First contact between humanity and a sentient alien race is depicted as either a hallmark moment with enormous benefits for the planet (e.g., Contact, Star Trek) or the beginning of a hostile take-over and the end of humanity (e.g., War of the Worlds, Independence Day). Under either scenario the aliens are seen as more advanced, with superior technology, and with either bad or good motives. To me this historical moment, despite these stereotypes, will be the defining moment in human history if for no other reason that we discover we are not alone in the universe. I have no doubt that other intelligent life exists but I wonder if they would ever wish to contact us given our volatile nature. I believe our ever-expanding technology will help us learn the answer to that question in the next few generations.
For these reasons I love Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s novel The Mote in God’s Eye, which was published in 1974. When I first read this book as a college student in the 1970s I couldn’t put it down and re-read it every few years. What is it about this book that keeps me coming back? I think it is that first contact with the “Moties” teaches us as much about ourselves as it does about the alien race. Their story can serve as an important lesson to us, but only if we care to learn it. And learn it we must.
[spoiler alert] As the book unfolds, and the main characters explore the Motie planet, we learn that there are both good and bad Moties but all are desperate to cover up their deep dark secret: their ancient history. As it turns out this alien race with advanced technology, extremely high-efficiency, and a complex government actually is an ancient civilization with a serious population problem. Due to their biology, which results in a high reproductive rate, they are trapped in a never-ending, uncontrolled population cycle of boom and bust that inevitably results in global war and the crash of civilization. Because they never learned how to solve this problem, it has repeated itself, over and over, for millions of generations. Since the Moties have never discovered the secret to faster-then-light interstellar travel (nor biotechnology for that matter), they are trapped in their solar system, limited to what resources they have, and thus doomed to repeat their cycle for all of eternity. That is, unless they can learn the secret to escaping their dilemma.
Enter Crazy Eddie. This is the term the Moties apply to any exercise in futility — or any attempt to do, or even think about doing — anything to try to stop the inevitable collapse of their current civilization. It can refer to an optimistic individual, an idea, literally anything that attempts to solve the endless problem they are faced with. In effect, labeling any potential solution to the problem as insane simply because nothing has ever worked previously. A label that virtually guarantees that nothing will ever change. The solution will never be solved because there is no solution and anyone that thinks so, anyone who succumbs to the optimism inherent in proposing a solution, is insane and should be killed instantly.
And of course therein lies the lesson for us, and it’s a big one. Are we on the same path? Are we doomed to repeat our attempts at living within our planet’s limited resources? Will we succumb, over and over, to an endless cycle of crash-and-burn because we fail to learn what we need to, which is how to live sustainability with what we have? Are we forever doomed to develop technology that exploits our planet faster than we can learn how to manage it? Are we doomed to condemn anyone that proposes a solution as crazy or insane (think Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth)? Are we forever committed to perpetuating a polarized political system; one where we don’t base our decisions on data, on logic, on reality. Instead, one where we make decisions based on political gain and not what is best for the planet. If we continue that trend then we are doomed to repeat our history, and perhaps repeat the history of the Moties, over and over, until we learn, if ever, what sustainability really means.
To me this is stupid stupid, stupid. A massive failure of human imagination, a failure of our rational human minds to see the obvious, to develop the ability to self govern beyond our petty personal desires. I can just imagine our logical scientific predecessors — Newton, Darwin, Freud, Einstein — in absolute shock at what they might have assumed, many years in the future, would be a progressive world, both scientifically and politically, that would use advanced, readily available data to guide us into the future. How disappointing they would feel that despite massive evidence of our human-caused destruction of the planet we would blissfully move into the future with nary a concern. That with full knowledge of the consequences we continue to exploit the planet beyond its ability to replenish itself. Like children in a candy shop that can’t stop eating although they know they will get sick and the candy will eventually run out. In the meantime: Party on!
So where do we go from here? Is there something we can learn from this novel? Something we need to learn? The ultimate solution in the Mote in God’s Eye was to bottle the Motie’s up within their own solar system to prevent them from spreading across the universe until (or if) a solution could be found to their biological “problem” of uncontrollable population growth. For us the analogy translates into learning how to deal with our uncontrollable desire to consume resources beyond what the planet is capable of giving.
If the past is any guide, the solution may only work for some of us. While a small proportion of the planet basks in rich resources the rest suffers the consequences. And like the book, as we start in the next few decades to explore and colonize the rest of our solar system, can we stand by while the ethic that has severely damaged our planet spreads to others? (For an idea of what that might look like for Mars read Kim Stanley Robinson’s series, Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars). We need to make a major change in how we interact with the planet, a paradigm shift in our thinking. Unfortunately, if past human behavior is any guide the only event capable of causing that is catastrophic. Let’s all hope that humanity is smarter than that.
References for Further Thought:
- Understand the problem: Why Care About Global Warming
- Develop priorities: Why Care about Healthy Oceans?
- Take action: The Surfing Ecologist: A New Synergy for Surfers and Science
- We are all connected: Gifts from the Sea: the Lives We Touch
- Know your dark side: Why (Some) Men are Idiots: the Storm Inside
- Seek balance: The Call of Nature and the Renewal of the Nature Fast
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