Monday, December 10, 2007

A More Personal Armageddon.

It had been months since I'd visited the coffeehouse that I used to frequent regularly, so I figured I'd stop in when I had a few hours free this past Saturday afternoon. It didn't take long before I found myself engaged in a lengthy discussion about technology and its speculative effects on society. I ran into an old acquaintance who designs robots, and we jawed about processing chips and other items I know so very little about. He ended up doing most of the talking while I occasionally interjected (probably extraordinarily inane) questions. Somehow the natural progression of the conversation led toward a call for future space exploration. In fact, I found myself listening to two reasonably sane individuals talk about the necessity of colonizing the Moon (and Mars).

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit finding the idea of space colonization utterly ridiculous. I can't think of many national priorities that I would rank below extending the terror of the human parasite beyond our planet. I am perfectly comfortable believing that we are alone in the universe, and in accepting that condition as ideal. When George W. Bush started giving speeches about returning to the Moon (immediately after initiating a nebulous "War on Terror" of indeterminate cost and length) as part of a long-term project that would culminate in a walk on Mars, I was one of his most vocal critics. As David Cross so aptly says (I paraphrase), "You want to put a man on the Moon? How about putting a man in an apartment?!" In short, there are no shortages of problems that we need to resolve on our very own planet- and few of them will realistically be addressed by exporting ourselves.

But of course there are many who think that we are doomed here on Earth, and so we better get a back-up plan as soon as possible. Hell, if we have somewhere for the rich to escape to- then why not pollute the place with increased abandon? Peak oil... No problem. Global warming... Big deal. No more clean water... What's your point? Let's adopt a worldwide 'slash-and-burn" policy. Capitalism requires infinite growth, and where else do we look for a limitless expanse? My conversation partners were absolutely convinced that it is irresponsible not to expand our space program today. They've already written off the future of the planet we have. They pointed out that one way another, whether through man-made causes or natural cycles, we will all eventually be destroyed. Apparently they believe that it's crucial that the human race survives. But I didn't get that memo.

In order for me to buy into their perspective, I would have to first view the preservation of humanity as an ultimate good. Sadly, I don't meet that basic test. Extinction of our species would only be a big loss for ourselves. We're really not that important. So our little discussion should have ended abruptly on that note. Instead they asked me what will happen when mankind launches an all-out nuclear war. What will we do then? The survivors will need somewhere to go. My answer involves an "ounce of prevention"... some old fogey's notion about taking the long view. There's no reason to believe that a nuclear holocaust is looming. I know that it "only takes one madman". Still, how many such madmen have we already seen come into power? How is it that this worst-case scenario hasn't yet happened?

I remember being continually frightened during the 80's that the Cold War would turn hot, and the missiles would fly en masse. Those were the Reagan years, and such a prospect seemed likely. Even after the Soviet Union fell I remember being jolted out of my sleep whenever a train roared passed, with the fear that "The Day After" was imminent. So it's strange that the threat has dissipated despite Dubya's seven year reign of total incompetence. It's odd to realize that a whole generation of children who have never lived in fear of a nuclear apocalypse is now entering adulthood. But is the absence of anxiety justified by external events? Our president certainly tries to recover the specter of such devastation whenever he wants to invade another sovereign nation. Do the odds suggest that we could one day experience total war on the scale of World War II?

I'm not much of a gambler, but if I had to make a bet- I would put my money on the increasing focus and precision of future conflicts. Superpowers seem to have learned the lesson that causing the utter ruin of an enemy diminishes the material benefits of winning such a fight in the first place. The development of technology seems to be geared toward the ability to eliminate specific targets, while maintaining the integrity of the spoils. We live in a time when even a band of moderately-sophisticated religious fundamentalists can seemingly wage pinpoint attacks on the sacred symbols of their opponents. There is no longer a need to cause indiscriminate collateral damage, and not much to be gained by doing it anway. As techniques become progressively more advanced, the "War of all against all" may very well be the most personal in history.

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5 Comments:

Anonymous jefg said...

Well said. I agree that the push to colonize other orbs is simply ridiculous, given the state of the world as we know it. There's no one out there to help, yet so many people on this planet that could that money being spent on them. Space exploration seems to me like a greedy move by a select few, benefiting only politicians and selected large corporations. Eisenhower was indeed prophetic.

11:43 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Well said. I have a hard time finding the great benefit to humanity in the space program. There are some politicians and corporate heads I would like to send on a one-way ticket...

5:46 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

"Well, you are right...Iraq hasn't worked out as planned, and Iran is out of the question, at least for now. So, yes, the moon and Mars seem like a good move at the moment. Say, is there any possibility that there's oil there as well? Hah, that would be better than this Valenzuala/Kennedy thing. He was the pitcher...oh, oops, my bad. No oil? I didn't think so, no, but perhaps we can get someone to draft a report..."

7:20 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

Yeah. It'll give Halliburton a chance for economic diversification, and raise their public profile in a positive manner. They can just say they're going back to put a small chapel (Christian, of course) on the dark side of the moon. Interstellar missionaries! (Don't laugh... it worked pretty good in Africa, now didn't it?)

4:30 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

I think, over the past several years, you've moved me three notches to the right (no pun intended) on the skepticism to cynicism line graph.

11:27 AM  

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