Into a New Cage

Adversity and the upward spiral in “Flight in a Cage”

My friend Ben is writing a novel.  He is seven chapters in (although he is considering shortening it) and it pains me that I can’t share them with anyone.  It is also painful to have to wait for an author to write each chapter as I want so much to follow the adventure.  The novel is about the adventure I yearn for.  The adventure of setting out with Life toward other suns.  The novel drives the adventure with the motivation that I find so inspiring.  Commonly, fiction drives interstellar adventure with a desperate search for a place to survive.  Instead here we find characters driven by the beauty of the fruit of such a journey; the spreading of Life to a trillion barren worlds.  

Yet the story is more complicated than that.  There are characters with all different motivations.  Those who seek survival in the face of persecution.  Those who care more about human history and myth than the Great Story of Life in the Universe.  Those who fear difference and diversity.  Those who worship technology.  Those who desire money and power.  Those who desire only safety and freedom from fear.  Through all of these differently motivated and conflicting characters and their interactions, the story pushes forth Life toward the stars.  I love the way that the story uses common enemies as a catalyst for alliance, repurposing adversity toward the emergence of allies.  Without enemies there is no motivation for alliance and no possibility for the greater accomplishment that alliance brings.buttress-1573795_960_720

It reminds me of trees, able to grow taller because of buttress roots that grow in reaction to the adversity of wind.  It reminds me of fire which destroys diversity and then opens small patches of forests to new growth, increasing overall diversity.  It reminds me of predators which push prey into developing defenses, maybe armour, which also becomes structure and allow for bigger, more powerful animals.  It reminds me of creatures falling from trees to their deaths, pushing the adaptation of gliding membranes, and then wings emerging and resulting in true flight.  polatouche-estonienThe cycle is adversity, adaptation, repurposing of adaptation to new abilities, creating new adversities for other species.  This cycle repeats and drives Life continuously out of one cage and into another. But each cage is different and each new cage provides the opportunity to escape into yet more cages in an upward spiral of ever growing possibilities.

Early progress on Buckleberry and Auberge Paradis

This is the first of what will hopefully be a long series in which SolSeed members report on each other’s progress on our projects.

Buckleberry trail, water and treesEric’s work on building a hobbit-style bed and breakfast at his Buckleberry forest property is off to a strong start, with a new entrance to the property under construction. Eric has narrowed his search for the property’s first “residential structure” to a couple of options, a used trailer or RV that would provide living space to people visiting the land while more permanent structures are under construction.

As for what to build, Eric has some solid design ideas for the hobbit holes and a green-roofed parking garage, which I helped him flesh out and expand at the Shiny Green Acorn Festival last weekend. However, before making final decisions about where everything goes, Eric needs to make a thorough survey of the topography he’ll be building on. (On, not under, because the design actually calls for the hobbit holes to be built on stilts to let water flow freely to the tree roots beneath them!) The survey may also include selection of the best trees in which to build treehouse dwellings linked to the hobbit holes with spiral stairs, an exciting new concept I contributed to the design process.

Joist for kayak storageMeanwhile, work has accelerated on the test bed for the Saumurs’ ideas about running a bed and breakfast for nature aficionados: their new home on the edge of Gatineau Park, which Michelle christened Auberge Paradis (Paradise Inn). Job one is to get the house organized after the move. Eric and Patrick have been working on renovations including a new kayak-storage loft in the garage, which will get the Saumurs’ two kayaks out of the way and free up garage space for storing other stuff. Some new storage shelves in the basement will contribute to this purpose as well. Eric is also working on organizing the family’s collection of seven bicycles, at least some of which will be available for rental when Auberge Paradis opens for business.

Change the Course: Write your own story of the year 2050

Change the Course small“All organizing is science fiction. Organizers and activists dedicate their lives to creating and envisioning another world, or many other worlds–so what better venue for organizers to explore their work than science fiction stories?”

– Walidah Imarisha, introduction to Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements

The Rainforest Action Network’s new Change the Course visioning process begins with a guided meditation, asking us to imagine a day in the year 2050 when people come together in a “beautiful park” to celebrate “an announcement made this morning that, thanks to deep emissions cuts, we have successfully stabilized the climate.” Then it gives you a series of prompts so you can write the rest of the story. This exercise was very well put together and provides a beautiful way to imagine a future worth fighting for. I highly recommend you try it.

Here are my responses to the prompts, which alternate between multiple choice and essay questions. You might want to wait to read them until after you’ve gone through the exercise yourself, so you can experience it without any preconceptions about the questions or possible answers.


