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Excerpt from The Myth of Human Supremacy

Brick Wall (p. 252)

From chapter "Facing Reality"

Think about it. You’re driving a car down a tunnel at 100 miles per hour directly at a brick wall. Do you turn to the passengers and say goodbye? Do you tell them, “Our lives depend on this car not crashing. I see no evidence of a brick wall. And I see no evidence that car crashes must be inherently destructive”? No, you hit the brakes so hard your foot goes through the floor. If you can stop, great. If you can’t, it becomes a question of increasing your odds of survival. I’d rather hit the wall at 90 than 100, 80 than 90, 70 than 80. With your own life and the lives of those you love at stake, every mile per hour you cut away counts.

But what does this culture do? It keeps its foot firmly on the gas.

Now, let’s say you’re a passenger in this car. What do you do? Do you turn to those in the back seat and say goodbye? Do you pretend there is no brick wall? Do you write up a petition you and the other passengers can sign requesting that the driver cut speed by 20 percent by the year 2025? No, you scratch and claw and kick and bite and do everything you can to get the murderous suicidal asshole’s foot o the gas, and press down with everything you’ve got on the brakes.


Let’s try this again. This time you’re piloting a plane at 30,000 feet, and you smell smoke. A lot of smoke. What do you do? Tell your co-pilot goodbye? Pretend there’s no problem? Say there’s no evidence that big fires on planes are inherently destructive? No. You try to put out the fire, and you take the plane off autopilot and try to get it on the ground as quickly as possible.

The metaphors should be obvious.

I’m going to extend this metaphor with a story. I sometimes think about the pilots of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 that crashed off the coast of southern California in 2000. While they were in the air, part of the flight control system controlling the pitch of the plane failed, causing the plane to drop nose downward and fall from 31,000 feet to 24,000 feet in about eighty seconds. By pulling hard—130 to 140 pounds of force—on the controls, the pilots were able to stabilize around that latter altitude. They had already discussed making an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport. The pilot then wanted to try to coax the jet down to 10,000 feet before attempting a landing. But, and here’s the part of the story that always makes me cry, because Los Angeles is so densely populated, the pilot requested permission to try to lose that altitude over the ocean, so a potential crash would kill as few people as possible. The crew got the plane down to 18,000 feet before the crucial screw in the flight control system gave way, and the plane flipped on its back and dove for the ocean. The pilots tried their best for eighty-one seconds, but they hit the ocean at over 150 miles per hour. Everyone on board died.

I’m not too proud to mix metaphors. We’re heading toward a brick wall. We need to slam on the brakes as hard as we can. Or if someone else is controlling the speed—if there’s a madman behind the wheel—we need to figure out a way to force the brakes ourselves. But that’s where the car metaphor fails, because we’re not only taking out the passengers, we’re taking out everyone else in the vicinity of the crash. So, moving to the second metaphor, if we can’t stop or slow the crash, I wish we would at least have the grace and courage of the pilots of Flight 261, and make sure to save as many lives as possible on the way down.