I use social media mostly to connect with a small group of friends, but I have noticed a rise, even among that group, of a certain form of magical thinking that I believe is misinforming our cultural view of the future and how we link our actions today to that future. That growing disquiet was triggered when I saw, in a discussion about recent policy debates, the phrase “We NEED renewable power, we NEED space colonization”.
“All right”, I thought, “Go right ahead and get those things. I’m not stopping you.”
But of course, that wasn’t what was meant. What was meant was that someone else should simply deliver those things. We obviously don’t “NEED” these things – I daresay the author of those remarks is still on this planet, days later, ‘needs’ still unmet. But we may indeed want them. I certainly would like to see renewable power, and space colonies. I’ve even gone so far as to devote the last 20 years of my life to trying to bring such things closer, so I daresay that I want them a lot.
But how do we get the things we want the future to provide? There is no store at which to buy them. There is no stockpile of them through which, from force of arms, we might take them. And except in rather trivial cases, it isn’t even possible for the government to compel our fellow citizens to provide them for us through conscription or taxation. And yet for the last several hundred years, a better future has indeed arrived. Because people had to BUILD it. They had to MAKE it. There is nothing new in the realization that civilization is enjoyed by people who themselves do not make the sacrifices to create and sustain it – see Kipling’s “The Sons of Martha” if in doubt. But I sense that such attitudes are growing; that as fewer and fewer of our fellows have farmed, or fished, or mined, or cut timber, or built houses, or paved roads, or built computers, or written software – that they are losing touch with the fact that the gifts of civilization do not come from some cornucopia, delivered to those who claim their need the loudest. They come from US. And if we don’t provide them, they won’t come at all.
I think science fiction holds a mirror to that attitude as well, in our vision of what the universe will hold. Two generations ago, Heinlein could write of how we “retch at the swamps of Venus”, or how “Along the Grand Canal still soar the fragile Towers of Truth”, and expect his audience to follow without disrupting their enjoyment of the story – for as far as he, or they, knew, such things might well be. We have expected to reach out in to the universe and find friendly planets, just waiting for us. The theme of the Precursors is widespread in science fiction – those who left us the ancient artifacts, ideally the ones which conveniently provide us with star travel. And of course we search still to find other intelligences, other life, which might provide us with the answers we have struggled for, the knowledge we have not yet earned. And no one can say with certainty that such things might yet be.
I think too little of our community, indeed, our civilization, reacts to the challenge of the future as I think they should – with rolled up sleeves and determination. Take a moment and face the alternative.
We desire more abundant energy with less impact on the Earth – we know where to get it. We know that trillions of Earth’s worth of energy is wastefully flowing out in to interstellar space from the Sun, sunlight and solar wind; there for the catching. Do we bemoan the consequences of the energy we collect today? Or do we instead attempt, by force or fraud, to make someone (someone ELSE) consume less of it? Or do we go out and get it?
We face a cosmos in which we look longer and harder, and what do we find – not (yet), fields, forests, cities, and friendly aliens with pointed ears and quizzically lifted eyebrow. But not emptiness either. Planets around our star, metals, oxygen, every resource one might desire in mind-boggling quantity. Not enough? What would make it easier? Water on the Moon, perhaps? Very well, you can have that too. Still too hard? What would you like NOW? Water on Mars? Very well. Methane on the Moon? Fine, you have that too. What now – you want your habitat volume pre-built for you, too? Very well, there they are, lava tubes on the Moon and caves on Mars, waiting for you to move in.
But the stars are far, are they? What would make that easier. Fusion fuels, yes, of course. Where shall we put them? Out in the outer solar system, positioned for future starships? Very well, we shall find that the richest source of deuterium and helium three will be Neptune, just waiting for use. Not enough? Planets around nearby stars? How about planets at Proxima Centauri, literally next door.
I don’t expect any more that we will cross these gulfs and find planets “just like Earth” but different enough to be interesting. I expect we’re going to have to work at it. What I don’t understand is how many find that disappointing. I find it exciting.
That would mean that it’s all up to us, folks. That WE are the precursors. WE are the ancient aliens, the Preservers, who seeded life throughout this spiral arm. We are the ones who terraformed Mars, and built the ancient cities found below the surface of Luna. It is OUR artifacts that archaeologists will unearth, puzzling at how life came to be, all in one eyeblink of Galactic history, spread so widely.
Is that harder than if the hard work was already done for us? Of course it is. But what a glorious place, and purpose, for humanity that would be – will be. How unforgivable it would be for us to turn away from that challenge, to pass up the chance that the full, dynamic, Galactic Empire of the future will one day be. If that were all done for us – it wouldn’t be there for US to do.
Neither in the big things, nor in the small, were we ever promised that the future would be delivered to us, gift-wrapped, under the Christmas tree. All we were ever given is the change to go out and make it with our own hands. No one likely to hand us the future we want. To borrow Heinlein again — “You can’t buy it – learn to MAKE it”
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