The Green Universe: A Vision from the October 13, 2016 issue
To the Editors:
In “The Green Universe: A Vision” [NYR, October 13, 2016], Freeman Dyson considers topics from the costs of space exploration to the propagation of life in outer space.
Comparing “Big Space” (large-scale specialized enterprises on behalf of government programs like NASA) and “Little Space” (smaller private sector efforts using widely available technologies) he asserts that NASA’s approach increases cost six hundred fold. But space systems are complex and must work very reliably. The Soviet Union lost many of its early missions, while the US invested heavily in expensive equipment and approaches, to achieve acceptable safety to put a man on the moon while the Russians abandoned their manned lunar program. In missions like Virgin Galactic, failure in the first fifty to one hundred launches—similar to the achieved level of reliability of the shuttle—will be considered too risky and fail.
Professor Dyson finishes with some speculative and fantastical ideas. His vision of a future universe teaming with “life” is one of the more fanciful. He imagines future space ventures where “the purpose is no longer to explore space with unmanned or manned missions, but to expand the domain of life from one small planet to the universe.”
We take issue with some of Professor Dyson’s assumptions and assertions. One is the limited sense he gives to “life.” It is unrealistic to think “life” in space is something we would recognize. Another fundamental objection is to the belief that the universe is open to mankind. Considering humans’ degradation of earth’s environment, failure to avoid pollution, climate change, and the inequality between people, which makes the days of the pharaohs seem positively philanthropic, this seems preposterous. We should have learned from the devastating impact of introducing species into new environments on earth.
As early as the 1960s it was recognized that space needs as much protection from earth-bound elements as the earth does from alien substances of outer space. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits space activities that cause harmful contamination of space or adverse changes to the environment of the earth. Effort is made not to pollute other planets with earthly bacteria, and the term “planetary protection” is now commonplace in space agency circles.
We also take issue with the term colonize. A fundamental principle of the 1967 treaty is that no state may appropriate any part of space by occupation, claim of sovereignty, or any other means. If mankind settles in space it cannot be claimed as a colony by any country.
Too many voices currently promote exploitation of space, with no concern for the havoc that could be wreaked on our planet as a result. We know virtually nothing about what exists in space, particularly beyond the solar system. A human-designed outer space “teeming with life and action” sounds like a nightmare out of Joseph Conrad.
London Institute of Space Policy and Law
Mullard Space Science Laboratory
University College London
My view of the future universe and the view expressed by Altmann, Mosteshar, and Smith show an interesting clash of cultures. Long ago, Shakespeare showed us the same clash of cultures in a more dramatic setting in his play Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 3.
Sir Toby Belch and his friends are disturbing the night with a loud celebration. Malvolio comes downstairs to silence them. Malvolio: “Do ye make an alehouse of my lady’s house, that ye squeak out your coziers’ catches without any mitigation or remorse of voice?” Sir Toby replies: “Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?”
In our views of the future universe, I see myself in the role of Sir Toby and my critics in the role of Malvolio. Two facts about our situation are indisputable. Life is infinitely adaptable, unpredictable, and uncontrollable. And the universe is unimaginably large. So there must always be small patches controlled by local Malvolios with their laws and treaties and enforcers and tax-gatherers. And outside there must always be huge stretches of ungovernable wilderness where Sir Toby and his friends are free to wander.
The finite speed of light ensures that no bureaucratic authority can be effective over large distances. Once life has escaped from this planet, it will be free to evolve and diversify as it pleases. We are a part of nature, and we will have the same freedom.
I am happy to hear views contrary to my own. I hope there will always be clashes of cultures. I hope there will always be Malvolios to engage Sir Toby’s wits. With thanks to my critics.
