Watching Star Wars in My Pajamas: A Preschooler Learns About the Universe and What Might Be
One of my earliest memories is watching Star Wars when I was about five years old. It was a cold winter in Edmonton, Alberta, the Canadian city and oil refinery where I was born. I remember standing at the threshold between the kitchen and the living room in my grandmothers’ house on Capilano Crescent, watching the intro to A New Hope. I would pop in and out of the room throughout the movie to catch glimpses of light-saber battles and noisy TIE fighters.
What remains distinct in my memory is the notion that the film’s narrative happened a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Even when I was young, the very inversion of this narrative—that something futuristic could have taken place long ago—impacted me, and reverberated a realization throughout my elementary school days: there could be another place in the cosmos, in the universe, in the galaxy, where long ago, folks flew around in spaceships and engaged in harrowing adventures and such! What Star Wars taught me was that the realm of possibility in the universe could be so vast that in the depths of time (past and future) and space (here and far away) we could imagine seemingly endless variations of possible futures. In this respect, Star Wars was a gateway to my love of science fiction, outer space, and interstellar travel.
Unfortunately, nothing in my schooling or family life reinforced this passion (and my dream of becoming an astronaut) beyond the toys I was given, or the odd National Geographic magazine I tried to decipher. In middle school I realized that the science I was so interested in was based on the math I found so painfully difficult. I eventually gave up the notion that I would ever become an astronaut and explore outer space, and decided to follow my interests elsewhere. However, my fascination with these themes never diminished, and like many others I eagerly look forward to watching the next installment in the Star Wars narrative this holiday season.
I believe that we love science fiction because of the possibilities it expresses about our ingenuity, our encounter with the Other, and the power and potential of technology to take us places we’ve never been. The science fiction genre often presents a moment (whether in the future, the past, or secretly at work within the present) where we are less constrained and limited, where the vastness of the universe can be managed, and only the touch of a button stands between sentient Earthling life and a cosmos of possibility.
But (putting my “theory hat” on), our fascination with a limitless universe filled with a diverse array of other interstellar worlds and sentient beings and cultures is also an extension of an expansionist drive to colonize under the pretext of exploration and discovery. A narrative universe with so many different worlds to visit and inhabit, where there seems to be an overabundance of worlds and places to explore and “orientalise,” is so widely enjoyed because of the limitlessness depicted. This flipside of the science fiction genre is to be expected… especially today. For ours is a time acutely aware of ecological limits (to name a few: environmental toxicity, ocean acidification, and Climate Change), a time when our societies seem to be wobbling against the edge of some never-before-seen chaos, and therefore, a time when we enjoy, with great ardour, the imagined cosmos of limitless potential exemplified in science fiction (and, sadly, the imagined cosmos of limitless consumption). So it is not surprising that we create and celebrate in such imaginaries while we face extreme limits and intractable problems in reality. We are trying to mentally escape a dawning terror of realization that will eventually—and necessarily—overtake us. We are in denial of the fact that the party must end.
We are secretly disappointed that the dreams of the space-aged 1950s and 60s never materialized in 2001 (2001: A Space Odyssey never took place, even though the story seemed inevitable). We also are surprised that our ingenuity could so successfully catapult our societies into technological modernity while also creating so many unintended consequences. So, on top of looming terror, denial, disappointment, and surprise, we are faced with a challenge to our faith in scientific rationalism—at the same time we have to reinvigorate our faith in science, and develop a more sophisticated scientific rationalism in order to define the limits, challenges, complexities, and potential solutions that we must now address. We’ve learned that our ingenuity does not exist in a vacuum and that it was never confined to the laboratory tabletop. The results of our experiments spill out of labs and into factories, from factories into markets, from markets into homes, and from homes into landfills, and all throughout the lifecycles of our invented products, additional unintended consequences spill into social, cultural, ecological, etc. systems. The well-oiled whirr of the machine has taken a century to reverberate through the ecological cosmos, and we now hear it as a snarl.
This terror, this denial, this sense of surprise at the failure of technology’s promise, this loss of faith, this enjoyment of imaginary adventure and unlimited exploration—all of these cultural affects are important clues to our current predicament. Indeed, these clues are part of the mechanisms of a psychological and cultural trap that we must envision ourselves out of… but how?
Climate Change. What does it mean? Climate Change means cataclysm.