My initial impressions of the year 2050:
The park is on a hill surrounded by water. The streets are canals; every coastal city is now Venice. People walk on floating sidewalks that rise and fall with the tide. The tall buildings are partially submerged. My friend’s home is underwater, an inverted aquarium whose exterior is partly covered by an artificial reef.

On how communities adapted to climate change in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We adopted climate-resilient building and construction standards, and created things like floating homes.”

On the most important change to the political system in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We abolished corporate personhood.”

On traveling around our communities in 2050:
Rebuilding cities on higher ground was generally too expensive, so we retrofitted existing ones to welcome the sea. Electric cars and buses are now amphibious, easily transforming into boats to traverse flooded areas. A network of sidewalks modeled on floating piers, with occasional drawbridges over the canals, enables pedestrian and bicycle access.
On Long-Distance Transportation in 2050 (multiple choice):
“I take advantages of new aerospace technologies that significantly reduce plane emissions and fossil fuel usage. What carbon I do release into the atmosphere, I compensate for by fighting climate change in other ways.”
More on traveling long distances in 2050:
Of course I only fly when I have to—because it usually takes so long! The new suborbital spaceplanes are few and super-expensive, but zeppelins have made a comeback, and advanced technology makes them just as fast as the freeway used to be—but no faster. Too bad those high-speed trains didn’t work out.

On community in 2050 (multiple choice):
“I live in the heart of a bustling city and cities have become more dense, as people have moved to efficient urban centers.”
More on community:
There are three choices for where to live inside city limits: in the apartment and condo towers, on a houseboat, or underwater in one of the new glass-and-bioplastic-sealed aquarium homes (a few of which were built long ago as regular houses, and converted before the sea got to them). All of the choices are expensive, so cohousing has become nearly ubiquitous as a way of sharing the cost. This has had a transformational impact on the formerly alienated and unfriendly urban life of my city.
On home in 2050 (multiple choice):
“I live in a co-housing community where people share resources like community social spaces, kitchens, outdoor spaces and a power grid.”
More on how home has changed:
Cohousing means we still have some private space, but we have to get along. We can’t let hidden conflicts fester until they explode, so we use the ZEGG Forum process to keep our important feelings in the open. We also have lots of fun together, playing all kinds of games from cards and Scrabble to virtual-reality adventures.

On how we changed our energy mix in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We banned coal, oil and natural gas and met our energy needs through small ‘local-scale’ renewable energy, such as rooftop solar, wind power and significant energy efficiency measures.”
More on home’s energy:
Wind power is now the largest single source of electricity in the world. We buy power from our city’s local grid, which is largely powered by the rows of eggbeater-like vertical-axis wind turbines sticking up from the middle of the canals between the tall buildings downtown. Those concrete canyons sure do funnel the wind nicely.
More about how we changed our energy mix:
Let me tell you, those big fossil-fuel companies did not go down without a fight! After we finally revoked their corporate personhood rights, they tried to muscle into the exploding renewable energy markets and push a bunch of crazy centralized megaprojects like paving the Sahara Desert with some kind of plastic solar panels made from—surprise—all their stranded oil reserves. Once city-scale grids proved resilient enough, we finally shut that nonsense down for good.

On where our water comes from in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Desalination plant”
More about water systems:
Desalination used to be thought of as just another giant industrial solution, but the Slingshot, Living Machines, and other related small-scale water treatment devices—many of which rely on internal ecologies to filter water the way Nature intended—ensured that we could each wield the power of transforming seawater into tap water and back again. Almost every large building has its own desalination and wastewater treatment systems built right in, and the underwater houses share neighborhood-scale facilities.

On food production in 2050 (multiple choice):
“My food is grown on small-scale farms close to my city or town, and I buy it directly from the farmers or at markets that stock local produce.”
More about how food is produced:
We have a few of those fancy farm towers nowadays, producing food right here in the city, but most of it comes from the land just like it always has. We even get some delicacies by zeppelin from faraway lands, but basic staples are grown right next door. Sadly the farmers are still fairly poor—many of them live out there because they can’t afford the city—but most of them love their work, and their polyculture fields are works of art, with curving rows of different crops spiraling around and through each other. And of course the harvester bots have put an end to the inhumanity of making people work all day picking produce in the middle of our brutal summers.
On how our diets have changed in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We eat a balanced diet of plants, grains and a little meat.”
More about food consumption:
Look, I know meat used to be a hugely divisive issue, but these days people have found a balance and don’t have to think about it much anymore. What livestock we have is carefully grazed in ways that mimic natural herds and help rebuild soil, drawing down a significant amount of the excess carbon in the air, though not nearly as much as Dr. Savory thought. We rarely eat carnivorous fish, but herbivores are farmed alongside water-based crops in aquaculture systems—some of which double as wastewater treatment (yes, that idea does take some getting used to). And the trend of eating insects seems to be taking off, though I’m still not sure whether it will turn out to be just a fad.

