One of the most (only?) sensible observations Ronald Reagan ever made has always been seen as one of his most absurd statements. In a speech to the United Nations, Reagan brought up the possibility of the world being overtaken by extraterrestrials:
Cannot swords be turned to plowshares? Can we and all nations not live in peace? In our obsession with antagonisms of the moment, we often forget how much unites all the members of humanity. Perhaps we need some outside, universal threat to make us recognize this common bond. I occasionally think how quickly our differences worldwide would vanish if we were facing an alien threat from outside this world.
It was not the only time Reagan mentioned the alien threat. He even explicitly asked Mikhail Gorbachev if the USSR would be willing to forget about the Cold War if and when the aliens invaded. (Gorbachev agreed.) For some of Reagan’s detractors, the president’s ongoing interest in flying saucers (he claimed to have seen multiple UFOs, and may even have believed an alien told him to enter politics) was further evidence of his own questionable judgment and, well, general spaciness. But, except for the truly kooky bits, that’s not really fair. His UFO sighting claims may have been delusional, but the passage from Reagan’s UN speech is exactly correct. It’s a refreshing departure from the usual nationalist rhetoric to hear a president talking about the common bonds that unite humanity, and the cosmic insignificance of all our intraspecies conflicts.
Of course, it’s somewhat hard to take seriously rhetoric about beating swords into plowshares when it comes from a president who was at that moment providing material support to Latin American death squads. But personal hypocrisy doesn’t affect the truth of a speaker’s words. Reagan also may have been wrong that all human division would suddenly cease upon the event of an alien invasion: far more plausible is the situation from The Day The Earth Stood Still, in which the countries bicker among themselves endlessly and the US ends up shooting a gentle alien who turns out to have come in peace. It’s still true, though, that thinking about the vastness of space and speculating on the existence of alien races is an effective way to make yourself feel embarrassed about all the time human beings spend trying to massacre and exploit one another. The cosmic scale is very good at making much of what we do look silly and futile.
Space is why I hate politics. I’ve never been able to shed a childlike fascination with distant stars, and a desire to find out who our neighbors are. I feel, sitting on the shore of the Great Cosmic Sea and looking at all its many distant lights, as if it’s quite obviously desirable to figure out as much as possible about the universe, and to try to get off our own tiny island and venture out into the unknown. Obviously, that seems impossible now. But our species has been around for 200,000 years and we only invented satellites within the lifetime of presently-living people (heck, we only invented the doorknob a few generations ago). If we could avoid destroying ourselves, we’d have a few million years to thinking about how to navigate our way through the universe. To me, it’s exciting to think about what an animal that only came up with the internet 30 years ago could do with that time. And being on the edge of the actual “final frontier,” but not knowing what it holds, is like living in the centuries before Earth was fully mapped. I’m sure plenty of people then didn’t waste much time wondering what was off in the uncharted distance, and treated the outskirts of their towns and villages as the edge of the observable universe. But the curious impulse to explore the unknown (if not the often-simultaneous human impulse to subdue and privatize the unknown) is among the best of our traits.
Unfortunately, I don’t get to think much about space, about what wonders and horrors are to be found across the galaxies, because spending time on space isn’t morally defensible in a world filled with avoidable suffering. Missions to Mars should be considered unaffordable luxuries until everyone has adequate shelter, nutrition, and healthcare, and is free from violence and exploitation. It’s not good thinking about the next phase of human ambition until we’ve successfully managed to sort this one out. Before getting to put our energies toward the search for other life, and the better understanding of the universe, we have to avoid boiling the planet alive or vaporizing each other in a nuclear holocaust.
Gil Scott Heron’s brilliant and disturbing poem “Whitey’s On The Moon” neatly exposes the perversity of going to space in a time of poverty and racial inequality:
A rat done bit my sister Nell
with Whitey on the moon.
Her face and arms began to swell
and Whitey’s on the moon.
I can’t pay no doctor bill
but Whitey’s on the moon.
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
while Whitey’s on the moon.
The man just upped my rent last night.
’cause Whitey’s on the moon.
No hot water, no toilets, no lights
but Whitey’s on the moon.
Was all that money I made last year
for Whitey on the moon?
How come there ain’t no money here?
Hm! Whitey’s on the moon.
