Scared Into Saving Ourselves?

Movie Poster from 1951, Public Domain — copyright not renewed.

Climate change is an existential threat to life on the third planet from Sol.

Gaia is standing still and holding her breath, waiting for humanity to decide whether it wants to survive.

There is a trope in science fiction storytelling that is as common as the one in horror stories that says when the hero is able to leap into his car with the hot breath of The Evil Beast on his neck he will fumble with his car keys until he within seconds of becoming a blue plate special in the Monster Diner: the outside threat as necessary to get people to work together for the common good.

The distance between horror and science fiction was much less in 1951, when The Day the Earth Stood Still did $233.1 million at the box office against a budget of $80 million while the Cold War played outside the theaters like a very expensive global chess game. I was too young to notice if anybody made the connection outside of movie critics.

The Berlin Blockade had been beaten by the Allies in a gargantuan air campaign, three nations (U.S., Britain, France) flying supplies into three airports (Tempelhof, Gatow, Tegel) for over a year. On May 12, 1949, the Soviet Union reopened the roads, railways, and canals to West Berlin from what had become the Federal Republic of Germany aka West Germany.

A primary objective of the Berlin Blockade had been to halt the early moves toward German reunification, which the Soviets perceived the merger of the three occupation zones to be. That objective was frustrated by the Allies without firing a shot. The Berlin Airlift (the American part of which went under the unbearably cute moniker “Operation Vittles”) continued until September to stockpile supplies in case the Soviets tried again. By the end of the conflict, Allied airplanes were touching down every 30 seconds and moving 8,000 tons of supplies daily.

The next confrontation would not end without bloodshed. Berlin settled back to a low simmer in the summer of 1949, but one year later North Korean troops attacked across the 38th parallel to the end of unifying the Korean Peninsula by force under the first “dear leader” in the suppositious Kim Dynasty, Kim Il Sung.

There would be more bloodshed between what would come to be known as the First World (led by the United States) and the Second World (led by the Soviet Union). Every other nation was under continuous pressure to choose a side.

The definition of what was being offered the divided planet was unbridled capitalism claimed to define the First World and the workers’ paradise of communism advertised as defining the Second World. Of course, it was much more complicated.

By the time the Soviet Union came along, capitalism in the laissez-faire sense was no longer on humanity’s menu outside of Ayn Rand’s stories. After her magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, Rand veered off into more-or-less serious explorations of “Objectivism,” as she called her attempt at philosophy that engaged lots of sophomores and very few juniors.

Rand’s feints at futurism failed to predict much in either technology or political science. She had first-hand knowledge of the Soviet Union, and the common criticism that her depictions of the Soviet experiment were rigid to the point of parody looked less insightful as the Soviet Union descended over the years into self-parody.

The Second World had a ready-made excuse for failure in that the philosophical basis for the experiment was Marxist, and there was nothing in Karl Marx’s work that would predict a nation could proceed directly from feudalism to socialism, much less communism. Capitalism, with all its evils, had a role to play.

The Soviet Union represented what came to be known as Marxism-Leninism. Lenin’s contribution might be summarized that one should never let abstract ideas stand in the way of ruthless pursuit of power. After Lenin’s death, Joseph Stalin took ruthlessness to a whole other level. Later, China under Mao Zedong would attempt the same leap over capitalism with similar results.

The political use of the term “Third World” referred to nations that refused to pick a side in the conflict between capitalism and communism by self-description (democracy and autocracy by my opinion). Democracy, understood as the flow of power from the bottom up, has always been less a description than an aspiration. Autocracy — rule from the top down — had been common as dirt since humans began to produce agricultural surplus.

The three branches of government set out in the U.S. Constitution are descriptive of most governments, because government has to make laws, enforce laws, and settle disputes about the laws. In an autocracy, the chief executive (autocrat) tells the legislature what laws to write and the judiciary how to interpret them. Government is from the top down and the autocrat is on top.

“Third World,” as a political term, became useless with the end of the Cold War. It lives on to some degree as an economic description, though it has largely been supplanted by “developing nations.” The former Second World nations, while substantially less prosperous than the First World, cannot generally be described as “undeveloped.” A few can, largely because of choices made by ruling autocrats, who can maldistribute wealth as easily as unrestrained capitalists.

The Cold War used to be considered an existential threat to the planet because it threatened nuclear holocaust after first the Soviet Union and then China acquired nuclear weapons. Now, the most immediate danger of nuclear conflict is probably between India and Pakistan. The best you can say is that chances are such an exchange would be confined to the Indian subcontinent — except for the fallout downwind.

The carbon dioxide pollution that now is an existential threat to the planet as a viable habitat for H. sapiens is difficult to curb because of the uneven states of industrial development that formed the battle lines of the Cold War.

Most First World production is cleaner but there is more of it. Second World nations used to move toward greater development without much concern for the environment, but that is changing as middle classes grow and make demands on the government, most famously the demand of Chinese in urban areas to have breathable air.

It’s almost ironic that the former adversaries are probably close enough together to make a deal on carbon emissions, but the countries that tried to stake out a middle ground are so far behind in industrial development that they consider attempts to limit emissions excuses to keep them from entering the 21st century and by that method to institutionalize developing nations as developing forever.

These are the sorts of fault lines that made the Paris Accords so hard to reach and President Trump’s willingness to bail out so hard to stomach.

If this planet is going to survive as suitable habitat, what we need is an alien invasion. Not a bunch of Latin Americans needing jobs — real aliens. The moves and countermoves that have absorbed so much treasure and so many lives since WWII are, compared to climate change, trivial.

Some people think the research most critical to human survival is carbon capture technology. That would be easier to see if we did not have so much technology that can do everything we can do with fossil fuels. The only problem is cost, and a carbon tax could change the cost calculus overnight.

I’m here to ask whether the most important research to human survival is SETI, the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence? If the aliens come in peace, it may be in our best interests to think they intend to harm us.

Klaatu barada Nikto!

Enrolled Cherokee, 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus, and (so far) cancer survivor. Memoir: Lighting the Fire (Miniver Press 2020)

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