On how people consume goods in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Recognizing that many base their purchasing decisions on costs, we found ways of reducing the cost of more sustainable goods & accurately reflecting the cost of non-sustainable goods.”
More on how people consume goods in 2050:
“Make doing the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard” was the battle cry of the Tax Shifter Movement, which really took off once that whole corporate personhood nonsense was out of the way. It’s simple: we tax products more if they harm people or other living things, and use the money to subsidize the good stuff, like organic produce and new computers made 100% from the materials in old computers. It all works much better since we started requiring that all retailers take back their worn-out products for refurbishment or recycling, and since the Circular Economy Act of 2047, they even have to pay people for turning in those old products.

On workplace and enterprise decision-making in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Where you spend your money, workers are given agency to make decisions about the business as a whole whether through small- or large-scale organization.”
More on workplace and enterprise decision-making:
You could say it’s the Spanish Empire all over again, but in my opinion, the wave of cooperatives that popped up across the country after that anti-corporate-personhood amendment, mostly modeled on Mondragon, really is the best thing that’s happened to the economy in decades, maybe centuries. It’s taking a while, but even the biggest surviving corporate behemoths from the twentieth century are slowly converting to cooperatives as more and more of their employees threaten to desert.
On worker compensation in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Workers are given more agency in their own employment to set their own wages.”
More about worker compensation:
I guess it used to be taboo to talk about salaries, but when the employees own the company, that really has to change. At my co-op we have a salary board that keeps track of the overall compensation picture and gently dissuades anyone who tries to write him/herself a pay raise that doesn’t make sense.

On economic policy change in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We raised taxes on corporations and the wealthy, closed tax loopholes, and eliminated fossil fuel subsidies.”
More about economic policy changes:
I know I’m sounding like a broken record here, but really everything came down to corporate personhood. As long as those giant private economic entities were able to hold our government hostage by declaring that any move to limit their power violated their Constitutional rights, we just couldn’t make the changes society and the climate so desperately needed.

On social programs in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Free higher education for everyone.”
More about social programs:
This modern world is crazy complicated for us primates, and our brains haven’t evolved enough yet to keep up on their own, unless you count those crazy new cyborg brain implants as a form of evolution. At least for the vast majority who aren’t interested in being that kind of early adopter, college education is really a basic necessity, and I’m thrilled the government finally realized that. I wish it weren’t so common these days to take all your classes from home, but I guess most of those huge campuses really did need to be converted to farmland.

On politics and decions-making in 2050 (multiple choice):
“Our government is a representative democracy as it is now, but there are more mechanisms in place to ensure representatives take into account the voices of the people.”
More about politics and decision-making:
Sorry, it’s getting late, but if you want a good overview of some of the best new decision-making tools, check out the short story “Degrees of Freedom” by Karl Schroeder, in the collection Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future. We’re a small-group species; it’s taken a lot of creative software design to get that large-group decision-making problem under control, and we’re still a long way from perfect.

On racial equity in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We eliminated racial caste systems such as the U.S. criminal justice system and the war on drugs.”
More about racial equity in 2050:
Aside from abolishing corporate personhood, the most important law in the last 35 years was the one requiring police forces to replace officers faster in places where arrest rates were most disproportionate to demographics, e.g. fraction of those arrested being black men as compared to fraction of the general population. In the American South, for a while it was standard for cities to hire a whole new force every couple of years, and I guess the unconscious bias trainings finally got through to people. Coming in third in importance, probably, would be the law that abolished prison time as punishment for nonviolent offenses.

On how the climate movement built power and won in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We built a powerful coalition for climate justice and social justice, with organized labor, civil rights groups, immigration reform groups, economic justice groups, and other movements working for justice.”
More about how the climate movement built power and won:
It was a lot of hard work and diplomacy. All the different advocacy groups wanted similar things but the disagreements to be ironed out were endless. Again the ZEGG Forum process was a big help, among several other techniques, including the ones from “Degrees of Freedom.”

