Lifeboat Ethics

At the end of the day, you might see a fisherman or two hanging around the waterfront of an island community waiting for the last boat to come back into the harbor. It does not matter what kind of miscreant might be at the helm, someone is still waiting for him. Islanders know the person who has wronged you most unforgivably might just be in the nearest boat when an onboard fire results in a Mayday call. Or your truck is stranded down a long driveway in mud season, or you need to get to a doctor in a hurry. Thus, islanders are generally more careful about burning their bridges with their neighbors than mainlanders, and when they dismantle a bridge, they are also quicker to rebuild because they recognize their fates are inextricably intertwined. People who move to island communities from elsewhere often imagine their new lives will be simpler and more peaceful than in those places—usually an urban or suburban community—they have left behind. But nothing could be further from the truth. To be a hermit, you need your own island; the last place you should go to get away from your neighbors is an island community. City folk can choose to be anonymous and invisible; island folk never can. There is much heartache that could be avoided if newcomers to islands better understood this simple fact of island life.

I was reminded of this reality when the drama over the Fox Islands Wind Project on Vinalhaven took an unexpected turn recently after a the controversy over noise from this wind project erupted

At a Fox Islands Electric Co-op board meeting, the most bitterly aggrieved opponent of the wind project had just delivered a 50-minute presentation on the noise issue to the directors of the co-op when he slumped over in his seat and quickly turned blue from a heart attack. One of the co-op board members leapt up and began administering CPR chest compressions and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to this neighbor and, within a few minutes, got the opponent’s heart beating and undoubtedly saved his life. You could not make this kind of drama up.

This is quite literally a heartwarming story. But different people have drawn quite different lessons from this real-life drama. To many of wind power opponents, the lesson is that the controversy around wind power risks the health—indeed the very lives—of those who live near the turbines. The blogosphere fired up quickly with a post from the heart attack victim’s wife: “I feel that [he] gave his life the other night. He died for these issues, for trying to bring light to the truth. It was luck and grace that the efforts to bring him back were successful.”

But others draw the exact opposite conclusion from the story. To many islanders, the very nearly tragic heart attack at the co-op meeting reinforces the lesson islanders know in their bones: that an island community is like a lifeboat and that no matter who your worst enemies might currently be, community members are all in the lifeboat together and have to make accommodations in tight circumstances. Your bitterest opponent aboard might have to save your life, so it is important to keep things in perspective.

We always hope that stories of this sort have a warm ending; that people on the lifeboat will all pull together to save each other. But we are complicated creatures. How do the individual needs of a few people in a lifeboat weigh against the collective needs of all the others on board? The small minority on a lifeboat that requires the rest of their shipmates to make a sacrifice for their well-being might logically fear that the majority will decide to throw them overboard with or without a life ring and their fear may make them even more unreasonable. Those pulling the oars to bring the lifeboat into a safe harbor would undoubtedly never countenance such an extreme response in ordinary circumstances, but everyone’s patience is tested during the long days at sea—especially in March. In the meantime, the remaining passengers onboard scan the horizon for any hopeful sign before onboard civility is compromised further.

April 4, 2011