphor is dubious, for the humankind of today is not like humankind of earlier eras. The change in our magnitude is like the Titanic next to a yacht. In the past century or so, human population has increased fourfold. Our economic productivity per person has been magnified even more. Before the industrial revolution, we might have been a mouse in the biosphere's china shop, but by now we have become a full-fledged bull.
Some of the processes we have set in motion - such as the growth of human numbers - are by now so profound that we can no longer change their directions in a matter of years or a generation. With respect to climate change, even if we now ratify the proposed and much-resisted treaty on global warming and do not challenge ourselves to reduce our consumption of carbon-based fuels beyond what that agreement requires, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to increase through most of the coming century. Like the Titanic, steaming toward its iceberg.
Full speed ahead gave the Titanic some grand moments. But the place in history it gained those who commanded its course was not one of glory, as they anticipated, but of folly and self-destruction.
* More of Andrew Bard Schmookler's ideas can be found at his Web site, at http://www.worldwide-interads.com