It appears distinctly possible, even likely that intelligent life exists on other planets. According to the leading University of California at Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, an official NASA researcher for the Kepler telescope mission, "The universe is simply too large for there not to be another intelligent civilisation out there. Really, the proper question is: 'How far away is our nearest intelligent neighbour?' They could be 10 light years, 100 light years, a million light years or more. We have no idea”
I certainly have no idea, but I wonder sometimes how legitimately humanity can claim to have created “an intelligent civilization” here on Earth.
Imagine that an advanced species capable of inter-galactic travel and research came upon the remains of human society on Earth in, say, the year 2500. Let’s call this species (taking a name from the popular Star Trek movies and television series) the Romulans.
As they examined the records and ruins of the lost species that called itself homo sapiens, our imagined Romulans’ historians and archeologists would be struck by a curious paradox or contradiction. On one hand, Romulan researchers would determine, human scientists and engineers had by the late 20th and early 21st centuries developed and deployed remarkable technologies and models that allowed them to document the fatal heating of their planet’s climate and to find the cause of that Earth warming in humanity’s rapacious extraction and burning of their planet’s stock of carbon-containing fossil fuels, rendering Earth uninhabitable. The technologies included NASA’s “more than a dozen Earth science space instruments in orbit studying all aspects of the Earth system (ocean, atmosphere, biosphere, cryosphere), with several more planned for lunch in the next few years.”
The peril was well understood by humans who used and understood these and other tools of planet systems research at the time, the Romulans learned. As leading human climate scientist James Hansen, head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, wrote in 2009: “Planet Earth, creation, the world in which civilization developed…is in imminent peril [from anthropogenic global warming – AGW] …We now have clear evidence…[for the] startling conclusion…that continued exploitation of all fossil fuels on Earth threatens not only the millions of other species on the planet but also the survival of humanity itself – and the timetable is shorter than we thought.” Hansen and other human earth scientists had already been studying and warning about AGW (a natural consequence of the elementary Greenhouse Effect, first discovered by human scientists in the 19th century) for three decades when he issued this urgent alarm.”
On the other hand, the Romulans would be struck by the Earthlings’ failure to take elementary steps necessary to put an end to what their own Earth scientists called “anthropogenic global warming” – shifting from reliance on fossil fuels and the madman risks of nuclear power (amply demonstrated by the late 20th century Chernobyl and early 21st century Fukushima disasters) to renewable energy.
Subsequent inquiry and debate among Romulan historians would revolve largely around the question of why a highly capable, technically advanced species with capacity for moral as well as practical reasoning made its only home planet unlivable for itself and millions of fellow sentient Earthlings.
The cause, Romulan researchers determined, was humanity’s tragic failure to democratize and socialize its economic and political processes and relations. Homo sapiens was captive in its final centuries to its own giant and amoral corporate and financial concentrations of wealth and power, including giant planetary energy firms that were deeply invested in the relentless extraction, refining, and sale fossil fuels wherever they could be found. These firms and other parts of late humanity’s massive carbon-industrial complex invested a portion of their unmatched profits in the systematic discrediting and marginalization of earth scientists’ findings and recommendations.
There were other and related factors, each also linked to the militantly hierarchical and authoritarian class-based profits system (capitalism) that continued to plague homo sapiens in spite of that species’ remarkable achievements and capacities:
- The small but super-wealthy and powerful human elite’s propagation of an ideology of endless economic growth that functioned as a false substitute for the equality and economic security that most humans desired.
- Human capitalists’ reliance on constant economic expansion (growth as material reality, not just ideology) to sustain their profits in their constant competitive struggle with each other and provide employment for the ever rising share of the world population forced out of communal societies and self-employment and into dependence on wage labor.
- Capitalism’s reliance on “an economy of built-in waste” including: “(1) a gargantuan and ever-expanding sales effort penetrating into the structure of production itself; (2) planned obsolescence (including planned psychological obsolescence); (3) production of luxury goods for an opulent minority; (4) prodigious military and penal-state spending; and (5)…a whole speculative superstructure in the form of finance, insurance, and real estate market.”
- Capitalism’s inherent short-term fixation and inability to make long-term plans and to set social, democratic, and ecological limits on private/corporate profit in accord with the common good of humanity and other living thing – problems exacerbated by the shift to neoliberal and financial capitalism in the last quarter of the 20th century.
- The mutually assured global inaction imposed by the division of the world into competing capitalist states, each loathe to make environmental concessions for fear that their rivals would be advantaged.
Could homo sapiens’ collapse have been averted? As a rising number of human earth scientists began to realize by the early 21st century, the solution lay first of all in what University of California geophysicist Brad Werner called “resistance” by movements of “people or groups of people” who “adapt a certain set of dynamics that does not fit the capitalist culture.” In 2013, Werner was part of “a small but increasingly influential group of scientists whose research into the destabilisation of natural systems – particularly the climate system” brought them to “transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions” in opposition to “an economic system that fetishises GDP growth above all else, regardless of the human or ecological consequences, and in which the neoliberal political class has utterly abdicated its responsibility to manage anything (since the market is the invisible genius to which everything must be entrusted)” [Naomi Klein]
One school of Romulan Earth historians – the so-called “anthropones” and “romantic Earthians” – argued that humanity might well have survived intact but for a number of terrible historical moments and conjunctures when movements favored by Werner and fellow revolutionary scientists were defeated during the first third of the 21st century, when the destabilization of the planet’s natural systems passed a decisive tipping point with runaway climate change in the lead.
A different school of Romulan “Earth Studies” experts derided this notion of an alternative outcome for homo sapiens as excessively “sentimental” and “counter-factual.” “Humans,” a leading Romulan “anthro-realist” concluded at a major conference on “the lost human civilization of earth” in 2510, “clearly were not capable of taking charge of their own basic productive and political affairs in ways that accorded with the wishes and needs of their Many, as opposed to those of their wealthy Few. As a result, ‘intelligent life’ passed from Earth, taking with it millions of other sentient beings.”
But that’s enough science fiction for now. It’s not about the crystal ball. Let us make real the alternative history pointed to by my imagined Romulan “romantic Earthians” and in accord with the growing number of real and present-time human scientists who are reminding us that (to quote a clever 21st century bumper sticker) “there is no Planet B” and telling us to revolt. In the name of “System Change, Not Climate Change” , we can rescue and preserve humanity and livable ecology through mass resistance and a revolutionary transformation that takes us beyond the world’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money, profit, empire, and eco-cide.
Paul Street (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of many books. His next is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014).
1, Peter Brannen, “Astronomer Casts New Light o the Search for Alien Life,” The Guardian, July 30, 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/jul/30/alien-life-search-nasa-kepler
2. The Romulans I imagine are different from Star Trek’s in being peaceful rather than warlike, democratic rather than hierarchical, and empathetic rather than contemptuous towards other species, both living and deceased.
3. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, “NASA’s Role: Taking a Global Perspective on Earth’s Climate.” http://climate.nasa.gov/nasa_role
4. James Hansen, Storms of My Grandchildren (New York, 2009), ix.
5. The American Institute of Physics, “The Discovery of Global Warming – The Carbon Dioxide Greenhouse Effect” (February 2013), http://www.aip.org/history/climate/co2.htm
6. John Bellamy and Brett Clark, “The Planetary Emergency,” Monthly Review (December 2012
7. Naomi Klein, “How Science is Telling Us to Revolt,” New Statesman, October 29, 2013, http://www.newstatesman.com/2013/10/science-says-revolt
8. See “System Change, Not Climate Change: The Eco-Socialist Coalition,” http://systemchangenotclimatechange.org/