Archive for May 30th, 2008

Are There Any Good Choices Between Klingons and Cylons?

Sharon May 30th, 2008

 In the future, airplanes will be flown by a dog and a pilot. And the dog’s job will be to make sure that if the pilot tries to touch any of the buttons, the dog bites him. – Scott Adams

Growing up  in the last half century, most of us spent a lot of time exposed to imagined visions of our future.  We encountered them in science fiction novels, comic books, or on TV, and we’ve spent much of the last hundred years with our necks craned as far as possible, trying to see into the future.  And the future, as portrayed in almost every one of these visions, is progressive, moving forward, solving problems and making things better. 

Think about it – from the Jetsons (where’s my flying car?!) to Star Trek, all problems except the Klingons have essentially been conquered.  There have been projections by medical and technological journals which describe how magic technologies will fix everything, and economists and their reporters who saw us moving towards a perfect, globalized world, united in capitalism.  All of the visions of the future with which most Americans are familiar entail going forward as we are, but becoming better through advancements that make us more homogenized, more technologically advanced, to the logical culmination of our perfection.  As Rob Hopkins points out, this fantasy is still alive and well. 

Or, they aren’t.  In the same genre, there’s Battlestar Galactica, in which the remnents of a decimated population have to seek a new world after an apocalypse.   For every novel that imagines us enjoying our leisure with robots that do all our work, there’s a reciprocal novel like Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic The Road which imagines us wandering hopelessly in an utter wasteland.  

Eric, who teaches the history of Space Exploration to literally thousands of excited students every year sees both sides of the fantasy in his classes.  He tries gently to lead his students to the reality that a future is space probably won’t happen - and to remind them that earth, too is a planet, and that exploring and understanding it in a deep ecological way is also a frontier.  But every year as he talks about the barriers of energy and environment, he unintentionally sends students away who, if they dreams of space are destroyed, lose hope.  This is both sad, and deeply unnecessary, but the narrow bounds of our imagined futures contain many of us. 

Ever since we realized, in the 1940s, that nuclear weapons meant that we really could destroy the entire world, we’ve been fascinated by this flip side of our progress – the ability to utterly annihilate ourselves, the logical contrast to the idea that we can become the perfect species, Homo technologicus, roaming the galaxy in our faster than light spaceships, civilizing other peoples on other planets.

Thus, it is perhaps no great surprise, then,  that if you ask most people about the problems we face, you will find that most of us  place a great deal of faith in  growth market solutions and new technologies, and a smaller, but equally certain group feels that we are bound for complete and utter self destruction.  After all, those are the choices that our culture has given us.  Virtually everyone living in Western society grew up with those alternatives presented to them as starkly as possible.

But as we discussed before, market and technological solutions are beginning to fail, and show no signs of being able to solve our problems.  Does that mean we’re bound for an inevitable disaster, an absolute and utter apocalypse?  Some people think so.  For example, Gaia-hypothesis creator, scientist James Lovelock imagines that within a hundred years human beings will be limited to “a few breeding pairs at the poles.”  No wonder most people prefer to believe that something- the market, scientific solutions, divine intervention, extraterrestrial technologies- something will fix our problems.  After all, what is the point of contemplating the absolute and utter destruction of everything?  Why not deny that there are problems at all, or perhaps place our hopes on any anyone who says hey can develop another technology if just given enough money?  Moreover, what possible incentive could any of us ever have for overcoming our trained faith in capitalism and technology if the best alternative we can be offered is a chance to hole up in a bunker with some spam and an automatic weapon?

But like all dichotomies, the choice between “rely on technology and growth to perfect us”  vs. “accept the end of the world” is a false one.  There are other options but we have not been taught to see them.  We have been told for so long that all we have is to go forward as we are or accept absolute annihilation that we have come to believe that we cannot change our course, and move in some new and different way.  But this is not true, and the first step in recognizing this is to learn to see false dichotomy for what it is – then we can begin to look around at alternatives.

Writer and activist Maria Mies writes in her seminal book (written with Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen), The Subsistence Perspective, about the fixity with which many people believe that these are the only choices.  She talks about attending a panel in Germany with a number of scientists prognosticating an absolutely bleak future for the world, and then goes on to answer them by observing,

“I looked at the audience: all young people with worried faces.  They had come on this Sunday morning to get some orientation from these famous speakers for their own future.  But they only painted an apocalyptic picture gloom and hopelessness.  The gist of their presentations was that there was no alternative, that we could do nothing.  I could not tolerate this pessimism any longer and said, ‘Please, don’t forget where we are.  We are in Trier, in the midst of the ruins of what once was one of the capitals of the Roman empire.  An empire whose collapse people then thought would mean the end of the world.  But the world did not come to an end with the end of Rome.  The plough of my father, a peasant in the Eifel, used to hit the stones of the Roman road that connected Trier with Cologne.  On this road where the Roman legions had marched, grass had gown, and now we grew our potatoes on that road.  I wanted to say that even the collapse of big empires does not mean the end fo the world; rather, people then begin to understand what is important in life, namely our subsistence…The image of my father behind the plough on the old Roman road stands for another philosophy, another logic.  For most…scientists this subsistence logic is difficult to grasp.  It is neither expressed in the slogan that ‘life will go on by itself’ (nature will regenerate herself, grass will grow by itself) nor by the attitude that we humans can control nature and repair all damage done by our master technology.  The difference between a subsistence orientation and scientific omnipotence mania is the understanding that life neither simply regenerates itself, nor is it an invention of engineers; rather, we as natural beings, have to cooperate with nature if we want life to continue.”[i]

Here Mies begins to articulate the possibility of something in between apocalypse and progress, a new way of thinking.  She and Bennholdt-Thomsen call this “the subsistence perspective” but it might also be described as a return to cyclical, rather than linear thinking and living.  What she describes is the idea of our integration into history and nature, rather than a choice between our mastery over both forces or our utter destruction at their hands.  This is not simply a rhetoric of “everything will fix itself” but suggests that we could be a part of a partial solution.

We so desperately need expressions of this other vision – I was thinking about this when as I read the discussions on about the possibility of hitting 1000 ppm.  The discussion vibrates wildly between the choices we’ve been given – denial, technologies, doom…doom…doom.  Most of us recognize that the technofixes won’t work – or at best, are a long term solution.  And certainly, doom is a possibility for many of us.  Joseph Romm has discussed the potential harm of the melting of the permafrost, and its capacity to get us rapidly from 450 ppm to 800 or 1000ppm. 

But, just as the leap between technologies and doom seems to have no gaps, we can stop and say “umm…what was that middle thing again?”  You know, that place between the Klingons and the Cylons? 

 Don’t expect me to have any better ideas about how to get there than I ever have before.  But I do sometimes think that the first step might be just pointing out – there is a middle thing.