After Earth, What’s Next?

Last night I saw an excellent Brazilian film, Xingu(2011). If you haven’t heard of it, check it out, it’s an exceptional flick.

It’s the story of the Villas Boas brothers, three adventurers who set out into the Amazon in the 1940s during Brazil’s historical period known as the March West. The purpose was was to map the interior and prep it for colonization. Along the way, the three brothers and their expedition come into contact with many indigenous tribes who have never seen any traces of civilization before. The brothers befriend the natives, dazzle them with technology, establish friendly, mutually respective relationships, and learn about their cultures. In time, the tribes inadvertently become infected with disease that the expeditions bring with them, and epidemics break out, wiping out half of the population in some tribes. The brothers are horrified. They see the real cost that colonization demands. The brothers then find out that the Brazilian government has plans to kick the indigenous off their land, something the brothers had never thought of, all to set up air strips, cities and military bases. The official attitude towards the Indians is, To hell with them. The brothers see what they must do: fight the near-invincible forces of colonization and exploitation, and defend Indian cultural heritage. Eventually, after decades of fighting — sometimes even by violent means — the brothers are able to form Xingu National Park, the largest closed preserve for the Indians to keep their heritage as untouched as possible from the relentless march of modernization.

The Villas Boas brothers

Why am I writing about this on a Sci-Fi blog? Because this story is something we have heard throughout the dawn of our own species history and it’s something to watch out for once we, as a species, outgrow Earth and eventually expand into space and, who knows, maybe, just maybe, begin to colonize other planets and moons.

The tragedy that befell the Xingu native peoples has happened ever since humans have evolved into being. Over and over, for hundreds of thousands of years, the human being has expanded throughout the globe, and through subsequent additional expansions of empires, expanded again. It’s a beautiful process, but it’s also sometimes a shameful one.

Any student of history knows that it’s almost a given that, in the spirit of exploration and adventure, we set out where no man (or white man) has gone before, discover wondrous new cultures and species, and then, like standard operating procedure, the colonists, the exploiters, the plunderers, the politicians move in and destabilize the native peoples and animals, pave over the ecosystem, and settlers move in. Soon after there is what’s from then on called “civilization.”

Columbus sets foot in the New World

To explore and conquer is in our DNA. It’s what has led us from the feeble easy targets that our ancestors were for jaguars and wolves and bears to eat, to our position as masters of Earth, where we are currently inadvertently wiping out all other species on this planet due to expansion and exploitation.

Steven Hawking has commented on a similar sentiment, except he feared that any future aliens we could one day come into contact with might be the colonizers.

“We only have to look at ourselves to see how intelligent life might develop into something we wouldn’t want to meet,” Hawking said. “I imagine they might exist in massive ships, having used up all the resources from their home planet. Such advanced aliens would perhaps become nomads, looking to conquer and colonize whatever planets they can reach.” — dailygalaxy.com, April 2010

I’m sorry but I sort of chuckle at this. He’s worried that other aliens might behave this way? It’s us! His description of an alien race, roaming and plundering the cosmos…that very well could be us!!!

Unless we undergo a life-style renaissance (which I really hope we do) and realize that everything on this planet is interconnected and interdependent, and that we should stop creating massive islands of garbage and plastic to float in the ocean, build and pave our way over anything that is green and leafy, pour salt, pesticides and fertilizers and god knows what else into our lakes and rivers, encroach upon every other animal habitat, and shop and consume our way into oblivion, we will have to find other places to pillage and colonize.

And those other places lay beyond our Earth’s atmosphere.

I know, I know, some would say, what do I want, for the human race to become complacent? Conquest is how we’ve gotten as far as we have. Progress works by taking two steps forward and one step back. But really, this approach, this mindset works and will only work until it doesn’t work anymore.

Perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps there have been millions of people like me throughout the dawn of time, looking around them and saying, “You know, maybe there’s a better way of going about this civilization thing? Because, you know what, it doesn’t look like this can go on for very much longer…” Perhaps things will be fine and this place we call Earth can take a lot more use and abuse than we think, and I will join the ranks of countless doomsayers, whose voices have faded with time as the human race keeps chugging along…

However. The only difference I would say between me, here, now, writing this in the 21st century, and others from different epochs, is that the world has never been this populated before, never has the demand for food, water, land and resources been so high, never has our technology been so advanced. We, the human race, have never gotten to this point where there is no place we cannot go, no boundary we cannot cross. We are masters of our domain now. We are, essentially, still primitive cave people, albeit with a higher IQ, who now have the ability to conquer anything in this world. We are more intelligent. But are we more wise?

Can’t we figure this out before we face dire consequences? Must we really have to rewrite our very own DNA in order to stop this fanatical ingrained pathos to conquer and exploit our surroundings? It’s served our species up until now very well. But really, do we need to exploit every resource until exhaustion? Do we have to build a strip mall and expand multimillion dollar condos everywhere? And do we have to be so arrogant about it all? It’s becoming a bit overbearing.

Of course history tells us we will find a way. And I believe this is true. I don’t think we’ll disappear as a race anytime soon. I’m just saying hopefully we don’t completely alter the ecosystem of the Earth to make it a shell of what it once was before we figure this whole civilization thing out.

Because if we don’t clean up our act soon, like now, we will find ourselves forced into becoming the galactic plunderers Steven Hawking so fears. Asteroid mining is a real goal right now for Lockheed-Martin and other contemporary exploiters of our age.

This is just the beginning.

 Will we become galactic plunderers?

Maybe we should start thinking ahead of time, before those first explorers set out into the stars, quickly followed by the callous exploiters. Let’s not leave Earth an uninhabitable desert before we learn our lesson, because what’s next? Colonize some other planet, exploit it, and move on? Will we have to create interplanetary Xingu National Parks just so we don’t leave wastelands in our wake?

We have thousands of years of history behind us to show what happens when we continue with the old ways. Here, now, with the Earth laying prostrate at our feet, subjugated, hoping that her newly found master, the Human, will show her mercy, we have a choice. We can either move on from here as interplanetary exploiters or as true scientists, exploring in order to understand and preserve, rather than only plunder.

Let’s learn from history. Let’s make sure we do this right.

-Charles Moritz

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