On Earth Day, it would be easy to write about the relationship between science fiction and the environment; after all, an environmental wasteland is a staple of visions of a dystopian future. Perhaps part of the lesson is that as society breaks down, so does care for the environment, or vice versa, as care for the environment breaks down, so does society. No doubt humanity and the environment share a symbiotic relationship on our planet.
We’ve all seen a picture of the planet, hanging lonely in the void, and the symbiotic relationship between humankind and the environment is easy to see (depending on your political view, I guess). What we have more difficulty seeing is the importantce of our relationships between each other.
When I watch sci-fi movies involving interplanetary associations, it always strikes me as odd that most of these planets have one overarching government. Sure, sometimes there are factions on those planets that create conflicts, driving the plots forward, but for the most part, conflicts are reserved for the inhabitants of other worlds. I’ve always assumed it was just an easy way to take a story about the conflicts between cultures in our own world and transfer them to a science fiction setting, glossing over the oversimplification of local politics involved on a mass scale.
And while that may be what’s happening in most cases of fiction, what if it’s not such a gross oversimplification?
The United States put a man on the moon (depending on your political view, I guess) as a result of a “space race” between ourselves and the Soviets. Since then, the space shuttles gave us Tang, but now space is primarily a place for satellites for corporations, with the next likely jump to be low orbital flights for commercial purposes. Sure, we get cool images and info from Mars from time to time, and every now and then some story about the International Space Station reminds us that it’s still up there, but it doesn’t look like we’ll be voyaging to the stars any time soon. And much of the blame for that lies in national politics which have deemphasized space exploration in the budget (and that doesn’t depend on your political view).
What if all of these united planets that we see in science fiction are united not simply because it’s an easy plot device, but – wait for it –
because getting our act together on our home planet is a practical prerequisite to going beyond our planet?
Maybe an unspoken truth of science fiction is that global cooperation is necessary if we are to participate in an interstellar community. Or maybe when faced with beings beyond imagination and description, issues like skin color, religion, or fiscal priorities lose their importance. “We may not agree on much, but we can agree that the weird alien dude with the blue skin is a threat to our home, and we better get him before he comes back to enslave us!” Once we turn our eyes back to the stars, we can apply our human nature to whatever we find there.
But let’s be optimistic for a moment. It’s Earth Day, remember. We all live together on that lonely planet hanging in the void. And one of the most striking things about the view of the Earth from space is how the borders which look so clear on a map are nonexistent on the planet. There are no red states or blue states, no democracies or socialists or communists. Yes, the Great Wall of China is visible from space, but no Great Wall separating America from Mexico, no DMZ, and never was there an actual Iron Curtain.
Maybe science fiction writers have oversimplified planetary political issues, or maybe, just maybe, they realized that when put into stories, the things that we feel actually separate us are not terribly believable. Let’s say you believe in God: What you believe about God may differ from what I believe about God, but your God and my God both frown upon killing, yet we do it. Repeatedly, ad nauseum. We seem to think that gradations of skin tone, from whitish to tannish to brownish to blackish make a difference in the dignity (and wage, and rights) that another human being deserves. Our species would cease without two sexes, yet for most of history (including to the present day) we have treated one equally necessary sex with inequality. And we laud ourselves for granting any concession toward equality to people who are, by nature, already equal.
You don’t need science fiction to move us toward One Earth. We all want security, safety, the chance to express ourselves and share our gifts with the world. We want to be able to provide for ourselves and our families at work that is meaningful, and be treated with dignity by our employers. The concerns of the vast majority of people, on a daily basis, are the same in our One Earth.
We have the technology to provide food and medical care to every person on the planet – what we lack is the corporate will and the political motivation to do so. ISIS dominates global headlines, but we treat it as a series of local problems. We make nice talk from time to time about how we are all citizens of the same planet, but our insistence on emphasizing our arbitrary separations keeps us from finding cooperative solutions. If we recognize that our Earth is getting smaller all the time, why do we find the gulfs between us as large as ever? For example, ISIS is not a Syrian problem, or a French problem or a Belgian problem – what they do is against humanity, and we disrespect the humanity of their victims when we refuse safe harbor to those refugees looking to escape their tyranny, or when we fail to take cooperative action against the perpetrators. When we are aware of injustice, but lack the political will to correct it, we become silent partners in the crimes.
This wasn’t meant to become a preachy post about world politics, rather, it is a call to put aside the limitations of world politics. The idea of unified planetary politics need not be one of the weaknesses of science fiction; it could be an aspiration. And the truth of the matter is that until we begin to act on the aspiration, it is unlikely that we will ever achieve the grander visions that science fiction provides to us – and more likely that we will realize the dystopian visions.