When you think about poor medical care, crumbling public housing, and resource-starved urban school districts—and then about poverty and disease around the globe—human triumphs in space exploration begin to seem shameful and somewhat sick. Of course, then it’s difficult to know where to stop: once you start treating every dollar not spent on alleviating suffering as a dollar being squandered, everything above bare subsistence begins to seem like unjustifiable indulgence. Maybe it is unjustified, though. To me, that doesn’t mean I’m going to stop frittering away bits of my meager income on pastries and floral-patterned cravats. But it does mean that until we fix systemic social problems, I’m going to feel bad about that, and so I’d like to fix systemic social problems as quickly as possible.
I subscribe to the Buckminster Fuller view: we all live aboard “Spaceship Earth,” a pleasant little rock hurtling through the universe. Fuller said that our spaceship was so well-equipped and well-devised “that to our knowledge humans have been on board it for two million years not even knowing that they were on board a ship.” The trouble is, he says, that it didn’t come with an operating manual, and so the seven billion of us who have found ourselves deposited here face a formidable challenge. We somehow have to organize ourselves successfully in order to maintain our health and that of our little spaceship earth.
People who are fascinated by the universe are often “humanists” or “universalists.” These terms are often used to denote a lack of formal religious belief, but they also describe those who see human beings as a unified community, and reject divisions of nation, tribe, class, race, etc. The universalist looks forward to a time when there will be a mutually-felt brotherhood/sisterhood of all human beings. Not that we’ll treat each other like actual family, or that there won’t be certain individuals we just can’t stand spending more than 10 seconds in a room with. But that by realizing that we all share one unusual thing in common, namely the experience of being a conscious being in an unfathomably vast and absurd universe, we might see ourselves as united in the project of trying to figure out what the hell this mysterious thing called life is.
It all sounds impossibly naive and utopian, but it’s the perspective that has been held by many of our most brilliant thinkers. Albert Einstein, who shares with George Orwell the quality of being constantly revered but never listened to—“Why is it that everybody likes me but nobody understands me?” Einstein once asked—lamented the way that human beings failed to understand the degree to which they were mutually dependent on one another, and all bound together by their common experience of mortality. Each person is mostly the same, in the sense that all of us have popped into existence on a strange planet for a brief time for no clear purpose. It is as if we have suddenly woken up with a group of strangers on a remote patch of land, without any sense of where we are or how we got here. The rational approach to such a situation is to work with everyone else to find the answers, rather than seeing yourself as an individual in competition with the others.
Einstein’s perspective on the ties that humans shared made him a committed socialist and internationalist. “I look upon myself as a man,” he said. “Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.” And he didn’t just loathe nationalism, but militaries themselves. He condemned “that worst outcrop of the herd nature, the military system, which I abhor,” going so far as to say:
That a man can take pleasure in marching in formation to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; a backbone was all he needed. This plague-spot of civilization ought to be abolished with all possible speed. Heroism by order, senseless violence, and all the pestilent nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism — how I hate them! War seems to me a mean, contemptible thing: I would rather be hacked in pieces than take part in such an abominable business.
Militaries, then, are a useless misapplication of the natural gift of intelligence. They only exist because of a vast, wasteful intercontinental prisoner’s dilemma, one that could be solved if people would only learn to see themselves as they really are, rather than dividing themselves into artificial competitive units like nations. (Note that while Einstein said he’d rather be chopped to bits than participate in a war, you can actually hold the fundamentals of this perspective to be true without becoming a strict pacifist.) He dearly wished we could abandon our pessimistic (and inaccurate) belief that “human nature” destined us for violence and mutually assured destruction, insisting that “man beings are not condemned, because of their biological constitution, to annihilate each other or to be at the mercy of a cruel, self-inflicted fate.”
Einstein was equally critical of capitalism, because he saw in it the same kind of erosion of human solidarity. It caused people to see themselves as competitive units instead of allies. The “crisis of our time,” he said, was that we were incapable of seeing ourselves as united in a collective endeavor, and preyed on each other rather than pooling our resources:
The individual has become more conscious than ever of his dependence upon society. But he does not experience this dependence as a positive asset, as an organic tie, as a protective force, but rather as a threat to his natural rights, or even to his economic existence. Moreover, his position in society is such that the egotistical drives of his make-up are constantly being accentuated, while his social drives, which are by nature weaker, progressively deteriorate. All human beings, whatever their position in society, are suffering from this process of deterioration. Unknowingly prisoners of their own egotism, they feel insecure, lonely, and deprived of the naive, simple, and unsophisticated enjoyment of life.
