Monday, March 16, 2015

What we can still learn from "Star Trek": a saga of harmony in diversity.



Star Trek: a low budget TV series. Cardboard models of spaceships, few and simple special effects, a small number of actors always engaged in the same mock-up of the command bridge of a starship. And, yet, it influenced a whole generation. 



The death of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Mr. Spock in the original TV series  "Star Trek" has ended an age. Star Trek was a true 20th century saga, a way of seeing the world. To some of us, it may look completely obsolete, today, but it must have been telling us something deep; something important, if it was so successful, so followed, so revered by so many. So, what was the secret of the series? It was not technological wizardry; it was the human side of the story. It was a story that told us of how it was possible to have harmony in diversity.

The literary origins of Star Trek go back to Homer's Odissey, but its immediate ancestor is "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville. With all the obvious differences, the similarities are many and obvious. One is that the Pequod, the ship of Moby Dick and the Enterprise, the starship of Star Trek, never land anywhere, they just wander over the oceans and in the interstellar space. And, despite all the technological wizardry involved, the command deck of the Enterprise looks very much like that of a 19th century ship (and, maybe, Odysseus himself would have found himself at home sitting in Captain Kirk's chair).

It has been observed many times that Melville's microcosm echoes the structure of the American society of his times, a society which needed to integrate and harmonize its different cultural elements. Think of the character of Quequegg, the tattooed islander who appears very early in the novel and, in a sense, characterizes it. But, if the Pequod is America, it is also a society which is already facing its limits in its search for a disappearing resource: whales. This is why I described "Moby Dick" as "The greatest peak oil novel ever written".

With "Star Trek" we have again a microcosm of the American society, although, in this case, it has one galactic. But this future society still faces the problem that the Pequod was facing, a problem that was so deeply felt in the 1960s, when the series was born, that of the limits to human expansion. In Star Trek, humans can travel in the Galaxy but can't (or won't) expand in it. The economy of the "United Federation of Planets" seems to be a steady state one; they don't seem to be obsessed with economic growth, actually they may not even use money! In Star Trek we see no economic growth, no population increase, no industrial production, no attempt of humans to exterminate alien races in order to colonize other planets. The Enterprise hops from one planet to another without ever stopping anywhere, without ever leaving a long lasting trace of its passage. It is like the wake left by the Pequod on the sea, which disappears leaving no trace.

So, with Star Trek, if the problem is the limits, and if you can't go on exterminating aliens in order to steal their planets, then the solution is harmony in diversity, the same as one of the main themes of "Moby Dick" with the multiracial crew of the Pequod. The central point of "Star Trek" is not technology, it is not the future, it is people; and one character in particular: first officer Spock, the equivalent of Quequegg in Moby Dick; the alien to be integrated and, at the same time, respected. Note how the relation of Captain Kirk and Spock mirrors that of Quequegg and Ishmael of Moby Dick. In both cases, they recognize their respective cultural difference and they respect each other. As on board of the Pequod, the deck of the Enterprise is a place where individual differences are neither ignored nor rejected, they are accepted and valued. Star Trek lacks the negative character of Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, and hence emphasizes even more the positive results of collaboration of different individuals. This is the "secret" of Star Trek: harmony in diversity.

In a sense, the message of Star Trek echoes that of "The Limits to Growth", the 1972 study that first quantified the physical limits to human growth on the surface of the earth. The study was the result of the intuition of a man, Aurelio Peccei, who had asked the question of how human beings could live in justice and prosperity on a limited planet. The answer that he obtained from the scientists was a statement of the obvious: humankind cannot grow forever on a finite planet. Little was said in the "Limits" study about the destiny of humankind beyond cold graphics and tables, and that was one of the reasons of its downfall in the decades after its release. But Peccei had not really asked for graphics. He had asked a question that computers could not answer at that time and cannot answer today. The real answer was that we don't need to grow forever to live in harmony without losing our diversity.

It is an answer that Peccei had surely in mind, but that was shadowed, and eventually lost, by the great noise created by the debate on the Limits to Growth. But, perhaps, we can find again and one of the places where we can find it is in Spock's words "Live Long and Prosper." So simple as that: we could live long and prosper if we wanted, but we haven't learned how to do that. Probably we never will and the command deck of spaceship Earth remains manned by homicidal psychopaths.



h/t to Alexander Stefes for the discussion that led me to write to this post





18 comments:

  1. Your take on Melville's "Moby Dick" is different from that of Chris Hedges, who saw the adventures of the pequod as a symbol of an irrational voyage with a senseless goal. In this respect, Hedges likened the pequod to our western industrial capitalist societies and their irrational goals of perpetual economic and technological expansion, if not physical expansion. "Our skills are admirable, our methods quite sane, but our goal is mad" is a slight paraphrase of Hedges' remark about Ahab and his crew. The crew was a collection of fine sailors but they were required to pledge to Ahab that they would not quit until they had vanquished the white whale.