On front-line climate adaption in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We changed unfair trade and structural adjustment practices, and abolished debt to developing countries.”
More about front-line climate adaptation:
Since 2008, everyone has known that we had to do something about the big banks driving the rest of the world deeper and deeper into debt. After abolishing corporate personhood, we finally did something about it, something big: we abolished compound interest for any financial institution doing business in America, and held a Jubilee to celebrate in which all unpayable debts to U.S. interests were revoked. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since.

On climate displacement in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We opened our doors to climate refugees, and put in place just immigration reforms.”
More about dealing with climate displacement:
Yeah, you know those poor farmers I told you about? Most of them are immigrants, same as always. But at least they have citizenship now. It’s looking likely that we’ll elect our second Latino president this year—sorry, Latina—and she’s got some big ideas for improvements, but the fact is that these huge population flows are a hard problem with no easy solutions.

On how we stopped deforestation and the Sixth Great Extinction in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We declared public lands off-limits for logging, mining, and dirty energy development”’
More on nature:
Technically a lot of public lands were already off limits, but the government kept writing new loopholes until we cut their ties with the resource-extraction cartels by, you guessed it, abolishing corporate personhood. Similar political shifts in Brazil and Indonesia solved the bulk of the deforestation problem. As for extinctions, the new Rights of Nature amendments in Constitutions around the world are helping finally put teeth in all those Environmental Impact Assessments, which used to be basically just rubber stamps for developers.

On the social or cultural change most pivotal to making the world just and sustainable in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We saw ourselves as a part of nature and not separate from or above nature.”
More about the social or cultural shift that contributed to climate stability:
There are so many people better qualified than me to talk about this: Joanna Macy, David Korten, the Pachamama Alliance, Planetary Collective, the list goes on. The New Sacred Story of interconnectedness and interdependence was already beginning to go mainstream in 2015.

On fighting climate change in 2050 (multiple choice):
“We eliminated fossil fuel subsidies and passed carbon tax bills to force the market to take into account the true costs of fossil fuels, which gave renewable energy the chance to beat out fossil fuels.”
More about the single most important thing we did to stop climate change:
The military always says “you go to war with the army you have.” The most powerful tool we had in 2015 was the global market. People argued that market signals would never be enough—and they were right at first. The carbon taxes stayed too low to make a big enough difference, until we fixed our democracy and voters across our drought-stricken, wildfire-charred, and hurricane-ravaged nation finally demanded sufficient action.

Utopia

Rosetta's_Philae_touchdownI recently heard that Philae recharged its batteries and reconnected with its creators here on Earth. It reminded me that I listened a few months ago to a radio call-in show about the Rosetta-Philae mission. Many people were upset that 1.6 billion dollars had been spent on such a mission when that money could have been used to solve problems here on Earth. I wondered, “Did these people really believe that all of the problems on Earth could be solved soon and that then we would be ready to begin our trip to the stars?” Did they believe that Utopia, here on Earth, was so close at hand?

Utopia is an intensely religious concept. That is to say, what makes an envisioned society into a utopia is that it matches your values and vision. I consider values and vision to be religious choices. If one says that in Utopia there will be no violence, then it is because one does not value violence. But, because values are choices or instinctive reactions, each person will envision a slightly different utopia. This contradicts the very nature of utopias which are societies where many people live together happily. The contradiction might be solved by imagining each person finding others who share their values and visions and gathering together to create their Utopia. This is why Utopia is a religious concept rather than a philosophical one. Philosophy is universal in nature. Philosophy can envision people with like values and visions gathering together to form utopias. But only religions are arbitrary enough to create a specific Utopia that matches the specific values and visions of any particular group of people.

But this leads to a meta-vision of multiple societies living in parallel, each utopic to the citizens who chose it but not to the citizens of its neighbouring societies. These various utopias, no matter how well they are designed internally, may come into conflict with each other over the very values that make them utopic for those who inhabit them. For instance, one utopia, let’s call it Libertariania, may value freedom over all else. Its citizens may use that freedom to pollute the air. Another utopia downwind of Libertariania, might value clean air above all else. Let’s call this second utopia, Puritania. Puritania would be forced to ask Libertariania to restrict Libertarians from polluting the air. If the Puritan government failed to do this, it would no longer be upholding the values of its citizens; it would no longer be a utopia for them. But if the Libertarian government agreed to the Puritan request, then they would no longer be upholding the value of freedom of its citizens; it would no longer be a utopia for them. If the two utopias went to war over the issue, neither would likely remain utopic for long. Freedom would be restricted in order to win the war and air would be polluted by the war.