The Economist graph lists ‘immigration, territorial, smuggling, trafficking, security, other’ as reasons for current border fence building. Historically, types of border fortification are not new. They have been built throughout history:
|Abkhazia||Kelasuri Wall / Great Abkhazian Wall||..||..|
|Abkhazia||Georgia Border Fence||2008|
|Austria||Slovenia Border Fence||2015||..|
|Bulgaria||Turkey Border Fence||2014||present|
|Bulgaria||Border Fence with Serbia||2015..||..|
|China||Great Wall of China [Ming]||1474||1688|
|Estonia||Russian Border Fence||2018|
|France||Mur de la peste||1721||..|
|France||Sere de Rivieres Forts|
|France||Route Coloniale 4 / RC4|
|France||De Lattre Line|
|Georgia||Kelasuri Wall / Great Abkhazian Wall|
|Georgia||Abkhazia Border Fence||2008|
|Georgia||Ossetia Border Fence||2008|
|Germany||Fortresses / Festungen|
|Germany||Westwall / Siegfried Line|
|Germany||Festung Europa / Atlantic Wall|
|Greece||Athens Long Walls||461 BC||404 BC|
|Hungary||Border Fence with Serbia and Croatia||2015..||..|
|India||Great Hedge of India||..||..|
|Iran||Sassanid Walls – Gorgon Wall||..||..|
|Iraq – Ur III||Amorite Wall||2032BC||???|
|Iraq – Kassite||Dur-Kurigalzu||1300BC||..|
|Iraq – Medes||Median Wall||600BC||..|
|Iraq – Babylon||Babylon Walls||600BC|
|Israel||Gaza Strip Barrier||1993||present|
|Israel||Lebanon Technical Fence||19||present|
|Israel||Syria Alpha Fence||19||present|
|Israel||Jordan / Timna Airport||2016||present|
|Israel||Security Fence, Palestine||2001||present|
|Kenya||Anti al-Shabab Wall||2015||present|
|Kuwait||Iraq – The Berm||1991||present|
|Kyrgystan||Sokh District Border Fence||2013||present|
|Latvia||Russian Border Fence||2018|
|Moldavia||Greuthungi Wall / Upper Trajan’s Wall||..||..|
|Norway||Glomma River / Glåma River Line||1940||1943|
|Norway||Storskog Border Fence||2016|
|Ossetia||Georgia Border Fence||2008|
|Pakistan||Durand Line – Afghanistan||2006||present|
|Panama||Panama Canal Fence||..||..|
|Qatar||National Security Shield||2007||..|
|Romania||Integrated Border Security||200x||present|
|Roman Empire||Hadrian’s Wall||122||410|
|Roman Empire||Limes Germaniae|
|Roman Empire||Limes arabicus||..||..|
|Roman Empire||Limes Tripolitanis||..||..|
|Saudi Arabia||United Arab Emirates||200x||present|
|Slovenia||Croatia Border Fence||2015||present|
|South Africa||Lesotho-South Africa Fence||19||present|
|South Africa||Mozambique Border Fence||19||present|
|South Africa||Norex Border Fence||19||present|
|South Africa||Veterinary Fences||19||present|
|South Korea||Cheolli Jangseong||..||..|
|South Korea||ROK-DPRK Demilitarized Zone||1953||current|
|South Ossetia||Border Fence||2013||present|
|Syria||Wall of Syria||2400BC||..|
|Tunisia||Fossa Regia||146 BC||..|
|Ukraine||Dragon Walls / Serpent Walls||BC ?||..|
|Ukraine||Russian Border Fence||2014 ?||..|
|UK||Peace Line [Belfast]||present|
|USA||Seacoast Fortification – First System|
|USA||Seacoast Fortification – Second System|
|USA||Seacoast Fortification – Third System|
|USA||Harbor Defenses – Great War|
|USA||Harbor Defenses – World War II|
|USA||ROK-DPRK Demilitarized Zone||1953||current|
|USA||Cuba (GITMO Cactus Curtain)||1961||present|
|USA||Great Wall of Mexico|
|Vietnam||Wall of Reeds / Dong Hoi Wall||..||..|
From the 19th to the 21st century we witness the increased frequency of border fortification . Which is not suprising, as the emergence of nation states falls into this intense period, I would call Modernity or the Modern Project. Nation state building lead to many bloody episodes in history, such as large scale exploratory colonial projects world wide and two world wars fought between nation states or allies.
The nation state still plays a major role in the 21st century and its wall building endeavours. The world situation has drastically changed in the last two centuries. There have been manifold economic and political tensions and threaties between nations. Entire populations move freely within most European countries. Multinational corporations nowadays operate outside narrow national concepts (and taxation). Institutions such as universities provide exchange opportunities for students and researchers, creating a transnational network of scientists working or competing together. The Internet distributes content regardless of national delimitations to those who have access, still a minority on a global scale.
Despite these changes ceaselessly shaping world structures and behaviour, the world, as a whole, has not yet taken the next step, which is to move beyond nation states to the governing of the world as one single body in space. A transition to a world government type of system sounds ridiculous, especially in the current environnment of hardening borders.
Yet despite the countless arguments against it, a world goverment is unavoidable in the long run at least. There are preconceptions about a world government. We may think of it as if a massive national body, which it will never be. It will be something else. It will be highly federal and decentralised. It will be imperfect. There will still be wars and human tragedies.
The major challenges humanity faces, such as climate change, are global in scale. These challenges can only be tackled from a global governance point of view. A particular branch of industry follows a set of regulations designed for the particular area in question. Yet a disaster such as the Fukushima nuclear meltdown drastically shows the limits of regional regulation or solution finding. Nuclear waste spilling into the oceans does obviously not care about border limitations. Water as a borderless transportion medium, in this example, has shifted from a symbol of life to a bringer of death. We can learn from the waste we produce as it holds painful answers.
Like environmental disasters, fence building is a global phenomenon. The elephant in the room really are the nation states themselves.
