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

Ben at Port Angeles small

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.

Why I’m Religious but not Spiritual

I was raised an atheist. My parents were careful to explain the importance of respecting other people’s religious beliefs but they didn’t see the point in us knowing anything about religious practice. Certainly we never celebrated or ritualized our beliefs.

But the idea of religious practice fascinated me. I had beliefs that were important to me: evolution, environmentalism, love, respect for all individuals in their glorious diversity. I wanted to share those beliefs, I wanted to celebrate them with a community.

Over the years I have met many people who described themselves as spiritual but not religious. When I describe this desire to them, they get excited and say that I should do like they do. But generally what they mean by “not religious” is that they prefer to practice alone. And usually what they mean by spiritual is that they have invented their own supernatural entities to worship or commune with.

This is usually why they practice alone ; they want to claim their right to imagine the supernatural in their own way. That is exactly the opposite of what I have always wanted. To me a community of practice is central to my desire. But it is the supernatural that I don’t need.

I wanted a community of practice which would help me stay focused on living my values. I wanted a community of practice with which I could collaborate on projects which were meaningful to me. I wanted a community which would celebrate Life because we have so much to be thankful for. I didn’t want a community which would extole suffering in the natural world. I find dreaming about a better supernatural world to be an ugly ungrateful attitude.

The community that I longed for is exactly what I eventually found in the SolSeed Movement. When I found them shortly after Imbolc 2012, they had already developed a rich practice completely grounded in the natural. The practice was participatory, what Unitarians might call lay-led, and so before long I found myself leading services. I felt welcomed to suggest new practices. Together we continue to create a rich calendar of practices.

Our practices are designed to help us viscerally connect with the values we have chosen together. We needed a clear statement of our values so we wrote a creed. We settled on a call and response form which creates a feeling of social transaction, something our species responds to with loyalty. It begins with our most fundamental tenet, “Life is precious.” Often I have whispered that to myself when I have felt angry at some money grubbing power ; it reminds me to value the Life in them and to offer them a new path rather than oppose them with hatred.

We believe that “Life is precious” is a principle that can be applied at every scale. At the personal scale, it calls us to live a healthy, joyous Life. So as I write this I am also riding my stationary bike, training for the Yay Life Tri, a triathlon we run together to celebrate the Summer Solstice. Taking advantage of economy of scope we gave the Yay Life Tri a second purpose, to remind us of the preciousness of Life at the other end of the scale ; we arranged the events in an order reminiscent of evolutionary history. Swimming then running then bicycling reminds us of Life originating in the sea, emerging onto land and then inventing technology. We, humanity, are part of the body of all Life and so Life invented technology through us.

We needed to build a tightly bound community so we meet every Sabbath for a service. We involve all ages together from our youngest 2 year old member to our oldest, approaching 50. We have an opening ritual that varies through the seasons as we follow our Cosmic Calendar. Some of the actions that go with the words are designed to be meaningful to the youngest among us. But as the oldest member, I enjoy flapping my arms to celebrate the birth of flight. It feels like being a kid again and I can use the excuse that I’m only doing it for the kids.

We wanted our modern naturalistic traditions to taste of ancient tradition so we incorporated the best of other traditions into our practices. Our service is celebrated on the Jewish Sabbath. We encourage each other to practice daily meditation as in the Buddhist tradition. Our holy days fall on the same dates as the pagan holy days reminding us both of ancient tradition and modern astronomy as we travel through space on the Earthship. We use religious terminology with guilty pleasure to describe our naturalistic liturgy.

We didn’t want a religion that only looked to the past. We wanted a religion that dreamed and strived for a better future. We looked for the biggest difference we could make in the universe. We saw a universe where living worlds were rare and special amidst myriad barren worlds of ice and rock. We have created a vision together of bringing Life to those worlds. We don’t have the deep pockets or know-how of NASA yet but we are searching for little ways in which we can contribute to the larger space movement. Our practice includes that search.

A decade ago, the facilitator of a time management course encouraged me to look deep inside myself for my core-values. When I did, I found that I had a set of values distinct from those of my colleagues and friends. I found that with thought and time, I was able to create a logical whole out of the diverse values inside me. Then by stepping forward and talking about those values to strangers, I was able to find my way to a community that shared my values.

So I encourage everyone to look deeply inside yourselves and discover what it is that you value. Then do the work to find others who share those values and join with them to form a community of religious practice. As a naturalist, seek to be religious not spiritual!

Author

Eric

 

Eric Saumur is a contributing member of the SolSeed Movement with a deep love for Life but especially for trees. He writes science fiction (mostly about forests) which he posts on the SolSeed wiki. He spends as much time as possible admiring wilderness and dreaming about the stars. He also helps coordinate a community garden and enjoys dreaming up rituals to celebrate the SolSeed liturgical calendar.

expressing the arete of Life!