So the very concept of utopia is an unattainable vision. This is one reason why many religions have placed utopias in the unverifiable world of life after death. As a naturalistic religion, SolSeed cannot place its utopia in such a supernatural place. Instead, we accept that a real utopia must, by its very nature, be at best an approximate fulfillment of our values and visions. Our values include empathy for others, life lived with passion, a wise mindful approach to problem solving, and an ever increasing diversity of Life. We don’t even pretend to have a solution to the internal conflicts between these values. Increased diversity of Life will create more conflict between Life forms; more predation, more parasitism, more competition and none of these relationships leave much room for empathy. Living your Life passionately does not always lead to mindful consideration of problems. We recognize these contradictions and seek no solutions to them. We have faith that solutions will be found that work locally for some period of time and then collapse to later reform into some new construct that again works only locally and only for a limited period of time.

600px-Ammonia_WorldIn essence we consider that we already live in such an approximate Utopia. The variety and grandeur of the Life that surrounds us is proof of this. It matters not that we are intermittently struck with grief and loss as our loved ones die and even as whole species go extinct. We experience these feelings of grief and loss as deeply as anyone. But we also know that they are expressions of the conflict between our values. Immortality would be immoral because it denies the evolution of diversity but empathy demands grief in the face of the loss of loved ones. Feelings of grief and loss are part of the diversity that we consider so valuable.

The part of our vision that seems to make us most unique is the part that calls for the expansion of Sol’s Seed (life on Earth) into space, to create an ever-growing family of living worlds. Sometimes, when we talk about this we are told by others, that rather than spending money on space, shouldn’t we solve the problems on Earth first. It is the same argument that many callers made on the call-in show about Rosetta-Philae. But problems are caused by conflict and as long as various people are working toward different utopias here on Earth, there will be conflict between them. Therefore, we will never solve all of the problems on Earth until the Sun expands into a red giant and burns away all Life on Earth. Only then will there be no conflict and no problems here on Earth.

Others say that until humanity achieves moral perfection it should not spread its dirty self to the stars. To this I say that the dream of moral perfection is an illusion. Morality is like utopia. It is an expression of choices of values. There is no such thing as moral perfection any more than there is such a thing as the perfect flavour of ice cream. If Life spreads to other worlds, and whether or not humanity goes with it, then yes, there will be wars on those other worlds. Yes, there will be atrocities committed in the name of king and country, religion and ideology. And there will be grief and aching feelings of loss. But there will be living creatures there to suffer through those feelings, to console one another and to rebuild and build anew. There will also be living creatures there to love and feel awe and perhaps feel new and wondrous emotions that have yet to evolve.

If we stay here on Earth, self-flagellating and mired in guilt over our “moral imperfection”, we deny all those living creatures the chance to love and feel awe and evolve those new and wondrous emotions which we cannot yet imagine. The Rosetta-Philae mission is just one of the first steps we need to take if we are to give those diverse creatures a chance at Life. If your utopia is one where there is nothing alive to feel grief, then I am sorry but I do not share your vision at all. My utopia is a universe filled with riotous Life passionately living out its conflicts and perhaps learning over trillions of years as stars come and go amongst the riot, to mindfully and wisely solve its problems as best can be. I hope that many more billions of dollars can be found to work toward that utopia.

Eddie’s Holonic Contribution

Let’s talk about holonic relationships. A holonic relationship is the relationship between a part and the whole. It is the way that Life is organized. Organs are made up of cells. In this holonic relationship, cells are the parts and organs are the whole. The relationships are nested; organs make up creatures, creatures make up communities, communities make up the biosphere. To be in right relationship, parts contribute to the whole and the whole nurtures its parts.

For instance, I rearrange electrons inside computers. This seems to be my contribution to society. To me, standing back, it doesn’t seem like much of a contribution. The other parts of society don’t seem to benefit much; they can’t eat the electrons, or drink them; electrons do not protect them from the cold or from storms. Yet, when I wanted to make my contribution to society, the building of things, society didn’t care for me as much. If I wanted to contribute beds and tables and chairs to society, society didn’t give me much for it. Society seemed to say, “Please just rearrange electrons in computers; that is what society really needs.” And so I started rearranging electrons inside computers and society gave me a home, and food, and clothing.