While critising the idea of nation states, there is a long series of issues coupled to the adoption of a global system of governance. At the moment, nations have military and intelligence agencies suspicious of one another. Some share information, but even allies tend to spy on each other. The current world structure does not provide a basis of deep mutual trust. Nuclear weapons in the hand of currently nine nations reinforce states of general suspicion.
If earth takes the next step towards world government, and idea hard to sell yet already tested by a union of nations such the EU, its citizens would need to, at least to some degree, believe in the new union. The question of belief appears when the EU faces another crises of confidence. Do EU citizens care being in the EU? What difference does it make, really? It certainly does make a difference, for millions on a daily basis, but also, daily life can feel, strangely, how it always was. One can too easily forget the historically unique project that is the EU. Maybe the EU could do better at branding themselves more favourably, perhaps they could work together with artists to create EU uniforms or a something, or they could give free EU wide train tickets to some teenagers etc. Otherwise there is a danger that one only thinks about easyjet or grey Brussels bureaucrats when thinking about the EU, which it is a misrepresentation. Britain is definitively better at branding their nation, that’s for sure. The EU sucks in branding (here a new project, DIS?).
If one considers the images of border fortification projects below, the world emerges as a fractured body. I want to avoid a naive or romatising view of a ‘one world system’ where everything is in harmony. It won’t happen. But a fractured body is, essentially, unhealthy and needs treatment. The treatment will be painful, not in the sense of armed conflicts, but in terms of emotional changes attached to a shift from national to earth government. There is national, religious, other personal baggage each and everyone has to cede in the process. The world government in its charter will have foundations in the history and development of succesful governments, combining and adapting elements of ‘Western’ governmental bodies, some of the most succesful governments ever in history, with Chinese, Indian and other governmental approaches. It will have unshakable elements such as the secular basis, but also some local features and governing sensibilities, yet will need to be solid in its core as not to be fractured easily.
The statement about ‘Western’ governments may be seen, in connection to designing a basis for a world govermental system as just another Western type colonial project under the banner ‘world government’. Yet it was the ‘West’ that effectively kickstarted globalisation. Then everyone took part in it. The movements set in motion are irreversible. Globalisation can either be denied, resulting in current states of fractures, or thought through, to its logical conclusions, arriving at overarching, yet smart earth governmental structure. With ‘conclusion’ I don’t mean it to be a final entity. A project such as a world government needs to be constantly revised in order to evolve.
Regarding ‘The West’, it is true that many conflicts emerged from national borders drawn on European tables and imposed on foreign lands, affecting entire regions and introducing ethnic divisions. But every single corner on the planet enaged in war activities throughout history. Humans before and deep into the modern period killed each other without mercy. There is no use in endlessly stigmatising the ‘West’. Such tired labeling does not hold up anymore in a world that has, as a whole, subscribed to the project of modernity and its accompanying technological and societal progress, whatever ‘progress’ may be. Because everyone on planet earth, sooner or later, will be captivated, to his or her core, by modernity. There is no turning back, ever. Mecca, with its massive hotels looks like surprisingly similar to Time Square. There is no essential difference between the two places. Every single square meter is designed and optimised to welcome and wave through as many subjects/believers/customers/tourists as possible.
The ‘West’, or parts of it can of course be critiqued and deeply questioned. But more often than not, the ‘West’ is taken as a simplistic catchword by deniers of progress or modernity itself. The Arab Spring was an attempt to officially subscribe to the Modern Project with its secular worldview. It didn’t fail in itself, but the non-secular political environment failed the protesters. Compared to the look of hundreds of Chinese or other Asian cities, European or American ‘Western’ cities look quaint. A critique of the ‘West’ needs to entail a broad discussion on the general, world wide nation state system. The world nowadays, beyond East-West-South is deeply interconnected and interdependent. The world , again, as a whole subscribed to the Modern Project. There is no non-reactionary alternative. Again, Western nations in the past and present have commited attrocities. Colonialisation, for example, or the large scale abduction of African people forced into slavery or the genocide of indigenous people by Europeans are horrible historical facts. Yet the notion of the ‘West’ one can find in current discourse about ‘The West versus the rest’ tales is not helpful, whether they come from a Samuel Huntingtion type of ‘Clash of Civilisation’ or from a Pankaj Mishra ‘Age of Anger’ perspective. These texts are angry and polemical, yet they underestimate the common core humans share beyond national or religious framing. They underestimate the sheer power of Modernity and the human will to coexist peacefully despite the differences.
