Wednesday, August 19, 2015

geocentric foibles

So I wrote on Mars One. Because it's current news, and I spent most of the summer debating its advisability or inevitability with groomsmen at weddings. The piece I wrote for Catholic Vote, however, is much more civilized, and really says: come for the Mars One, stay for the Laudato Si. Whereas this post I will now write will be what I really think about Mars One. It will be more like: Come for the Mars One, stay for the curmudgeonly moaning and wailing and gnashing of teeth over how Mars One represents all that ails the human race.

So, for one fateful week, my cocktail party conversation calling card was a provocative little number that went something like this:
Yeah, I don't really believe in space travel.
*hair toss*
After several disastrous attempts, I decided to pull the plug on that conversation starter, since it failed to launch any sort of successful conversation. (remind you of anything, NASA?) (But, honestly, the fault mostly lay in the delivery. [Could have used a bit less hair toss, more eyebrow arch, and just a brief dalliance into eye twinkling.])
Instead of ushering in a cordial conversation where we all agreed genteelly that leaving the atmosphere is a fool's errand, and collectively taking a blood oath to all stay safely on terra firma and stick to exploring coral reefs and the cookie aisle, people thought I was an ungrateful and uneducated wretch who did not appreciate the scientific and social benefits of meteorological satellites. Say what you want about me, but never let it be said of me that I do not appreciate the scientific and social benefits of meteorological satellites.

Elizabeth Kolbert, in her New Yorker essay Project Exodus, (which has become a sort of credo for my gospel of geocentric humanism) saves me from any more embarrassingly catastrophic attempts at arch dinner party conversation, as she delineates the difference between scientific space exploration, and then the idea of human colonization. Ah ha. So there it is. One can look down one's nose at the idea of a moon base, and not be labeled a satellite-hating philistine. As Ms. Kolbert describes, there are two different camps of humans with their eyes on the stars: one seeks to understand space; one seeks to travel into space:

"According to [Erik M.] Conway [of Jet Propulsion Laboratory], there is a “disconnect” between the desire to travel into space and the desire to understand it. This “disconnect” is a more fundamental difficulty for NASA than decades’ worth of budget cuts. It’s a contradiction that’s built into the agency’s structure, which includes a human exploration program on the one hand and a scientific program on the other.

The planning for Mars missions so far has been left largely to the science types, but sometimes the human-mission types have insisted on getting involved. Whenever they’ve done so, Conway writes, the result has been “chaos.”
[…]
Conway puts himself on the side of science, and, as far as he’s concerned, humans are the wrong stuff. They shouldn’t even be trying to get to another planet. Not only are they fragile, demanding, and expensive to ship; they’re a mess.

“Humans carry biomes with us, outside and inside,” he writes. NASA insists that Mars landers be sterilized, but “we can’t sterilize ourselves.” If people ever do get to the red planet—an event that Conway, now forty-nine, says he considers “unlikely” in his lifetime—they’ll immediately wreck the place, just by showing up: “Scientists want a pristine Mars, uncontaminated by Earth.” If people start rejiggering the atmosphere and thawing the regolith, so much the worse.

“The Mars scientists want to study won’t exist anymore,” Conway writes. “Some other Mars will.”

Mr. Conway speaks sweet music to my little earth-rooted soul.

Because, while perhaps there is no moral judgement in human exploration of space (referring specifically to human exploration/colonization), I fail to see how there can be any sort of wisdom in it. As we are realizing how great a burden our ceaseless manufacturing activity can place on the environment--how potentially dangerous it can be for our atmosphere, oceans, and natural resources--it seems preposterously naive to suppose that shooting human beings off to another planet to tamper with its atmosphere and polar ice caps will not also have potentially disastrous environmental consequences. 
Furthermore, the only arguments in its favor are an alarmist (and short-sighted) panic that screams: We're going to blow ourselves up! We have to take over another planet for the safety of our species! Or an overly Romantic sentiment that waxes poetic about how human beings are always seeking new frontiers and that this is the New Frontier. It is our destiny to explore everywhere! Reach for the stars! If you miss you'll land in the asteroid belt and mine if for minerals! Human beings were made to explore!

Human beings were also made to breathe oxygen, and the only place we've really got that is here. So.

Secondly, there are certain projects human beings undertake that sometimes dumbfound me with how hubristic they are. I really just want to sit down the masterminds behind these project aside, give the dear little lambs a nice cup of tea and some scones and say: I'm going to tell you a story. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, in a nice little town called Babel, there was this tower... 
Examples of these sorts of projects include the Crossroads Project, fracking, the Human Colonization of Mars, the time my family made a gingerbread windmill.


And our gingerbread Candyland.

And our gingerbread Titanic.

(complete with white chocolate iceberg and a sugar cookie Cal boasting "Not even God could sink this ship")
We should make a gingerbread Tower of Babel next.

But, all this aside, something inside of me heart sinks when I think of human beings living in exile far away from earth.

The loam from our native bit of crust must run through our bloodstreams, and it must ache when we are far from it. We are dust, and to dust we will return. Which is a statement of mortality, eternity, and also an affirmation of deep kinship with the earth we dwell within. Living in a city that is so isolated from the rest of the world, I have found that I miss nature so keenly. I miss the beauty of nature, but also I find I miss the part of me that nature brings alive: the Joy, the peace, the carefree delight in everything around me. There is something about being out in nature that restores us to our proper context. I understand more of who I am when I am under a large blue sky, surrounded by tall grass and goldfinches swooping over the lakes than surrounded by steel skyscrapers and concrete. I watch the children climbing over the rocks in the small stream and I pity the children with no where else to climb but playgrounds made my adults.

It seems tragic to me to think of human beings living in pods in a sanitized, controlled environment. 
We are messy human beings. We are not machines, that can be programmed like the rockets that will take us to our back-up sanctuary planet. We do not run like clockwork, like our iPhones; but thankfully, we do not short circuit when submerged in water. We are earthy creatures that get mud all over our new shows, we get the sap of trees on our hands when we climb their branches, we lose our keys, we get grass in our sheets, we kiss people we ought not to, we draw blood and ire from our kin, and we stumble and scrape our knees. Living is not a tidy business.

We are supposed to drink in deep breaths of cool morning air, and have our faces soaked in rain, and bask in the sun on a lawn of overgrown grass, and pick berries off of brambles, and wade through the water of the creek that whispers over our toes as it bubbles downstream. The natural world is not just a helpfully calibrated environment that keeps us alive. It is, as Papa Francesco says, "a caress of God. "The entire material universe speaks of God’s love, his boundless affection for us."

As I run through the rain, I feel that boundless affection. As I walk through the deepening night sky--the clouds shot up with violet shadows and dying rays of crimson sunset--I sense the tender care. As I  walk under the slender shadows of trees lining the lane, and feel the night breeze on my face and the lights of the twenty-first century hearths shining through the windows, I silently repeat Emily Webb's cry: Oh, earth! You're too wonderful for anybody to realize you.

Sometimes, I listen to Emily's cry of joy, and I doubt its truth. How can this world be so wonderful? ISIS beheads white-haired scholastics and Donald Trump may be a contender for president; babies are bartered on black markets, and abandoned by their parents. It seems that the world is such a chaotic, unholy, disaster-ridden place. In moments like those, Emily's cry of girlish delight in a world she is about to leave behind becomes a bold statement of faith. This earth is truly wonderful. And beautiful. And it may not be the best of all possible worlds, it may be flawed and messy and dangerous, but it is certainly a garden worth tending.

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