But a relative of mine, he didn’t listen to society; he decided to contribute to society by maintaining windows. The windows protect people from the cold and let light into their homes and so, to me, that seems like a big contribution. But society eventually said to this relative. Your contribution hasn’t been that much; you can have a healthy wife or you can have a home but you can’t have both. He chose to have a healthy wife, which was a pretty wise choice when you think about it. But then society started hinting that it was time to give up his home. But I said that I thought he should have a home. And society said, well your contribution to society, in rearranging elections inside computers, has been so huge that if you think this person should have a home, well that changes everything and here is a new home for him to live in. I don’t get it really.

The Home that Society Provided for Eddie; a frozen sidewalk

Anyway, in the first few minutes after the moment of Equinox yesterday, I came across a guy named Eddie. Society felt that Eddie’s contribution was so little that all that society felt Eddie should have was an ice-cold mud puddle to lie in and a bottle of poison to drink. I know this was the judgement of society and not just Eddie’s choice, because the footprints of many members of society gave him a wide berth and trampled around him where he lay in the freezing mud. Now I don’t know what Eddie’s contribution to society was, but I doubted it was so low as to deserve only what society was giving him. So I helped him up out of the mud. But the poison he had drunk was interfering with his muscle control and he couldn’t stand on his own. So I held him and I used my skills in rearranging electrons in a computer on a little portable computer I was carrying. It did something useful and it connected me to a woman who asked me if I wanted a Police Car, an Ambulance or a Fire Truck. I told her that I wanted an Ambulance for Eddie. She asked me about Eddie … and sent two police cars.

Two strong, young, healthy police officers got out of those cars. I asked one of them if they were going to take good care of Eddie and she said yes. And so I left Eddie in their care. And I hope they took good care of him because I have no faith that Eddie’s contribution to society was less than mine.

Multifaith Housing Initiative Logo

Now, I think back to one of my last acts of the winter of 2015, just a few hours before I met Eddie. I was negotiating the cost of creating a database for the Multifaith Housing Initiative to use to keep track of its donations and donors and fundraising and volunteers and committees and employee’s leave. I told them I would build it and transfer their data over to it from the various spreadsheets they were using. And I gave them a price that was way too low. I am glad I did, because it is really just more rearranging of electrons inside a computer. And their mission is to help people like Eddie. If they aren’t spending too much money on moving electrons around then they will have more money to protect Eddie from the cold. It is the least I can do.

Interstellar and the spaceflight zeitgeist

2013 was the Year of the Space Blockbuster. You’d think all those big-budget films featuring space travel and colonization ought to have thrilled people like us who believe in those goals, but the pessimistic tone of most of those movies rather undercuts their value from that perspective. Oblivion and After Earth portray the aftermath of planetary disasters that wiped out civilization on our home planet, while Ender’s Game, like 2009’s Avatar, describes a human spacefleet bent on the destruction of someone else’s homeworld. In Elysium, the eponymous space colony serves as a means for the super-rich to set themselves apart from an overpopulated, impoverished Earth sorely in need of a new Occupy movement. Gravity dramatizes an all-too-realistic space-debris catastrophe that wipes out everything we’ve built in low Earth orbit. The indie film Europa Report tells an inspiring tale of scientific discovery, but like Gravity, it also focuses on the deadly dangers of space travel. Even Star Trek, the venerable utopian franchise, was taken Into Darkness, with a Starfleet admiral trying to lie us into war with the Klingons and a starship crashing into San Francisco.

If the future is so bleak, as Hollywood has been telling us for years, then why the sudden focus on spaceflight, which used to be a source of such great hope and optimism? Today, seen through the lens of recent events, we could read the whole thing in two diametrically opposed ways. Perhaps these films, like the real-life disasters recently suffered by Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic, are warning us away from a renewed focus on an enterprise whose risks could outweigh its benefits. Or perhaps, like the breathtaking achievement of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta/Philae comet mission (which has its own short sci-fi film), the wondrous imagery in each of these movies asks us to accept the risks as a reasonable price for the glorious prospect of getting out there and seeing the universe.

Christopher Nolan’s new movie Interstellar falls squarely in the latter camp. Its context is a run-up to a planetary disaster on Earth, and like Gravity and Europa Report, it’s honest about the lethal risks of traveling across the vacuum and exploring worlds that lack the necessary conditions for human life. But Interstellar firmly agrees with Europa Report that the risk is worth taking.

And if that were the film’s only message, we in the SolSeed Movement wouldn’t hesitate to support it. But Interstellar has two big problems. One is the typical Hollywood doom and gloom mentioned above. Cooper, the main character, is a firm believer in human ingenuity, but he never questions the assumption that there’s no way we can stop the “Blight” from destroying the world. It’s not healthy for a culture to be so fixated on apocalyptic visions like this, which reduce spaceflight to an escape fantasy equivalent to the Christian Rapture.

