Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production



Recently I posted a piece about “beauty” and asked if my readers had some thoughts on the subject.  I did receive a few in email and comments, but not a lot.  I was particularly interested in why we humans find beauty in our environment.  I think it is because we are an extension of our environment.  Now, some of us seem ready to abandon that environment–something we always do when we screw it up–for another place, Mars. Hence, this reposting of some earlier thoughts on the subject (with a few emendations to the original from March 2015).

For most of my years Mars was a place inhabited by Martians. Martians were fearsome creatures who were always invading, as in the War of the Worlds example, as those extraterrestrials who wanted to come and wipe us out and take over earth. (What should you expect when you name a planet after the Roman God of War.)  All sorts of books and films employed this scenario. Not until Steven Spielberg came up with ET, a cuddly, childlike critter that kids could relate to and play with, were the Martians given a benign demeanor (although ET might have been from another planet, like maybe Pluto).  And ET was not interested in taking over the earth; rather just in going home (maybe he was from planet Toto). Still, most scenarios see beings or machines from outer space as threatening and bent on conquest of Earth and either enslavement or annihilation of humankind. Occasionally there s an  interesting message in these narratives.

For most of human existence we have had no intention to leave our planet. We evolved from the Earth (unless you subscribe to some fanciful notion that we, too, were aliens from elsewhere, or some biblical creation myths).  But we have reached a point in our sheer numbers, and in our ignorance of our relationship to our environment—and did I mention our greed and selfishness—that we are loving earth to death. And now we are beginning to think of reversing the old Martian scenario, it is we who are thinking of invading Mars. Yup, “the earthlings are coming! the earthlings are coming!”

Except we have been trying to find out for years whether there would be anyone there to welcome us or, if they are like us, they will try to nuke the shit out of us.  So far the place looks vacant and ready for takeover. The few probes that we have sent there really haven’t turned up much beyond some rocks that might have one’s contained micro-organisms. So, incredibly, we already have people signing up to be the first earthling colony on Mars. I suppose this is to be expected from a society that has generated a considerable number of egoists who want to be the first add anything to achieve the celebrity that that often confers. But maybe we, and they, ought to think about this a little bit.

 First of all it’s a long trip and we are not only a narcissistic society we are one that is impatient about travel. People bitch about fourteen hours to the Orient from the west coast of the US, how about the six months or so that it would take to get to Mars.  I think gravity on Mars is lower, and that will be a good thing because by the time these people get there they will have lost enough muscle mass to turn them into slithering monopods.

 But the other thing is that they ain’t coming back; it’s a one-way ticket C’mon, man, haven’t these people watched Survivor? Who the hell wants to be cooped up in a confined artificial environment with a bunch of Americans for . . .  let’s see, the rest of your freaking life! Oh, sure, you’ll be able to post “selfies” to your Facebook page from Mars (with the slight time delay) until the folks back home grow weary of another version of “regretful person in a red landscape.”  Unless, of course we Earthlings start making book on how long it takes you to croak, or kill and or be killed.

Why go to Mars anyway? Yeah, there’s the “because it’s there” (which is not much less as stupid with regard to Everest as far as I’m concerned.)  Reason No. 1 is probably ego.  All that attention before you blast off, the interviews on the morning shows and the profiles in magazines, the instant fame and celebrity. Then you’ll be somewhere where you can think about all that (while the rest of us forget you) for the rest of your life.

Now I can already hear those who are wondering where my sense of adventure and discovery might be.  I have traveled to many countries and lived abroad; would I not be up for an travel adventure equivalent to Columbus, or Marco Polo, or the Mayflower passengers, and take my place beside them in history.  Nope; all of those destinations had air and water, as I recall.  Oh, and gravity.

Reason No. 2 is putatively a little more noble.  That’s the one about how Earth is doomed and we need to be looking for another planet to screw up.  We need to ensure the endurance of homo (ahem) sapiens. Do I not want to save the species? Frankly, beyond my great grandchildren, I really don’t give a rat’s ass what happens to my species (of course the Rapture will arrive by that time and all those of my species who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior will be ascended (ass-ended) into that imagined alternative universe called Heaven where they will be just as driven mad by boredom as the Martian colonists). Any species blessed with self-consciousness and intelligence and prefers to deny what knowledge might save them deserves to get out of the way and let some other species have a go at our planet.

We are free to imagine that the whole universe which has gone from a micro-mini-tiny-infinitesimal-nano-second explosion of a flea turd to something like a sixteen-billion year expansion was all for the benefit of one species that is the living, sentient, self-conscious species currently residing in a cosmological backwater awaiting transport to something called eternity.  The fact is that our existence, and that of our beautiful planet from which we evolved (sorry again, Genesis credulists) is, on a cosmological scale, very temporary because the universe is one constant changing reorganization of matter/energy/energy/matter (E=mc2) at spatial and temporal, Spatial/Temporal scales we can scarcely describe with our mathematics, much less words.

