As NASA’s engineers high-five one another for “bringing home the gold” by successfully landing the Curiosity rover within the Martian Gale Crater, and political figures gleefully trumpet the $2.5 billion adventure as an example of effective government spending or yet another demonstration of American exceptionalism (or both, depending on which faction of the corporate oligarchy they represent) something rather fundamental is being overlooked. For while homo sapiens looks to the stars and ponders new frontiers to conquer, the planet we already inhabit – which, by divine providence or cosmic happenstance, is gloriously hospitable to an astonishing tapestry of life – finds itself under siege. Beset by runaway human population growth, utterly unsustainable resource consumption, unregulated global pollution, grotesque exploitation of non-human sentient beings, and destruction of habitats and the uncounted species they support, our beautiful, blue ball in space is being pushed to the breaking point and quite probably beyond. When even a dim-witted, right-wing rag like the Leesburg Daily Commercial includes reports that freak weather across the globe is statistical proof of climate change, and other mainstream news outlets note that the climate scientist retained by the Koch Brothers to demolish the whole corpus of global-warming science ended up reinforcing it instead, then only an ostrich or an idiot could remain unperturbed. So how do we respond – other than by plotting an extraterrestrial escape? Americans worry about how to return to the halcyon days of frenzied economic growth; the Chinese bring online a new coal-fired power plant every week; and the Brazilians continue to deforest another Belgium every year. We might be clever enough to go to Mars, but we are definitely too stupid to live on Earth.
Look Out Mars, Here Come the Earthlings
The case for going to Mars (of which a classic example may be found here) features some of the same elements that have led to the parlous condition of Earth. While the argument that space exploration augments our knowledge and technical prowess is compelling, it is accompanied by an emphasis on mankind’s allegedly basic need to expand his horizons and exploit whatever he finds there. Mars, we are told, possesses abundant minerals that could support an advanced civilization. The fact that we could easily have a sustainably advanced civilization right here apparently does not suffice; we must always have more. Some of the more extreme space-boosters see mankind’s adventures as essential for his long-term survival, and they might well be right given his propensity to destroy perfectly good places. One does not detect in these fantasies any sense of remorse for what amounts to the galactic equivalent of slash-and-burn agriculture and wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am relations. Just use it up and move on; after all, there’s a whole universe of planets out there. We’ll build nice terrariums and take along a handful of useful plant species (heck, maybe even a couple of animals and a few necessary microbes) and it’ll be just like home. No, it won’t. It will be a spiritually empty facsimile of home, permanently marred by the guilt of a colossal crime. And while it is tempting to say that this perpetual torment is the condign punishment that homo sapiens will richly deserve, his victims – the millions of other life forms that compose the web of which he is but one part – can never be adequately compensated. Mankind might get a second chance – at a second-rate existence – but all they get is death. You’re welcome, homo.
Monuments to Our Own Stupidity
For people who find such sentiments melodramatic – a likely response in a culture that starts its day by ingesting genetically-modified, highly-processed breakfast cereals marketed by cartoon characters on behalf of multi-million-dollar conglomerates – we need to bring the focus a little closer to home. The American experience has been short but enormously instructive about the nature of homo sapiens and his more recent evolutionary descendant, homo economicus. While many chronicles of the arc of human civilization, such as Jared Diamond’s bestseller, Collapse, invoke such familiar cases of human overreach as the fate of the Easter Islanders, there is plenty of grist for the mill back at the ranch. Two places in particular – one a national park, the other a national wildlife refuge – say as much about us as they do about their ostensibly natural themes.