The other problem is that the movie’s obsessive focus on the idea of humans taking flight, saving ourselves through the power of our technology, tells viewers that the rest of life on Earth doesn’t really matter. A scientist describes the planetary crisis in strictly human terms, referring to Cooper’s beloved daughter Murphy when he explains that “the last generation to starve will be the first to suffocate,” but neglecting to mention that the loss of Earth’s oxygen supply will spell doom for most other species as well. The Earthly landscapes we see in the film are purely man-made: fields of corn, a reservoir, a town whose streets are choked with dust. Given his experience of crop failures and frequent dust storms, the main character is surprised to learn that one of his fellow astronauts doesn’t believe nature can be “evil.”

We hope this film doesn’t signal a reversal in the decades-long trend of rising environmental consciousness, epitomized by movies like Avatar. As utopian sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson says, we don’t want to pivot from a sense of Earth as cherished home to one where “Earth is humanity’s cradle” and therefore “of only momentary importance, a thing to be used in infancy and then discarded.”* The slogan on some Interstellar movie posters, “Mankind was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here,” seems a clear allusion to the “cradle” concept, first articulated by space pioneer and mechanistic philosopher Konstantin Tsiolkovsky over a century ago.

So where would we want the spaceflight zeitgeist to go instead? Well, the dramatic conflict I’m setting up here, between this idea and the more humble perspective of helping life expand beyond our home planet without abandoning it, would itself make for a great story. On one side you’d have the doom-and-gloom people, convinced that Earth’s current ecological crises either can’t be solved, or require a space-baced technical fix that no one will agree to (e.g. space-based solar arrays that beam huge amounts of energy to Earth using possibly-weaponizable microwave lasers). Their space colony would resemble Elysium or the cylindrical worldlet portrayed toward the end of Interstellar, filled with big houses, lawns and sports fields, monoculture crops, and not much else. It would exist as a “backup for civilization’s hard drive,” hoping to survive long enough to repopulate the Earth after the supposedly inevitable collapse.

On the other side would be a strange alliance between space enthusiasts and environmental activists, who insist that we can transform society in the direction of harmony with the rest of nature, partly by setting up experimental new societies in space. Such experiments require us to grow wild ecosystems inside a space colony, following the Biosphere 2 model. The idea is that if we can learn to coexist with those ecosystems in such a constrained and risk-filled environment, we’ll certainly be able to do so back on Earth—and that if we screw up and the ecological balance in the colony breaks down, it won’t contribute to Earth’s admittedly massive problems. To keep people motivated to succeed, the colony would eschew mechanical life-support systems and rely entirely on plants, microbes, snails, and fish to recycle air and wastewater. It would also grow all of its food using a polyculture system, which emphasizes diversity and is therefore more robust over the long term than the other colony’s simplified industrial farming model.

But why go to the expense of doing all this in space rather than, say, building a bigger and better version of Biosphere 2 here on Earth? Well, the alliance would have a quasi-religious justification based on Gaia theory, well articulated in the recent philosophical novel The Obligation by Steven Wolfe: If Earth can be viewed as a single living organism four billion years old, isn’t it about time for her to develop the power to reproduce? As my fictional alliance (and the SolSeed Movement) sees it, self-sustaining ecosystems in space and on other worlds will be Gaia’s children, and it’s our job to build the shelters, plant the seeds, and help those ecosystems to adapt to their new environments—while simultaneously modifying those environments to suit themselves, as life has always done.

Speaking of children: At one point toward the end of Interstellar, Cooper, referring to some helpful five-dimensional beings that enabled his interstellar mission by creating a wormhole, says wonderingly that “They didn’t choose me. They chose her!” The “her” in question is his daughter back on Earth, who, thanks to relativistic time dilation, is now old enough to be his mother, and whose genius for physics turns out to play a crucial role in saving humanity.

Perhaps there’s an unexpected lesson here about how we relate to “Mother Earth.” We could blast off into space like a runaway child, only to come crawling back when we realize we don’t really know how to support ourselves long-term without her help. Or we could keep exhorting each other to “protect Mother Earth” as if we were her nurturing mother, which doesn’t make much sense either.

