There is a scene from “The Blues Brothers” that has always stayed in my mind. Elwood picks up his brother Jake from prison in a police car. Jake is a little upset. Elwood gives his brother a little demonstration of the car’s capability.
“Car’s got a lot of pickup,” Jake notes.
“It’s got a cop motor,” Elwood tells him, and continues with: “a 440 cubic inch plant; it’s got cop tires, cop suspensions, cop shocks. It’s a model made before catalytic converters so it’ll run good on regular gas. What do you say, is it the new Bluesmobile or what?”
Only later do we find out why Elwood was able to get such a great car — he stole it. The movie made news headlines at the time because its publicists emphasized the fact that 90 police cars were destroyed in the various chase scenes (the ending is totally absurd — but then, the whole movie is totally absurd).
“The Blues Brothers” represents extravagance on so many levels. Just about everything is wasted and ruined in the movie, all in the name of helping some orphans. “The Blues Brothers” represents the dichotomy of choices we must make when trying to do what is right when what is required of us seems so wrong.
These are the types of conundrums superheroes occasionally face. Should they use their powers for personal gain, for example? Well, would Superman be much of a hero if he were just out for himself? Interestingly, in the 1970s there was a Superman comic book story in which he became a multimillionaire tycoon — purchasing land, factories, and other assets in order to compete with a tycoon who was a sort of blend of Howard Hughes, T. Boone Pickens, and Warren Buffet.
In the end Superman revealed he had only put on a facade to force the rival tycoon to reveal the location of his state-of-the-art printing press — which he was using to counterfeit good old American dollars. It seems the U.S. Treasury Department had been unable to locate the source of a lot of bogus money.
So the Superman story was a cheat — he didn’t really use his powers for personal gain. He just made everyone think he was using his powers for personal gain, including the readers. In literature and entertainment it’s okay to be deceptive — the audience enjoys the surprise revelation. But in real life we don’t necessarily handle surprises so well.
Despite our persistent fantasies, no one is waiting to come to our rescue if we get in over our heads. And though we have no real superheroes, we might one day have some real supervillains. Superheroes often come equipped with advanced gadgets and gizmos (like Green Lantern’s power ring) but many superheroes simply have innate abilities the rest of us possess.
Supervillains, on the other hand, often have no real powers. They’re just very clever, very aggressive, and in some cases very well connected. Lex Luthor, as everyone knows, only occasionally has super power but he always has a superior intellect. You don’t go up against Luthor unless you want to be intellectually humiliated.
What might a supervillain of the future look like? Maybe like Samuel L. Jackson in an M. Night Shyamalan movie, such as “Unbreakable”.
An ordinary man overcomes his own limitations to achieve a magnificent dream: to find his biological mirror, someone whose strengths compensate for his own weakness. “It was the kids,” Jackson’s character says at the end of the movie when Bruce Willis’ character realizes who is behind all the disasters he has survived or avoided. “They called me Mr. Glass.”
The brutal cruel humor of children who don’t understand why one child is unusually frail shapes him into a terrorist whose diabolical scheme is to create a superhero — his counterpart in life and fantasy. Hundreds of people died to make that dream a reality.
In real life, hopefully, no one is out there destroying trains and planes, looking for an unbreakable human. Evolution doesn’t really work that way.
But when we talk about the environment today we establish the rhythms that guide our children toward their handling of the environment. In the 1960s and 1970s there was an awakening in America that gave rise to the idea that individual citizens can share responsibility for the environment with factories and cold-hearted corporations. After all, citizens own and manage the corporations, right? We build and operate the factories, right?
When communities form they set boundaries, rules by which all members of the communities agree to live. Those rules constitute the Authority that all agents of the communities act upon. The mayor of a city, the town council, the governor of the state, and the President of a country all derive their authority from the people whom they govern.
Of course, most of us are born into the society where we live. We have no choice about growing up in America or Pakistan — we simply find ourselves living in a community that somewhere in the past made a choice or had a choice made for it. Most of us agree to abide by the rules of the community; a few of us look for a way out.
It’s the same way with the environment. We didn’t ask to be born in a desert or a rain forest. We simply find ourselves living in a city or on a farm. One day we might change our location but moving from climate to climate doesn’t change which planet we live on. Now, as astronomers discover hundreds of planets orbiting other stars, we have the opportunity to think about how we might find an entirely different environment for our children.
Our film industry has more than once looked at how mankind might interact with alien environments but we’re really only just starting to see what is really out there.
In the meantime, we have yet to face all the facts about our own environment. And we haven’t really learned to manage it well. We’re sort of locked into an environmental prison from which we’d like to emerge, but every time we leave the front gate we find a reminder of just how close we are to home: Brother Elwood is waiting outside the door with a stolen cop car to remind us of who we are and where we come from.
Let’s suppose we learn to master Earth’s environment in such a way that we can take responsibility for global warming. We might figure out how to cool things down sufficiently to restrain the almost inevitable flooding many nations will face later this century. Will that mastery of our own environment help us build a future in the stars?
In How to Steal the Planet Venus and Make it Your Own I shared some ideas people have put forward on how to colonize Venus without actually terraforming it. By building great floating cities that move around Venus’ atmosphere, we could bypass the whole issue of having no water and no air to breathe.
Of course, choosing not to terraform a planet we colonize would force us to take on responsibility for two environments: we would have to preserve the Venusian atmosphere so that our technologies would continue to function properly and we would have to maintain habitable environments in those floating cities.