At the National Bison Range in western Montana, roughly half way between Missoula and Flathead Lake1, a few hundred buffalo are allowed to roam freely over 18,500 acres of mixed terrain, much of it affording magnificent views of the glacially-sculpted Rockies. Of course, this is not the only place in the United States where tourists can see bison, as any visitor to the Tetons (as shown here) or Yellowstone will happily attest. But it is a singularly poignant place, for here the few people who bother to make the trip cannot escape the enormity of the offense that was committed against this noble animal. Perfectly adapted to life on the Great Plains, vast herds of buffalo – so many that natives and settlers alike believed the supply to be inexhaustible – were wiped out in just a few years. All that remain in the wild – if such it may be called – are a few token animals, effectively corralled in designated areas so as not to become too much of a nuisance. While some lucky bison are farmed for their meat, the ungulate now targeted for destruction is the less imposing cow, which the agricultural interests of California would have us believe is very happy in its domestic status. In that animal’s case, we very cleverly learned from our earlier mistake by forcing them to reproduce a steady supply of victims for the captive-bolt guns of the slaughterhouse, instead of simply shooting everything in sight. Now the killing is organized and can be repeated over and over again. Brilliant.
Similar emotions – for those of us capable of emotional responses – are evoked by Sequoia National Park in California’s Sierra Nevada. South of the more-popular Yosemite, Sequoia is reached by most visitors by climbing out of the sweltering, smog-filled Central Valley, home to many penned-up cows who will never see green grass let alone the mountain meadows of Montana. Sequoia and its sister parks in California shelter a life form even more massive than the mighty buffalo and capable of lifting the human spirit as high as its record-setting branches. While not as tall as the coast redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens), the giant sequoias of the western High Sierra (Sequoiadendron giganteum) are the largest living things on earth. Both species are capable of living for millennia, dwarfing human lives in more than one way. Naturally, such enormous trees proved irresistible to the axe and the saw. When California became a state, old-growth coast redwoods covered two-million acres. By the time Redwood National Park was created in Northern California (in 1968), 90% of the original trees had been logged; today, as much as 96% have been destroyed forever. It was largely the advocacy of the Save the Redwoods League and John Muir’s early Sierra Club that led to the creation of the parks that now protect almost half the remaining trees. But the battle is far from over. California’s redwoods are still under attack from commercial interests that elevate profit above considerations of spirituality or ecology, including clear-cutting by the family that owns The Gap and widespread losses to winery interests. Conservatives longing for a return to the good old days of the late 19th Century should feel right at home: we’re almost as stupid today as we were then.
The Unattainable Goal of Sound Stewardship
With utter predictability, the recent United Nations Earth Summit at Rio ended in abject failure, which is precisely what the global corporate elite wanted. And the current Administration, which the right-wing would have us believe is anti-capitalist, worked tirelessly to ensure that language offensive to corporate interests – such as the stock-price-killing notion of “unsustainable consumption and production patterns” – would be excised from the draft agreement. Instead, the 20-year-old concept of “sustainability” has undergone a menacing transformation into an altogether different concept – “sustained growth,” which, as George Monbiot rightly observes, is the very antithesis of sustainability on a finite planet.
And that, of course, brings us back to where we started. The predatory capitalists who are currently sucking as much value as they can from both people and planet know very well that at some point the music is going to stop. America’s presence in both Afghanistan and Iraq, as the late Gore Vidal frequently pointed out, had far more to do with securing dwindling supplies of certain mineral resources than with the promotion of democracy abroad. As the polar ice cap melts, we will see a similar competition for resources in previously inaccessible places, with various powers claiming – on behalf of their respective elites – the right to exploit the Arctic Ocean’s floor. With the possible exception of the deep ocean trenches, space is the logical next step for human acquisitiveness. And who knows, perhaps one day there will be a national monument on Mars, preserving a mountain top that has not been removed, Kentucky-style, for mineral extraction. The view of earth will be beautiful, won’t it?
- For the benefit of Daily Commercial readers who remember the poaching charges brought against Villages’ developer Mark Morse and his entourage, their ranch is near Hardin in Big Horn County, over on the flatter, eastern side of the state. Once upon a time, it would have been prime buffalo habitat. ↩