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Space is getting smaller

May 30, 2008

In which I explore space exploration, the age of “lowered” expectations, and the power of fiction and future museology.

The other day I had a conversation with my partner about the Phoenix Mars Lander, in which he explained how excited he was about its safe arrival and why. He was eight when the Eagle touched down on the Sea of Tranquility, and the event made such an impression on his young mind that he fully expected humans to walk on Mars in his lifetime. He talked about how it was a long and painful process to accept that in terms of sheer scientific returns on economic and human costs, sending unmanned craft to collect information is a far superior strategy. Lowered expectations? Not really, because unmanned missions are far superior; we have raised our goals from the thrill of just doing it to the thrill of getting some real return out of our adventuring.

The Phoenix—perhaps named for NASA’s efforts at rising from the ashes of disappointments, critical errors, and funding collapse—is doing well, surpassing expectation. As with all extraterrestrial missions, the odds were against it. Scientists waited fifteen breathless minutes as the culmination of ten years of grueling work touched down on the surface of Mars, or blew up on entry, before hearing the report of its success. Now it’s there and hopefully will carry out its mission and report back on the state of Mars’ suspected permafrost. Whatever results we receive, they will have profound impact on the way we view the universe and Earth’s place in it. We may learn that Mars once was like Earth, even that it once hosted life, and thus we will learn that a planet capable of hosting life can be made barren. We may learn that Mars could never have hosted life, or never more complex than rudimentary bacteria, and from this we might begin to internalize that this is the only planet we will ever have to live on.

The admirable Sharon Astyk writes:

…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 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.

Humanity is a great survivor. Remember that the end of the world as we know it happened in 1969, it happened again in 1972, it happened again in 1993, it happened again in 2001, it happened again in 2004, and it happened countless times before and since. What historians call Roman civilization collapsed, but Rome wasn’t destroyed in a day, and Romans lived on—they were just called Italians, eventually. But where great roads ran, people planted crops; in the amphitheater, some of the people who had been cheering for the lions starved to death… like many people starved to death in an amphitheater when the world as we know it ended for residents of New Orleans. Humanity is a great survivor. It’s humans that are fragile, and we suffer.

So how do we change our expectations from a bright future among the stars to a bright future living sustainably on the Earth? It may well be our writers of science fiction, our movie producers, our policymakers, and other professional liars who have to craft the story for us before we can grasp it in our minds—our future may not be in space, but it is here on Earth. And what an incredible future we can know, even as we wrestle with the implications of the collapse of the energy boom. What we have when we resort to the old paradigm of magically ever expanding technology and purchasing power is a failure of the collective imagination.

Imagine this for me… dream a future where our wealth is not counted in cars and refrigerators but in companionship and conception, where it is the inventiveness and not the invention that is celebrated, where we measure our goods by their use and not by their plenitude, where excess is regarded as the detriment to happiness that it is, and pleasure is sought by improving the quality of life rather than the quantity of things. Dream it vivid, paint it in broad strokes and sharp detail, write it with compelling characters I can see myself in. Film it so we can see it and believe in it, even though in that world we might not have films; we might not need them. Sing songs and tell stories. It has been proven, over and over, that these are the things that save civilizations.

I want to see a museology of the future, a museum exhibition of future archeology, in the spirit of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Always Coming Home. I want to see a museum exhibition that teaches us the skills and resources that we have to survive. Imagine a traveling exhibition that teaches us what our ancestors did to survive when the oil ran out, and thus teaches us and our children what we must do. I want to see a museum exhibition that is captivating and inspiring rather than dry or flashy. I want to see an ethnographic museum of our good and bad choices, and the stories we tell ourselves to justify them. I want to see a technological exhibition about solar ovens and hand washers. I want to see a science museum explaining climate change to third graders. I want to see an art exhibition about conceptions of beauty after the energy bust.

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