I look out my window as I write this, at the trees in the canyon, the buildings surrounding it, the bay and ocean beyond, the natural and the man-made environments and it someday it will all be gone, buried, reconstituted, inundated and then rendered molten, frozen, gasified and re-solidified. All will change, and then change again. All is process, creation/extinction.

So, off to Mars to re-settle the species seems as naïve as it is hubristic.  Because it will not be the same species, because our species is specific to Earth, to the permutation of an enormous set of variables that are specific to our location in the universe. Indeed there might be life elsewhere in the universe, And there might be life on Mars or might have been life on Mars, but it will not be life as we know it on earth, and include human species as we know it. It took about four billion years to get is from some protozoa to the jerks we are today;  we might manage to get some of our bio matter spread out to the universe, but it will be billions of Darwinian years of trial and error before anything emerges from the process.  If it is anything like us I’m betting it will screw up its new planet in about five thousand.  I’ll double that bet if our new species comes up with the idea that they are created by some god who will pluck them away to an even better place.

Nevertheless, I have a curiosity about how humans might fare once separated from, our familiar and salubrious Mother Earth.  Sci-fi films and books about space travel range from the naïve Buck Rogers of my youth to the worthy The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951 version) to the conveniently non-zero-gravity astro-allegoricals of Star Wars and Star Trek to Kubrick’s classic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).

But before getting to Mars I am compelled to say something about what I consider to be the gold standard of extraterrestrial movies.  I saw Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 the first time in the Spring of 1968.  It was a special present I gave myself for just having successfully defended my doctoral dissertation, and I was about to embark on a sort of an odyssey of my own.  But that’s not why I have such regard for this film.  That’s over forty years ago now and anyone who is reading these pages should have seen this movie by this time, because I am not going to go into it in much detail except for a couple of points. The first is that we all should remember the HAL 9000 computer that is a central character in this movie. You will remember that how HAL goes a little bit off his hard drive, one of the aspects of the film that was prescient especially if one reads much these days about AI (artificial intelligence), and concerns about its consequences.*  The second thing we should remember is the ending (or is it  the beginning?) the complete mystery of it, with hints of re-birth, but which takes place in a place out of time and place. There is no return to Earth (if it is even there anymore), because Arthur C. Clarke’s scenario plays much closer to the realities of space-time than anything before or since.

The fact is that we humans, who are pretty much a lucky accident of molecules that were cooked up in a permutation of Goldilocks temperatures and radiation levels and who knows how many other fortuitous conditions and circumstances (what if that asteroid had not wiped out the dinosaurs), are a product of our environment and the rest of what we can see in space is hostile and deadly.  We are products of laws of physics and biology that are unique and irrevocable. So we are kind of kidding ourselves with our own technology when we create, for our amusement, but also our delusion, movies like Gravity (2013) and the even sillier, Interstellar, not so much because they create an ignorance of those laws for dramatic purposes, but because they inevitably roll to a denoument in which humankind prevails in an atmosphere (or its lack) if extreme radiation, impossible time-distances, lack of oxygen, instantly deadly temperatures and asteroid storms, and more.  To extrapolate from our brief human history of bold exploration and settlement on our relatively salubrious and forgiving planet to ventures that go “where no man has gone before” at “warp” speeds that whisk us through black holes, or wormholes (Interstellar, 2014) is the height of delusion. There might someday be a means by which our biology will find its way, and maybe even viability, in some other galaxy, but it probably will be by way of our sun’s, or our own, thermonuclear atomization.  That biology is not going to look like Sandra Bullock or Matthew McConnaughy.**

Which brings us to the destination.  In these films (and we might throw in Contact for added flavor) whatever our reasons for leaving Mother Earth, we almost inevitably return to her bosom.  Maybe along the way we are given a screenwriter’s glimpse of the great eschatological beyond, a touching of the hand of God in some fanciful afterlife.  But we hanker to come home. We wanna “dance with the one what brung us.” Running out your clock on a friendless red rock seems a helluva waste of the one hiccup of existence we get.


© 2015 and 2017 James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 4.23.2015)

*See for example,Sue Halpern, How Robots & Algorithms Are Taking Over, New York Review of Books, April 2, 2015, and, Nicholas Carr, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, Norton 2015.
**Will it look like the goofy silliness of  Avatar (2009)? If anything, my money’s on Alien (1979).