It’s early morning of a typically beautiful day in Italy and many thousands of fans are making their way into the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari, the Formula 1 circuit in Imola for race day at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix.
The fans lining the stands bring their usual atmosphere of excitement and curiosity, but also carry a lingering sadness – just the previous day Austrian driver Roland Ratzenberger had suffered a fatal crash during qualifying after the damaged front wing of his car had broken off just before a curve and sent him into a wall at three hundred and fifteen kilometers an hour.
The news of the tragic outcome hit the racing community hard, especially Brazilian driving superstar Ayrton Senna. After receiving the news the previous day Senna had broken down and wept on the shoulder of Professor Sid Watkins, the head of the Formula One on-track medical team.
Watkins urged him to walk away from the race: “give it up and let’s go fishing.” He already had three world championships and might as well enjoy himself with a friend somewhere safe; somewhere he could mourn. Senna replied that some things cannot be controlled and he must go on. Bravely answering the call in his heart, he would race just the same as he always had.
The race was off to a start just like any other with the elite drivers in the field vying for a competitive edge. A mere seven laps in, Senna’s car left the track at a corner going more than three hundred kilometers an hour and he met his fate when his car violently collided with a concrete retaining wall.
The following hours were wrought with suspense as the fans waited to hear any whisper of promising news. They had extracted Senna from the car and were performing emergency medical procedures on him before having him airlifted to the hospital, but nothing had been announced for some time.
As if losing one man wasn’t enough that weekend, Senna succumbed to his injuries and passed away. In fact, the accident was so vicious that it is believed that he was the victim of brain death upon impact. It was a horrendous weekend for everyone involved and reverberated through the community with changes that would grow new roots in the safety of Formula One.
Racing of any kind is inherently dangerous. It doesn’t matter what it is that’s being raced, the objective is to push to the limits and get over the finish line faster than every single other racer on the track. Everybody that gets involved in the racing life not only understands the inherent dangers, it is within their very soul; their entire being surrounds dancing a thin line between victory and death.
This is a natural form of competition for human beings to seek – the push to take things to their limits is what has brought us so far outside of their relatively simple beginnings of living off the earth and into each generation creating things that the previous generations wouldn’t even understand.
Such wonderful discoveries and horrible atrocities are endlessly born from our desire to see things go beyond their maximum limits. Our vast body of research and development in the field of medicine has brought us results that would have previously seemed miraculous, and our ability to create an explosion that can wipe an entire city off the map would have also seemed like something only capable by a higher power.
But no matter our intent, we tend to overreach our own grasp – and even when we mean to do good, well… the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
The world we know and love now came to be through a great collection of developments and inventions, and an important set of them were the children of the industrial revolution. This is when we really sprang from the loins of the earth and started producing things in incredible numbers.
But all of this production needs to be driven, literally, by a very large engine. And that requires a lot more energy in a lot shorter time than we had done previously. Fortunately we had figured out how to produce that by converting stored energy from fossil fuels into mechanical energy for production.
This was wonderful. Truly! What a discovery that we could manipulate the gifts of our great Earth so masterfully and creatively. If it weren’t for that kind of growth, you wouldn’t be reading this on your phone at this very moment.
But that’s a lot of carbon to be taking from it’s natural cycle in the Earth and releasing it into the atmosphere all at once. A lot of heat, waste gases, filth, and everything else that makes the image of industry the grimy picture in your mind that it likely is.
And a lot of competition. A lot of it.
Just like those fine folks behind the wheel pushing a race car as close as possible to the limits of failure, there were equally hungry people voraciously pursuing the checkered flag of the highest production numbers, the most profits, the biggest facilities, and the most power.
Like I said, it is in our very nature.
Human beings are smart, but the sweet taste of progress – the high that comes from being on top – can easily cloud our perception and make us believe that we’re untouchable. We’ve spent many years cranking out so many tons of harmful waste products while building our empire and now it seems that our inevitable cost is coming due. There is no magic pill to erase our debts to nature, and what is owed will be paid whether we like it or not.
Our path through learning has usually been clumsy and wrought with danger, but when we started producing things on a monumental scale, our mistakes brought with them a global cost. And unfortunately for those of us now looking to the coming decades, the cost was not immediately obvious enough for the prior generations to halt production and find a cleaner way.
We could no more slow down than Senna could walk away from that fateful race that took his life. It is not realistic to expect people to back down from actions that are driven by the fire within our soul. And if we could, would things really be better?
If Ayrton Senna had chosen to walk away from the race he may have lived a long and normal life. But he would have had to surrender who he was, and we may not have had such a revolution towards safety in the sport.
The two drivers losing their lives that weekend forced the community to take a grim but important look at what they were doing and shift their priorities much more heavily towards safety. And it worked – the cars became significantly safer with each passing season at a joyously alarming rate.
There’s not a single person that would truly wish for a driver’s life to end in order to bring forth change for the good – a human being’s life is too high a cost for any progress. And though we don’t wish for such catalysts for a change in perspective, they do come along every now and then to teach us a lesson that we seem to need to learn the hard way.
I believe that we’re in that end game of our environmental situation now. We’re headed towards the point of no return, or possibly already in it. The serious difference between the tragedies in racing and those of our shared world is that, for the latter, there are no spectators. We are all on the track together.
Our world seems to be going through some changes in weather and ecology that don’t seem to have a bright outcome in the foreseeable future. But, as I have illustrated, this seems to be the most effective environment for us to come up with near miraculous solutions – necessity truly is the mother of invention.
And let me tell you, if our Earth truly is starting to burn up in the wake of our lightning-fast progress, we’re all going to become pretty damned inventive as we start to run out of things like clean water, favourable growing seasons for crops, and coastlines that aren’t flooded with what was once big ice in the arctic.
And there are always examples of those that are coming up with technologies that satisfy both our need to keep producing and our need to become more sustainable, such as this:
There are always reminders out there to show us that we will never give up our love of pushing the boundaries of progress, and those that show our willingness to adjust our approach to find a more harmonious balance with nature. And these two seem to be coming together more with each passing year.
This is where we find the bright side, my friends. Though we cannot remove our nature to crash through barriers recklessly and dangerously, we wouldn’t want to. It makes us who we are, but so does our ability to adapt and ensure that we find a better way. A right way.
So keep your heads up and keep shooting for the stars. If you miss, at least you’ll die in the cold vacuum of space. Which would make for a really cool sounding eulogy.