The issue becomes no simpler if we decide to colonize Mars. We can try to reactivate the Martian core so that its magnetic field regenerates (thus providing us with protection from the Solar Wind and preserving what remains of the Martian atmosphere) or we can try to live in safe zones around the planet, building little biospheres that may or may not be hit by occasional meteors.
We would have little choice about terraforming Mars if we cannot regenerate its magnetic field. Earth-like life would wither in many places, and those species which depend upon the Earth’s magnetic field would struggle to survive. Even if we develop the ability to send out representatives of nearly all existing species to other planets, we’re not ready to send those plants and critters to the stars.
Humanity would have to experiment with environmental changes on a massive scale, such as turning the Sahara desert into a wetland. Nature has created Saharan wetlands three times in the past 120,000 years so it’s not like I’m suggesting the impossible.
Scientists suggest that changes in the Earth’s rotational axis caused the Sahara to become a garden-like region for the space of a few thousand years. Although we cannot alter the Earth’s rotational axis, we can certainly desalinate and pump a LOT of water into virtually any desert region if we choose to do so.
Watering a desert will change local atmospheric conditions. If you pump enough water into a desert clouds form. If you pump even more water into the desert those clouds will drop water back onto the desert. The Sahara became green (and then dried out) because normal rain systems moved around the landscape — due to where the sun was shining and heating ocean waters, etc.
We have the ability to alter desert landscapes today. The question is, should we? About 14 years ago I proposed to an online friend in Australia that much of the western Australian desert could be made habitable by pumping desalinated water into it through a system of canals. He was a bit put off by the idea. Nonetheless, we can significantly increase the planet’s arable lands and slow the process of shoreline flooding by managing the flow of water on a scale never before attempted.
All it takes is a budget of about $500 billion and a workforce of about 2 million people, not to mention a huge industrial complex dedicated to creating pipelines, digging canals, building new cities, breaking new farmlands, planting new forests, and moving millions of animals and plants around in a controlled fashion.
I’m pretty sure environmentalists would not think of this as a step in the right direction but, frankly, if we’re ever going to get off this planet we WILL have to develop that kind of technology. Otherwise, we’ll have to evolve into energy beings who don’t need birds, trees, and water.
It’s a hard choice that cannot, in fact, be made by an individual. It is only the kind of choice that a society can make — that a society MUST make. At some point we’re going to have face some hard questions and ask ourselves, “Where do we put all these people? How do we feed them?”
In fact, we also have to ask where we’re going to get more fuel for our future. Oil may or may not be renewing itself in our various oilfields, but most people agree that oil is a very polluting energy resource. Scientists have suggested that 50 million acres of switchgrass and similar plants could reduce the U.S. dependence on oil significantly.
Australia and the north African nations can easily find 50 million acres of land in which to grow grasses for biofuels. Of course, they would have to grow diverse biofuel crops to ensure a more natural environment develops. We cannot grow enough maize to power our fleets of trucks and other vehicles, but we can take desert landscapes and reconvert them to green fields and forests that provide us with new natural resources.
Superman can save the world — if we provide him with sufficient economic incentive to invest in new natural infrastructures. But would he be Superman or Mr. Glass? There is no quick and easy answer to that question. Both Superman and Mr. Glass are trying to help people. It’s just that Superman has been trained to use his powers for good, whereas Mr. Glass chooses to ignore the consequences of his choices as he pursues his dream.
If we do nothing and merely let the Earth shapes its ecosystem through natural forces, we’ll probably run out of habitable land by the end of the century. Wars will be fought on a massive scale for the sake of securing arable land, potable water, and dwindling energy resources.
During the First Persian Gulf War misinformed activists chanted “no blood for oil” whenever they could — even though we were honoring a defense treaty that had been in force since the 1930s (that treaty was, of course, established by President Franklin Roosevelt in order to secure oil resources). The blood we shed in that war was for a much nobler cause than obtaining oil.
When the U.S. took the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 people again accused us of trying to seize oil — even though less than 5% of American oil needs were being met by Iraqi wells. It would have cost us far less to buy the oil from other nations than to invade, so the “blood for oil” argument has never been sensible.
Nonetheless, the day is coming when nations will indeed choose to launch wars for oil. Those wars are preventable because we have the means to end our dependence on oil now.
Unfortunately, if we come to the brink of a true oil war there won’t be any Superman nor any environmental police force to pull us back. We might be able to defer the conflict for a while but eventually we’ll have to make some choices — not about whether to fight an oil war but about which side we’ll support. And we won’t win either way. Saddam Hussein set the precedent of “if we can’t control the oil we’ll destroy it”. He probably won’t be the last idiot to take that irrational step.
Frank Herbert wrote in Dune that “he who has the power to destroy a thing controls it”. Unfortunately, that’s not really true. We have the power to destroy our environment. We don’t control it. We can never fully control our environment but we can change it substantially and by doing so we can buy ourselves time to figure out where we want to be in the universe.
It’s a rational choice. That rational choice might result in the loss of hundreds or thousands of desert plant and animal species, or at least the severe restriction of their habitats. On the other hand, we’re in the process of destroying about 1 million species anyway. We might be able to save more than a few thousand of those species if we find a way to create new habitats for them.
Man is a part of nature, not outside of it. Just as beavers and ants choose where to build dams and colonies, we choose where to build our cities and homes. Hoover Dam is as much a natural part of the ecosystem as Mount McKinley. It’s just that a different set of forces created Hoover Dam than those that created Mount McKinley.