Instead, maybe humans need to see that we are part of the life that makes up the Gaia superorganism, and find our role within that context, as cells within her body. And if that makes us feel insignificant, like tiny cogs in a giant living machine—well, it turns out humans don’t have to be just any old cells. We can be neurons, contributing ideas to the global discourse that in some ways acts like a giant brain. We can be immune-system cells, seeking out damage and healing it, and fighting off attackers like killer asteroids.

And finally, one day, when our understanding of ecology has matured enough, we can become the most unique and special cells of all: egg cells.

*Quote from the book Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction, p. 254

Author

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Ben Sibelman is a contributing member of the SolSeed Movement, as well as an environmental activist, amateur graphic artist, writer, and programmer. He is working on a sci-fi novel set in a hollow-asteroid colony in the 25th century.

Gaia’s Heartbeat: practicing empathy for the Mother of us all

According to James Lovelock’s popular Gaia hypothesis, all life on Earth, in combination with the geochemical cycles it interacts with, can be treated as a single living organism called Gaia. Humanity has an obligation to care for Gaia, but it is hard to empathize with Gaia because her rhythms are so much slower than ours that we can’t directly perceive them. Our core brain doesn’t care for those it does not empathize with. To powerfully motivate our core brain to care for Gaia, we’ve created a music video to help us empathize with her. The music video speeds up Gaia’s rhythms to match the rhythms of our hearts beating and our bodies breathing, so that our core brain can perceive Gaia as an immediate living being. We hope that regularly watching the video will increase our motivation to take care of Gaia.

The cells in my body don’t know who I am and they don’t care about me. And yet, by each cell doing its own little thing in its own little context, this miraculous thing called me emerges! Just like our body is composed of cells with many different forms and functions, so too there is a body of all life, composed of living organisms of many different species, of which we are a part. The body of all Earthly life has many names. Gaia is the most common and popular of these names.

One of our obligations as a species is to help Gaia flourish. Our role in Gaia is not one of special rights and privileges, but rather one of great purpose and responsibility. Evolving humanity was expensive. It took eons for Gaia to develop the biosphere and to deposit vast stores of fossil fuels. In the millennia of our infancy, we have caused the extinction of myriad other species and consumed Gaia’s densest reserves of concentrated energy. It will take a lot of doing to become worthy of our price, and it is past time to get started.

It is hard to fully embrace the needs of Gaia because it is usually only the rational parts of our brains that perceive those needs. These newly evolved outer layers of our brain have little power to shape our behavior when our rational interests conflict with the subconscious desires of our core brain, which evolved much earlier. The core brain is far more powerful in shaping our behavior, and empathy is the key to recruiting our core brain to take on responsibility for Gaia’s needs.

Empathy is the innate mechanism through which we understand and value the needs of others. When we see another human being or even a nonhuman animal in distress, we feel the distress ourselves. Our response is not an intellectual derivation created by the new rational parts of our brain. Our response is a visceral emotion arising from our core brain that evolved long, long ago.

The closer we are to the other, the more empathy for them we feel. This holds true for many types of closeness: genetic relatedness, romantic involvement, friendship, or even physical proximity. We feel more empathy for someone who is right next to us than we do for someone we glimpse from several hundred yards away. We also feel closer and show more empathy to those we spend the most time with. By extension, we feel more empathy for others who remind us of those we spend the most time with.

Unfortunately for Gaia, she is so large and her rhythms so slow it is hard for us to identify with her. When we can shrink her down to a size we can identify with, amazing things happen. The first image of the whole earth taken by Apollo 8 from space did much to shrink Gaia down to a scale we could identify with. This famous “Earthrise” photo was even selected by the editors of Time magazine for the central image on the cover of their book “100 Photographs That Changed the World,” because of the impact it had in giving rise to the modern environmental movement.

1024px-NASA-Apollo8-Dec24-Earthrise

We made a music video called Gaia’s Heartbeat to speed up Gaia’s rhythms to a rate that would cause our core brain to implicitly recognize a living being. Our goal with the video was to create the immediate, visceral recognition of “living being” we get when we see the rising and falling of the side of a horse as it breathes.

Will watching this video actually lead us to act as better caretakers of Gaia? We think it’s a strong hypothesis and we hope it’s true, but it needs to be tested so we can learn more about how best to motivate ourselves to meet our responsibilities as part of Gaia’s body. We need your help to study this important question! Contact us if you’re interested in joining the experiment.

Author

Brandon-CS-Sanders-Headshot

Brandon CS Sanders is a contributing member of the SolSeed Movement.  His interests include cosmic and earth centered spirituality, fruits of religious practice, humanity’s obligations to the earth, and fostering nurturing community.

expressing the arete of Life!