Let Me Off the Planet

At the beginning of “An Inconvenient Truth” Al Gore shows the audience two iconic Apollo images, Earthrise and Blue Marble. I remember seeing those pictures as a teenager and feeling the shock of scale. There we all were, every last one of us. Human beings living on a fragile blue globe suspended in the middle of nowhere. And all of history has happened on that tiny rock.

As an aside, the link to Earthrise above has some interesting history of the image. William Anders, the astronaut who took the photograph on Apollo 8, actually framed it in a vertical orientation so the moon appeared on the side of the photo, instead of at the bottom. But most republications of the image put the moon on the bottom of the frame. A bit of history that shows the power of normalizing perspectives. Humans see a bit of strangeness, but not too much.

Stephen Hawking got a flurry of attention during the middle of last month when he said that humans should get off the planet in order to avoid a climate catastrophe or some other dire event. A news story at the Globe and Mail neatly summarizes the topic.

A fair number of weblogs that I read regularly criticized Hawking’s statement. A reaction from PZ Myers that was critical but tempered, and mentioned naked mole rats in an interesting way. Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon called Hawking a tool. Chris Clarke womping on Hawking. Summed up in this quote.

We are the problem here. We’ve only got one planet right now and we’re messing it up. What happens when we’re spread out on a bunch of planets? The pressure’s off, and we have one less reason not to piss in our drinking water. If we blanket Mars with radioisotopes and fast-food wrappers? Well hell, Titan’s right there. And we can always mine Jupiter for hydrogen.

Hawking’s future of humanity resembles nothing so much as those aliens from Independence Day, the ones that travel from planet to planet laying waste the resources and moving on, pausing only to strangle Brent Spiner. OK, so every disaster has an upside. My point is that our planet deserves better than to be a mere discarded larval skin for a species that goes on to eat the galaxy, implacable and soulless and vulnerable to computer viruses written in haste by a drunkard, on a Macintosh.

There’s nothing I disagree with in this critique, but it still pains me. If there’s one childhood hope and belief I still cling to it’s watching humans venture into space. I’m not sure why this hope is so persistent. Perhaps it has something to do with expanding perspectives and the overview effect. To me, space exploration was about seeing the wonder and awe of the universe. Survival of the species was secondary.

There was also a personal hope to become an astronaut and see the Earth from space myself. I’ve aged enough to make that possibility seem very unlikely. So selfish reasons seem to have waned.

The images of the blue globe floating in space haven’t done enough to change our perspectives on the world and the fragility of our lives. I believe in space exploration because I still hope that others will experience the same shift of perspectives that altered my life when I first saw those photographs and read about the experiences of the astronauts.

Ignoring space exploration is a death of the imagination captured well over at cinestatic: the [battle between imagination and capitalism](http://www.cinestatic.com/infinitethought/2006/06/death-of-cosmic-imagination.asp “Death of the Cosmic Imagination”).

Whilst Stephen Hawking’s recent announcement that colonization on other planets is imperative to ensure the continuation of the human race is not quite as unusual as the media have been making out - ‘it’s like science fiction!’ - the reception of Hawking’s claims reveals at least two things: One, the death of the cosmic imaginary and two, the science fictionalisation of capital and the military-industrial complex itself. Despite the fact that the first man-made object to orbit the Earth (the USSR’s Sputnik 1 on October 5, 1957) was launched less than fifty years ago and even though the capacity to extend our exploration further is technically better than ever, the socio-political horizon of the possibilities of space exploration have been almost completely destroyed, replaced by the Terrestrial (dis)comforts of self-colonising Kapital and a world turned inwards (outdated satellites endlessly beaming back nought but our own chatter and image a case in point).

The above quote was via the amusingly titled ‘every morning I wake up on the wrong side of capitalism’ which came via ideant, itself via wirearchy

A positive comment by Bryce Zabel hints at some of the romance I remember. And finally Mark Dery provides a nice rant at Verity magazine.

Fact-based appeals to reason don’t seem to be getting much traction among world leaders whose decisions are based on the Machiavellian calculus of their own short-term political fates–specifically, the need to curry favor with their corporate benefactors in the petroleum industry–or their devout belief in the consoling fictions of Bronze Age cosmologies, or both. My great worry that is even the rising tides won’t instill some sense of “planetary awareness” in our Dear Leaders, to resurrect a moldering phrase from the eco-conscious ‘70s. Do they have an escape plan, equal parts DOCTOR STRANGELOVE and SILENT RUNNING? Are they planning to hit the eject button when the going gets tough and send their gated communities, well-staffed by small persons of a brownish hue, hurtling toward the stars, in search of new worlds to colonize? Somehow, we have to deny them that failsafe, and make them understand that, like it or not, we’re all in the same leaky little POSEIDON lifeboat together. Demanding a green plank in every political platform might be a more effective way of impressing that on our politicians, as opposed to placing our faith in images that would presumably shock us into action.

That last sentence really strikes to the core of what I said above. But I still hope we can do both. I just can’t let it go that easily. Some of us have to dream while others do the hard work of putting those dreams into political forms.