For Einstein, “the economic anxiety of capitalist society” was “the real source of the evil.” He “regard[ed] class differences as contrary to justice” and was frustrated by a system that worshiped “the cult of the individual,” in which “production is carried on for profit, not for use.” There was “only one way to eliminate these grave evils, namely through the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals.” We must “abandon competition and secure cooperation,” and establish an economy in which “the means of production are owned by society itself,” else we shall “face certain disaster.” (Note that Einstein, like Orwell, was not an authoritarian socialist, and believed that it was crucial never to sacrifice liberty and democracy in our pursuit of equality. An important question in creating a fairer society, he said, was “How can the rights of the individual be protected and therewith a democratic counterweight to the power of bureaucracy be assured?”)
There was a strong link between Einstein’s belief in human fellowship and his belief in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Making the world better requires comprehending it better, and the curious and humble attitude that the scientist takes to the universe is the one that we should all have in our dealings with one another: “We must learn to understand the motives of human beings, their illusions, and their sufferings,” he said, “in order to acquire a proper relationship to individual fellow-men and to the community.” “Understanding” is both a social goal and an empirical goal.
Personally, I happen to think Einstein wasn’t an idiot. I’m sure many people dismiss his political writings by observing that plenty of those who are geniuses in one field are foolish in another. Richard Dawkins may be a brilliant biologist, but he’s a nincompoop on Twitter. There’s nothing about understanding relativity that necessarily gives you insight into the optimal organization of our economic system.
But Einstein’s fusion of the “socialistic” and the “scientific” is both consistent and appealing. I don’t think it developed accidentally. The more you contemplate the human place in spacetime, the bizarre accident of our being here, the completely impossible and probably meaningless questions like “Why me? Why this planet? Why now?”, the more you wish we could just solve poverty, war, and despair as quickly as possible and set our finest minds toward the task of telling us what is going on. One reason I feel such a strong urgency to get social problems fixed is that I want us to get to the good stuff, i.e. the part of our history where we meet aliens, and I really want to be around to see what remarkable thing human beings do next. (My selfish desire to find out how the human story ends is one reason I would like to see a lot more resources put toward the question of how to stop death. Although on that, too, I can’t justify life extension until we’ve actually made the lives people already have more free and fair.) And I hate politics because they’re just a means to an end, and I’d like to get to the end rather than having to expend unnecessary energy on the means.
The Star Trek future is the one I like: exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, going boldly and all that. Of course, until we learn to control our worst impulses, we probably shouldn’t venture forth, as we’d be a danger to those around us. (That is, by the way, the reason for the alien’s visit in The Day The Earth Stood Still. He has been sent to give us a warning: the alien races have collectively concluded that unless human beings stop combining technological progress with extreme militarism, we will be deemed to pose an interplanetary threat and will have to be destroyed for the good of the community.) If capitalist humans went planet-hopping to extract as much wealth as possible, we’d quickly turn every wondrous new place into a wasteland. Donald Trump is bad enough as a US president, let alone as an intergalactic dictator. Socialism first, space later.
Unfortunately, the delightful Star Trek future-world seems increasingly implausible. As my colleagues Brianna Rennix and Lyta Gold have noted, science fiction these days is often bleak and dystopian, possibly because it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, and without the end of capitalism, every conceivable high-tech future would be feudalistic and miserable. I mean, hell, when a violence-obsessed nihilist like Quentin Tarantino is hired to helm an R-Rated Star Trek film, the franchise is not exactly likely to maintain the humane communistic spirit endowed upon it by Gene Roddenberry. But Tarantino Star Trek certainly accords with the sci-fi zeitgeist, which assumes that everything in the future is just going to be fucking terrible until we all shoot each other.