    Anyway, I don't feel any particular partisanship with regard to a specific interpretation of "Moby Dick" . Yours is as good as any, with the idea that it symbolizes our struggles with resource depletion.

    I have my own funny little idea. In the USA, a respect for racial and ethnic diversity and alternative lifestyles continues to progress while the society as a whole is behaving irrationally, perhaps even suicidally. Derrick Jensen calls our society (even the totality of industrial civilization) "insane" for continuing to destroy the environment without facing the consequences or taking any corrective measures.

    Another little side remark ---

    in my opinion, Star Trek, the next generation" turned out to be a tremendous series, something of an improvement over the original Star Trek which included mister Spock, although the character of Mister Spock was never surpassed as an icon representing many of the more positive qualities of human nature. A figure in the newer Star Trek series who performed some of the functions of Mister Spock was "Data" , an android, played brilliantly by Brent Spiner.

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    1. "in my opinion, Star Trek, the next generation" turned out to be a tremendous series"

      Even DS9 had its really interesting moments: it should be enough to think at its last episode, in which an (apparently?) reformed Ferengi race seems to start to embrace a less "predatory" form of capitalism.

      Truly dated & utopistic Science Fiction, seen under the light of the today rampant speculative financialization of any form of world economy... :-/

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    2. The characteristic of a true masterpiece is that it can be seen and understood in different ways. In my opinion, there is no doubt that "Star Trek" is one of the masterpieces of the 20th century

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    3. The captain in "Deep Space 9" was played by Avery Brooks, a very fine actor who held the series together, although some of the other actors and actresses were also good.

      Wikipedia - "Brooks won the role of Commander Benjamin Sisko by beating 100 other actors from all racial backgrounds to become the first African-American captain to lead a Star Trek series."

      "Series producer Ronald D. Moore said of Brooks: 'Avery, like his character (Sisko), is a very complex man. He is not a demanding or ego-driven actor, rather he is a thoughtful and intelligent man who sometimes has insights into the character that no one else has thought about. He has also been unfailingly polite and a classy guy in all my dealings with him.' "

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  2. Star Treck with Spock represented many things. American society gone galactic as you have pointed out. But rhymes to our real world do not end with what you have aptly pointed out. The enterprise was the flower of western civilization and Spock was the age of reason. He was a mathematical genius who would not have to be told about the consequences of resource depletion. Logic respects math. He would of course already know if asked about M King Hubbert and the fate of the 21st century. Throughout the series Spock observed horror and pain inflicted by those who ignored rational thought, logic and natural consequences. He was the Enterprise science officer and thought quite logically that decisions should be based on what science says. The writers of the series claimed Spock was without emotion, purely logical, yet they frequently allowed Spock to feel pain by one clever device or another. The ultimate rhyme to our real world.

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  3. Ugo
    Thanks for the link to Aurelio Peccei. I am still following up his story and the linked stories. The limits to the American imagination and of course its antecedents are of profound interest to us multiracial crew; we who are the present global followers. The crew includes those of us who grew up in a collapsed Europe. The present always seems 'a balance point', but might better be regarded more typically as 'a tipping point': "the problematique" manifest.

    best
    Phil

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  4. Spock's words: Live long and prosper
    A kind wish, isn't it? Not a very wise one, though, since 'prosper' is a synonym of 'get richer', and as we know but do not easily internalize, this is unsustainable. Let's beware the absurdity of some common expressions!

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    1. I beg to disagree, anonymous. In my opinion, "prosperity" is the exact opposite of the common assumption of "scarcity" in standard economics. If you have scarcity, then you try to grow to overcome it, and you never succeed - so you keep growing. If you have prosperity, you don't need growth!

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  5. "So simple as that: we could live long and prosper if we wanted, but we haven't learned how to do that."

    The secret to doing that (well, in a way--see below) is found in another aspect of the story: they didn't use money. We can choose to end the global cultural use of money (belief in exchange, actually) and just live (like all other species).

    "Live long and prosper" can be seen as schizophrenic in that prosperity is a money-think term, at least to enough extent that it raises the question of whether money-think slipped into (or lasted that long in the imaginary universe of ST) the story through the writers' lack of awareness of that. No doubt it helped the phrase better connect with viewers than would something like "Live" or "Live and then die", though something like "Live and be at peace" might have caught on.

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  6. Star Trek was a presentation of humane-ness.
    Unfortunately, this condition is much older:
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/03/150316185555.htm

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  7. In the first sentence, did you really mean "impersonated"? That has odd connotations. "Portrayed" would be a more conventional usage.

