Determining the Greater Frontier: Exploration versus Restoration

So President Trump signed a directive to send humans back to the moon with an eye toward Mars. Unfortunately, his budget proposal actually cuts NASA funding, so the symbolism of the gesture is not backed by anything tangible.  Like nearly every American child of the mid 20th century, I have a fondness for the idea of space exploration. I remember the Apollo missions and Skylab and the Shuttle program.

But having taught seminars on the effects of space travel on biological systems, I also know that there are dangers there.

And I know there are problems right here on Earth that we are not adequately addressing: hunger, climate change, pollution, disease, habitat destruction, extinction….

While I will always be fascinated by the idea of colonizing another planet, Mars could not be made even marginally habitable in less than a few hundred years–at least 400 years by one study I saw, beginning with seeding the Martian polar ice caps with very hardy algae to begin the enrichment of the atmosphere. But perhaps more significantly, Mars has an almost non-existent magnetosphere, which means protection against harmful solar and cosmic radiation is far less effective than on Earth, where the core is molten and constantly circulating to maintain that protective field.  Terra-forming is a slow process as we might practice it today, and it is not the sexy, wild-west adventure that too many people envision.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin were right in their song, “Rocket Man”:

“Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids,
In fact it’s cold as hell.
And there’s no one there to raise them if you did.”

So that leaves the question: what is the final frontier? Perhaps that is nothing more than a recursion to the first one–to seek answers for and solutions to repairing and restoring this damaged planet that is our only home.

I challenge the notion that we have only a few hundred years to make the leap to the stars. With a unified will to stop polluting and start restoring, we can make a difference in the habitability of this planet. But it will take strong will to accomplish that. While fortunes could be made in technologies to accomplish this, ultimately this initiative must go beyond profit: as E.O. Wilson has so passionately argued, saving biodiversity is a moral imperative. And I would extend that by mitigating our negative impacts on the environment and saving biodiversity, we save ourselves.

To those of a Judeo-Christian faith, it is finally addressing the primal mission of caring for this complex and fragile creation. “Dominion” as used in Genesis is better expressed as “stewardship”, serving as a caretaker and not an exploiter.

I have shared this passage from C.S. Lewis over and over, and I hope that it will indeed stick with some who read it. Lewis notes that only what he calls “supernaturalists” can truly understand nature. He writes,

“I spoke just now about the Latinity of Latin. It is more evident to us than it can have been to the Romans. The Englishness of English is audible only to those who know some other language as well. In the same way and for the same reason, only Supernaturalists really see Nature. You must go a little away from her, and then turn round, and look back. Then at last the true landscape will become visible. You must have tasted, however briefly, the pure water from beyond the world before you can be distinctly conscious of the hot, salty tang of Nature’s current. To treat her as God, or as Everything, is to lose the whole pith and pleasure of her. Come out, look back, and then you will see…this astonishing cataract of bears, babies, and bananas: this immoderate deluge of atoms, orchids, oranges, cancers, canaries, fleas, gases, tornadoes and toads. How could you ever have thought this was the ultimate reality? How could you ever have thought that it was merely a stage-set for the moral drama of men and women? She is herself. Offer her neither worship nor contempt. Meet her and know her. If we are immortal, and if she is doomed (as the scientists tell us) to run down and die, we shall miss this half-shy and half-flamboyant creature, this ogress, this hoyden, this incorrigible fairy, this dumb witch. But the theologians tell us that she, like ourselves, is to be redeemed. The ‘vanity’ to which she was subjected was her disease, not her essence. She will be cured in character: not tamed (Heaven forbid) nor sterilised. We shall still be able to recognise our old enemy, friend, playfellow and foster-mother, so perfected as to be not less, but more, herself. And that will be a merry meeting.”

If indeed in the theological realm the ultimate end is the redemption or restoration of a fallen creation, it is not incumbent that we seek to plumb new depths of destruction that the grace and glory of renewal should be all the more glorious.  Paul said as much in his discussion of grace in Romans where he posed the question, “Shall we go on sinning that grace may abound?” He concludes, “By no means!” By the same token, the misguided drive to escape our fouled nest only exacerbates the problem by fostering the false hope that the extraterrestrial grass will be greener than the dead stubble of our abused home.  The reality is that at present, there is no extraterrestrial grass.  Full stop.

The directive to take care of the creation was never rescinded in scripture: the job was paradoxically made harder by a nascent mankind’s tendency toward seeking the easy path. If indeed that bite from the forbidden fruit opened the eyes of that primitive pair, the tang of consequence has too long been ignored if not forgotten, and nature has paid a dear price for it.

We must be better toward the natural world. We must see it not as mere resources to exploit, but wonders to behold and treasures to be cherished. Life is a gift, but it is fragile. Running away to a dead moon or a dead Mars will only open new dangers and possibilities to snuff life out. The future is here. Embrace it by nursing this wounded planet back to greater health and vitality.

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