Ship of Fools: Save Me from Tomorrow

2013•02•18 Brendan F.D. Barrett Osaka University

“Ship of Fools” is an alternative rock song with an environmental message (or at least the video helps to interpret it that way) released in 1986 on World Party’s debut album, Private Revolution. The song was fairly successful internationally, debuting on the Billboard Top 40 in the United States and reaching no. 4 on the Australian pop charts. Unfortunately, I missed it completely because at that time I was living in Japan as a student at Kyoto University.

It was not until about four months ago, in 2012, that I finally came across the song online and I was struck by the lyrics and how apt they are for our contemporary predicament. I then became interested in World Party and realized that I had heard a few of their songs, without recognizing the band’s name. I also noticed how everywhere I come across mention of World Party the general comment is “why hasn’t this band been more successful?”

To say that World Party is a band is a bit misleading. Karl Wallinger is World Party personified — he is the sole songwriter, composer, lead vocalist, multi-instrumentalist and producer. Wallinger is a fantastic talent and it is good to see that he is touring and composing again.

What I like about his work is the environmental theme that runs through many of his songs like “And God Said”, “Ship of Fools” and “Give it All Away”. However, I am not writing this article out of respect to Wallinger , though I am glad to have found his music, but more about where his “Ship of Fools” song led me.

Haunted by early Renaissance thinking

I was surprised to learn that since the Renaissance we (in the West) have been gripped by the metaphor of the ship of fools in literature, art and in modern music. One of the first references to this allegory was in the popular 1494 book of that title by the German satirist, Sebastian Brant. To put the book in context, this was nine years after the death of Richard III of England and two years after Christopher Columbus’s first voyage to the Americas.

Brant, like many of his contemporaries, believed that the end of time was near and that the Second Coming required repentance, absolution and a life of incorruptible faith. The book, Ship of Fools, was his attempt to explore the reasons for mankind’s behavior in a fallen world, which he ascribed to our foolishness and ungodliness.

For Brant, the ship of fools is a vessel without a pilot, populated by deranged passengers who are oblivious to the direction they are travelling. In Wallinger’s lyrics they have set “sail to the place on the map from which no one has ever returned…’

We know that Hieronymous Bosch, the Dutch painter, was probably inspired by Brant’s book when he depicted his own “Ship of Fools” in his classic painting by that title, which is today on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris and shown in the banner above. The fools in Bosch’s ship comprise representatives from all of humanity, including moral beacons of his time such as the monk and the nun. These fools, drifting aimlessly, are never able to reach a safe harbor.

In looking at the painting we recognize that the “Ship of Fools” is not about some alien others — it is about us. Herein lies the inherent snare of the ship of fools allegory — that by recognizing its existence you at the same time come to understand yourself as a passenger.

In our modern world one could argue that we are on the same journey and there does not appear to be a safe port of call where we can disembark. This may in part explain the many other references to the ship of fools in modern literature (e.g., Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization), in film and other rock songs from the Doors, the Grateful Dead and Robert Plant. It is a powerful explanatory cultural motif for the world we live in and perhaps becomes more so with each passing day.

Ship of fools resonating with contemporary times

At Our World 2.0, we have always tried to focus on positive solutions to the pressing global issues of today. Nonetheless, sometimes the ship of fools comparison seems all too appropriate.

Let me give you an example. A couple of days back a friend posted on Facebook that world military expenditure in 2012 was equivalent to US$1.7 trillion and yet the annual costs of eradicating poverty would be US$135 billion. This latter figure is taken from a 2005 Millennium Project report estimate that redoubling of official development assistance to US$135 billion in 2006, then further rising to US$195 billion, would ensure that the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) could be met. In so doing, extreme poverty would be cut in half by 2015 (the end date for the MDGs), and by 2025 it would be substantially eliminated.

At almost the same time as the above post, another Facebook friend shared a graphic from a report that maintains that 0.1% of the world’s population controls US$42 trillion, which is enough to cover climate adaptation costs for the next 250 years. Coincidently, Treehugger published an article calling for the 0.1 percent to form a Billionaire League of Justice working to save the planet.

It is a funny old world isn’t it? Recently, I was impressed by the move in Australia to re-colour weather maps as temperatures continue to rise. According to the Guardian, the temperature forecast for Monday 14 January 2013 was “so unprecedented” (over 52°C) that Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology had to add a new colour to the top of its existing scale on the weather maps, “a suitably incandescent purple”.

It is hilarious, sad and scary at the same time — typifying the foolish state of the world we find ourselves in as we try to adapt to climate change while many are still denying that it is even happening.

Reading the above, do you feel locked into some pretty intractable problems? The most common reaction to this, I would guess, is “Don’t be naive, that’s how the world works, why should you expect something different?” Life is very good on this merry ship for a large number of us, myself included (and I am thankful). There are more than enough positive things to keep us preoccupied and entertained so we may never have to feel concerned or uneasy.

This leads some, like John Mason over at Skeptical Science, to talk about the Great Disconnect. He argues that “a lot of people understand neither the environment nor its vital importance to our continued wellbeing. In the disconnected world, food really does come from the supermarket — in many cases, for the sake of convenience or marketing, processed and packaged beyond recognition. That connectivity between it and the environment is broken, severed.”

He continues by stating that in our current “semi-robotic mode of existence, bombarded with messages that encourage us to consume ever more stuff, we have become part-disconnected from the world out there. How much do we really know of that world and how much do we need to know, and why does that matter?”

Yes, our technology is a marvel. Yes, we have improved the lives of many. Today’s modern civilization is a wonder and brings amazing comfort and benefits. And yet we cannot shake off a 500-year-old angst that we are somehow misguided and foolish.

Please don’t get me wrong. I do believe that brilliant, selfless and creative people are both numerous and actively involved in making this world a better place. However, my point is that we are increasingly recognizing that something is badly amiss. This has led some to conclude that we need a new worldview — a global sextant and an ethical compass. This is captured in a documentary I watched recently with the title “Crossroads: Labor Pains of a New Worldview” by filmmaker Joseph Ohayon.

If you have an hour to spare, it is really worth your time to watch this film. It challenges our assumptions of who we really are and why we do what we do.

But more importantly, the film argues that it is time to shift to a new integrated worldview, to reevaluate everything, to set a new destination for this ship we find ourselves on to a sustainable and more equitable world, to select better pilots to help us navigate and to aim for the future we have charted, rather than one we may stumble upon.

Throughout our history, Karl Wallinger and many other talented people like him have warned and cajoled us. I guess if we do not do this, if we do not try to read the signs or positively embrace change, then what does that make us?


Brendan F.D. Barrett

Osaka University

Brendan F.D. Barrett is a specially appointed professor at Osaka University in the Center for Global Initiatives and an adjunct professor at RMIT University School of Media and Communications. His core areas of expertise include ethical cities, urban transitions, sustainability science, and science/research communication.

Brendan worked with the United Nations in Japan between 1995 and 2015, with the UN Environment Programme and the United Nations University (UNU). He is currently a Visiting Professor at the UNU Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability.

Previously at UNU he was the Head of Online Learning and Head of Communications where he oversaw the development of interactive websites and video documentaries on complex social and environmental concerns. As a result, Brendan has extensive experience in science communications and launched the Our World web magazine in 2008.