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    1. That wasn't right. Thanks. I don't know how some strange words make their way in texts.....

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  8. spaceship Earth remains manned by homicidal psychopaths

    This is incorrect. Our failure to limit our population and our impact on the earth is a result of everyone, including our political leaders, wanting to 'improve' our living circumstances. We might actually be better off if we were indeed ruled by "homicidal psychopaths" rather than those who want to do 'good'.

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    1. Maybe..... but my impression is that the people at the top are more psychopathic and more homicidal than most.

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    2. Indeed.

      Overshoot can be seen as an inevitable result of the biological nature of humans - that is what we are wired to do. And the reason we are wired to do that is that in the short-term, that sort of behavior pays off, and evolution operates primarily in the short term.

      It's hard to see how it could have happened in any other way. People like to talk about how indigenous people in the Americas and Australia lived in harmony with nature. But it's simply not true - in both cases, whenever and wherever it happened, it was after most of the megafauna had been driven to extinction (which limited their developmental potential forever after that) and in the former cases, empires did in fact arise, entered overshoot and collapsed.

      Unfortunately, it gets worse when we move to the cosmic scale - I have hard time seeing how it can end up in any other way on other planets. The nature of the evolutionary process is such that it seems inevitable that any sentient species that emerges anywhere in the universe will behave in a similar manner and suffer the same fate that we will - either self-inflicted quick extinction due to either nuclear was or the equivalent or extreme environmental degradation, or, in the best case, reduction to existence in a limited state of technological development from which there is no way out of (because the resources will have been exhausted and the ability to redevelop forever lost - these things seem to be one-shot affairs for each planet, if you fail once, you don't get a second chance), and then again eventual extinction, either through some cataclysm of the sort that hit planets with regularity on geologic time scales, or in the absolutely best case and completely unrealistic scenario, the death of the planet due to the exhaustion of of its star.

      Those who are environmentally reckless in the short term tend to outcompete those who behave wisely so the overall behavior of the species is dominated by them. How to get out of that trap is the key question, and I just have no viable answer.

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    3. I have come to more or less the same conclusion as Georgi Marinov, and also have the same questions without answers.

      As individuals we are relatively intelligent but our behavior as a community, as a nation or as a species is not in the least bit intelligent, if by intelligence you necessarily include the quality of maintaining conditions favorable to your own existence, among other things.

      I have heard from various intellectuals about how important it is for our species to control its population growth and to quickly begin to reduce its numbers in a humane, deliberate manner. However, not a single one of those intellectuals has a convincing argument for how this might be accomplished.

      Garret Hardin wrote extensively about human population issues. One of his conclusions was that only through large scale cooperative methods, perhaps on the level of nations, could human population numbers be reduced in a humane, sensible and coordinated manner.

      However, what chance is there that humanity will cooperate on this issue? Very close to zero. That means that there will be a major human die-off some time fairly soon, most likely during this century [as all the (business as usual) Limits to Growth studies show], and the mechanisms driving the die-off will be famine, disease, violence and perhaps to a lesser extent hypothermia, hyperthermia, radiation poisoning and natural disasters.

      I just don't see a way out of this.

      Human population could easily crash according to a Seneca cliff model. The team of United Nations demographers apparently have no inkling whatsoever about systems analysis models or about Seneca cliff models. Instead they call for a human population of roughly 9 billion by mid century, and 10 to 11 billion by the year 2100. This seems impossible. Somebody is very wrong.

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    4. "Human population could easily crash according to a Seneca cliff model. The team of United Nations demographers apparently have no inkling whatsoever about systems analysis models or about Seneca cliff models. Instead they call for a human population of roughly 9 billion by mid century, and 10 to 11 billion by the year 2100. This seems impossible. Somebody is very wrong."

      Well, AAMOF, it seems to me that maybe they instead HAVE, at least at some high "political" level, a VERY clear image of the human overpopolation issue, of its consequences and of its possible "solutions".

      Please don't take me for a looney-bin conspiracy-nut, but maybe you should read a little more carefully the whole text of the (in)famous ONU "Agenda 21"...

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  9. Ugo, great post link and yes, the human factor! If cli-fi is to have any impact on the world, we have to think in these terms. YES! Btw, since you are here Professor, here is a French and Spanish translation of a news story about cli fi in academia and in the classrooms. It is being translated now into Italian by a member of this FB page and will be posted soon. Here is French firstm traduit par Guillaume in Nantes: a sci fi reader and fan and researcher who also "gets" what cli fi is all about: - http://www.traqueur-stellaire.net/2015/03/climate-fiction-universites-bloom/











    (CFR) - THE CLI-FI REPORT:

    Over 50 academic & media links:

    http://cli-fi.net

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Who

Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014)