When you look at the old pulp sci-fi magazine illustrations, from the ‘30s through the ‘50, you get a sense of wondrous excitement about the fascinating and scary worlds we may uncover as we poke around:
Art by Frank R. Paul. Alas, it’s still Whitey on the moon as usual. But that’s one refreshing thing about the Star Trek space voyages: everyone gets to go. (Though the white guy is still in charge.)
I love the warmth, enthusiasm, and imagination, the romance that used to be associated with journeying into the cosmos. I have a sense that a lot of that has vanished, even some of it in my lifetime. (Space used to be cool when I was a kid. Is space cool now? Do young people like space?) I don’t doubt that that’s largely because the universe became demystified: we discovered that the barriers to sending humans beyond the boundaries of our solar system were seemingly insurmountable, we discovered that the only reason to visit Mars or Venus was to be instantly frozen/boiled to death, and we discovered that the most exciting things you’ll come upon in the interplanetary void are rocks, and even those will only be encountered extremely intermittently. The moon wasn’t cheese, so we didn’t go back.
Then again, nothing was really “demystified.” In fact, the universe is a more mysterious place than ever. But major breakthroughs in understanding and exploration require greater and greater amounts of resources. And, well, it’s definitely true that space is no longer much of a priority, as we can see from the trajectory of the NASA budget:
Because I subscribe to the “Whitey’s on the Moon” philosophy that you probably shouldn’t be footling around with space shuttles while black people in rural Alabama are contracting parasitic hookworm, I don’t actually see this as a bad thing. If we had seen the extra fraction of the federal budget redirected toward free medical clinics in poor counties, I’d be overjoyed. Instead, of course, we build fighter jets, a type of plane that literally exists to fight other planes. Defense-related spending is, uh, quite substantial:
And that’s not to mention all the other money that goes toward what economist Samuel Bowles calls “guard labor,” e.g. police, security personnel, and corrections officers, who exist solely to maintain order and safeguard rich people’s things. I can’t imagine what poor Einstein would think if he saw the sheer amount of resources that now go toward activities he considered inherently wasteful and destructive.
Look, I’ll confess that I’m quite childlike in many of my attitudes. I never got over my fascination with stars and planets. And I never found talk of aliens to be ridiculous; in fact, it seemed very hard not to believe that in a universe as large as ours, there are plenty of other outposts of life. In order to believe that we’re alone, you have to think we’re incredibly special. It also entails believing that the most sophisticated lifeform in the entire universe—a universe consisting of at least 100 billion galaxies with 100 billion stars in a galaxy—made Donald Trump the most powerful of all its individuals. That is a world too absurd for me to believe in. I cannot, or will not, believe that a universe so vast and strange could peak with something so pitiful and fumbling as humankind. (And no, the Fermi Paradox has never bothered me. Why would anyone want to come here? It’s like asking why nobody has visited a particular blade of grass in the middle of Montana. They’re not here because we’re not special.)
As I say, every night sky feels like looking into an ocean teeming with life, without being able to touch or see any of it. And I don’t understand why more people aren’t curious as to what it contains. Yes, obviously, if we contact the aliens they may enslave or devour us. They may even have (God forbid) Trumps of their own. But our species is partway through a unique adventure, and we have to pursue it to its endpoint. We have found out so much, but we know so very little. We’re in an enviable position, though: all of us happen to be members of the first group of humans to experience exponential technological growth, with its accompanying exponential possibilities. That’s thrilling, even though some believe it means we’re on the cusp of creating Frankenstein-like artificial intelligence that outsmarts and then kills us. We might well bear witness to some truly astonishing breakthroughs.
That does involve avoiding the suicide of the entire species, though. And the prospects there don’t necessarily look good. I am not a pessimist—or rather I am with Antonio Gramsci: “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” (Don’t allow the fact that you know your endeavors are probably futile to keep you from pursuing them with gusto.) I don’t actually know how hopeful to be, though the fact of that uncertainty means it’s not yet worth giving up. I do know, however, that Einstein was right: if we are to survive long enough to properly understand and explore the universe we have found ourselves in, human solidarity is imperative. A world of individual competitive units is a world without the collective energy necessary to pilot Spaceship Earth to wherever it’s going. Human divisions, of the kind reinforced by nationalism and capitalism, must disappear if we are to accomplish anything truly impressive together. Figuring out what we are, and what we’re capable of, is going to require all of us to work together.
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