The Pale Blue Dot
It seems like every few weeks, there’s an announcement heralding the discovery of a new potentially Earth-like planet somewhere off in the cosmic distance. Human ears perk up at the possibility of colonizing a completely new land, one whose ground hasn’t been spoken for a thousand times over by the marching feet of history. I used to react similarly, my head full of Star Trek visions and clean-slate dreams.
Do you know someone who comes up with a new scheme every so often? One that will fail miserably like all the other ones they’ve tried in the past? Because although the idea is new, the person pursuing it possesses the same critical flaws that sank the previous ventures?
This is increasingly how I view humanity.
I would really rather not be like this. The cynical life chose me, not the other way around. By nature, I am an idealist of the Henson school, Rainbow Connection and the whole nine. Those are the instincts which scream in protest every time I pronounce negative judgment on the human capacity for positive change.
But look at the facts. As a species, our record on prudent resource management is plainly abysmal, as is our scorecard when it comes to environmental sustainability. Certainly there exist exceptions among us, people who pour all their creativity and knowhow into designing and implementing brilliant systems that allow us to harmoniously coexist with our world.
Yet most of those innovations do not make their way into mainstream culture. When a choice is presented to the average citizen, familiarity wins more often than not. Especially when those with entrenched profit interests in old methodologies employ elaborate public relations campaigns and lobbying dollars to keep us dependent upon the products and services they provide.
We are easily led, and that more than anything else has darkened my optimism on our prospects. We believe what we are told to believe, to a degree obvious to anyone who’s read about Stanley Milgram, the Third Reich, or pretty much any epoch since the codification of propaganda by Edward Bernays a hundred years ago. Not that we were all that individualistic before that, but the modern science of opinion-making frankly makes controlling human beings so easy that the temptation is irresistible to anyone with a few million to blow on it.
They don’t even lie about it half the time. Elon Musk says he wants to leave Earth before it becomes unlivable, a fate he appears eager to accelerate. Other billionaires spend heaping great wodges building their opulent bunkers for when the shit finally goes down. The concurrent plundering of national treasuries by the banksters and corporate scumlords should surprise no one. They know we’re fooked, too.
Yet these methods of avoiding catastrophe are pitifully inadequate to escape true global disintegration. Sure, go to Mars. Then guess what? When something goes wrong, you’re even more screwed than you were before, having only barely wrangled a hostile alien environment into something approaching a home.
Has no one read War of the Worlds? Can you imagine the sorts of microorganisms that might exist on one of these Earth-like planets? Our bodies freak out at exposure to unfamiliar chemicals and microbes all the time. We are only recently learning how dependent we are on the right mix of bacteria in our guts for our health and well-being. Now let’s plop ourselves down in an environment with which our immune systems have ZERO experience. Like Wells’ Martians, we may drop dead within days, if not upon the instant.
Our dreams of colonizing new worlds come from science fiction, but so do the cautionary tales. A truly Earth-like planet will have developed at least some form of life, evolved optimally to survive in that environment. Do we want to meet the apex predator of Trappist 1-D? And if we do, can we claim the right to decimate it, as we have with other threats to our own existence here on Earth? You can bet we will.
The truth is that I don’t trust us. While humanity possesses a wealth of beauty and compassion, we are also rife with avarice and selfishness. Our pendulum between the two swings constantly, both within each individual and in the society as a whole. Where there is a fresh opportunity for personal gain, the worst elements among us rise to the fore, the bleeding hearts and the artists lagging behind. It is not that we will not make something good and precious in our new worlds. I don’t doubt that we will. The part that scares me is the price that the planet and the pawns will pay en route to that shining city.
I really hate to be a party pooper. But I tend to think Star Wars had it closer to the mark than Roddenberry. Corruption, evil, economic caste systems, all of this will follow wherever we go. It’s baked in.
That said, I don’t really have much say in the matter. If we can, we will go to the stars. That is certain. Good will fight evil, those in the gray areas between will struggle to determine which is which, and people will do what they must to survive, for themselves and their progeny. We are creatures of DNA, whose goal is propagation at all costs. If our efforts fail, our line on the evolutionary tree comes to an end, leaving room for others.
For the moment, I will enjoy my time on this pale blue dot, the one whose contributions to our existence we take for granted as we look for newer and shinier. It is our mother, and mothers never get the credit they’re due. I for one will appreciate it, and continue to insist that we treat it with the respect it deserves. For in reality, it may be the only home we’ll ever have.
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