What is needed, instead, is a road map for the Modern Project, that shows us, beyond right or leftwing ideologies, how to navigate Modernity and a world without nations. A road map that explains and insist on secular values and the possibilites to travel to other planets and working together towards a solar and interstellar civilisation. A road map such as Cixin Liu’s science fiction novel trilogy The Three Body Problem or Seveneves by Neal Stephenson or The Expanse James S. A. Corey that entertain but also propose future scenarios of types of world governments and systems of governing beyond the current situation. Or shall we all resign and subscribe to a general anger and drown at modernity? That cannot be a road map.
However liberal or decentralised the coming world government may be, it will have one single global armed force engaging in executive military and peacekeeping missions. The World Guards.
The coming world government will be a mess, a patchwork system with voices and opinions constantly clashing and arguing. Yet is it will be resilient, because it proposes, for the first time in human history, a unified vision for a common human future soon inhabiting other planets in the solar system.
The Visit is a poetic, allusive reflection on encountering an actual intelligent lifeform. Madsen’s documentary asks the question how a realistic alien arrival scenario would impact and upset terrestrial governments and militaries. Real life scientists working at NASA, the United Nations or the Seti institute respond in a manner as if the arrival has actually taken place. In The Visit’s fictional, potentially real situation, the silent, passive presence of the never shown aliens leads to an increasing nervosity among state and military personnel.
Here a couple of transcripts, with the scientists adressing the alien/the viewer directly:
My particular interest is searching for a second Genesis of life. The question I want to know is ‘has life started separately, independendly, somewhere else’. Hence my interest in what you might represent. My question would be ‘does the life that you represent, constitute a separate, independent origin than the life that I represent. Are we distant cousins, or are we completely separate, independent life forms. It’s possible, that here on eath, there is a second Genesis we have not yet discovered. All life that we discovered is related, is part of what I call ‘the first Genesis’. But there may be life that we have not discovered and we haven’t discovered it because our methods of detecting life are specific to life as we know it (f.ex. DNA testing). We may be blind to this second Genesis present right here. This is why some persons have named it ‘the shadow biosphere’. Maybe right here in our gardens, maybe even on our skin are living organisms that are so different from us biochemically that we wouldn’t even recognize them with our life detection instruments. (…) I mentioned that on earth we only have one example of life, one shared biochemistry. My intuition is, the explanation for that is competition at the Genesis level, if you will. And, we ate the competition. We ate them out of house and home. The reason we see only one type of life on earth is an ecosphere can only house one organism, one lifeform and we have outcompeted all the others, they’re gone, they’ve been rendered extinct. (…) Well that opens up the scary prospect that if your lifeform represents a different biochemistry and is accidentally released on earth, or if we accidentally contaminate your spacecraft, that without any malicious intention, the lifeforms will compete. And for that reason I advocate a barrier to any interaction biologically between you and us, until we resolved those questions; so the assumptive precautionary principle is separation. Nothing personal (smiles). Christopher McKay, Astrobiologist, NASA Ames Research Centre
‘500 years ago, people from Europe, one of the continents on earth, discovered a totally new world. They asked themselves ‘who are these people’ and, more precisely, ‘are they human?’ (…) ‘do they possess a soul?’ (…) And they tried to find proof of religious attitudes, they tried to find if these people have empathy…’ (…) So a deciscion of our will. I can decide to be human with you, and if I decide to be human with you, you receive from me a certain human identity. Jacques Arnould, Theologian, Ethics Advisor to the French Space Agency, CNES
In our history, whenever a more advanced civilisation have met with the lesss advanced, in almost all cases, the less advanced civilisation has suffered. Dr. Sheryl Bishop, Social Psychologist, Professor, University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston
Our fear is that, perhaps another civilisation will come to earth and do what we have done to one another. My hope is that, in the same way your technology is advanced, your morality is also more advanced than ours. Doug Vakoch, Director of Interstellar Message Composition, SETI Institute
Slowly, The Visit introduces profound, ambiguous sentiments towards a potential extraterrestrial Other. Because of the alien’s silence we humans need to fill the gaps, because of our tendency of wanting to bring the unknown into the known.
On another note, judging from the trailer it feels as if Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming Arrival is a mix between Ted Chiang’s Story of your Life and The Visit. Filming of Arrival began in mid June 2015, The Visit had its premiere at the Sundance Festival in mid february 2015. Hard to say if Denis saw the movie at Sundance or before or whether the production was already too advanced to incorporate some of The Visit’s visual approach. Anyhow, it’s fascinating how elements of the two overlap.
The second scene is from volume 36. It’s another existentialist moment where some Gantz players/warriors encounter ‘the Truth’ a statuesque, super intelligent being. They are encouraged to ask questions.
The scene is remarkable for the design of two the Truth figures. The inside of the figure is constantly shapeshifting; heads of creatures and alien races emerge and morph into in/famous humans (Ghandi, Betthoven, Hitler; but also Bill Gates if I’m correct and scientist Stephen Hawking). Is it to make the cryptic statements more accessible for humans to understand?
again, Japanese reading direction.