The choice we now face is between two models of how the cataclysm of Climate Change will play out: death, on the one hand, or transformation, on the other. The current discourse, however, is dominated by the former, and so the proposed solutions to Climate Change carry the scent of death: technocratic rationalism and pragmatism, evidence presented and dissected, policy mechanisms, international agreements, targets, measures, etc. There is nothing wrong with this. In fact, we need the policy wonk conversation to generate traction and friction… but we also desperately need a big “unrealistic” dream to generate momentum (the simpler to define, the better). We need this dream because the realism and importance of Climate Change has created the unintended consequence of polarized and confused public opinion. Through amplified competing scientific views, divisive advocacy groups, and a diverse and seemingly endless source of information on the internet (to which this blog post simply adds), the complexity of Climate Change has led interested parties to simply confirm their beliefs and treat the matter in purely pragmatic terms. The future becomes less of a crystal ball that can surprise us with new insight, and more of a dead certainty. So, instead of calmly discussing how best to go about avoiding the worst (or simply denying that anything is wrong), we must passionately strive to achieve a big dream, perhaps the big dream: sentient Earthling life exploring the cosmos.
Technocracy has had its words, measures, and numbers at COP21—and with great success. Beyond this and any council of parties, however, democracy will continue to demand a shared vision. So, as a salve to the discourse that reeks of death, I want the change in tone that comes with the model of transformation: Climate Change is the penultimate wicked problem that must be solved or mitigated, not so that we can continue to survive on the Earth, but so that we can live on the Earth and beyond. The first model, and currently the most paradigmatic, emphasizes global political cooperation in the face of peril. The second emphasizes global political cooperation in the face of a future that has only been imagined, but is thereby more potent and real than the threat of death and finality. However, if we do not rise to the wicked problem of Climate Change with renewed vigor, the possibility of our imagined future (of our big dream coming true) is at best likely to be postponed for centuries or millennia; at worst, it is on the verge of being erased.
In a way, I am glad we have such terrifyingly complex challenge in Climate Change; it will teach us new things about ourselves, and about how we can work together in new and different ways. Indeed, without Climate Change, it would be impossible to pursue cosmic exploration as a big dream without it quickly turning into a big nightmare. The cataclysm of transformation is a threshold that we must first cross before we can pursue the type of development required to explore the cosmos. Why? Because although continuing on the same path of development may entail interstellar travel, it wouldn’t be done so in a manner that calls on the best of the world—perhaps such advancements would be pursued unilaterally, perhaps they would be pursued as a form of escape from a planet that no longer supports human life. Either way, pursuing a vision of space travel without solving Climate Change would be the penultimate expression of modernism’s decadence: the desire for grandeur at the expense of all else.
So, I call the alternate path of development that stems from the cataclysm of transformation that we face through Climate Change cosmodernism (cosmos + modernism), because what I am arguing for is a continuation of scientific progress, not as an isolated endeavor to the detriment of the Earth, but rather as an endeavor unfolding within a complex interrelated system of living and non-living forces. The pursuit of grandeur and glory to the benefit of all else is the affirmation of cosmodernism, and an affirmation only made possible through a concerted effort to work together in the transformation made necessary by cataclysm. The realization that Earth is a seed and a germ of life within the cosmos is the credo of cosmodernism, and the dispersal of this seed is its ultimate goal.
Climate Change is a very special problem for us to work together on, and to wrap our head, hands, and hearts around. Much of the discourse around the problem has been rooted in the head and the hands, with little emphasis on the heart—on the passion and vision that can take our interests beyond the literal and figurative “poverties of imagination” of the cataclysm of death. So, I believe that there needs to be something more that motivates our efforts to work together and tackle the problem, and I believe that this “something more” is a vision of the future that we already dream of. The technologically and infra-structurally enmeshed tangle of living and non-living life that is our current civilization—“the system” in all its “broken” and “working” glory—is simply a process of co-creation in the midst of a rapid transformation whose logical endpoint lies in interstellar travel. Until the momentum and the trajectory of this system shifts we should share no other vision than the following: to rein in the worst of our excesses; to work together as a planet of Earthlings; to innovate solutions to Climate Change and its cataclysm of transformation; and most importantly, to dream big about the future, so that we may share in the glory of centuries and millennia of limitless scientific and interstellar exploration.