Wednesday, August 26, 2015

'The sweet poison of the false infinite': C.S. Lewis on the ethics of colonising outer space

In 1944, Oxford scholar C.S. Lewis published the second book of a trilogy about space. Perelandra (also known as Voyage to Venus) is a lyrical evocation of the planet Venus, before the Mariner fly-by of 1962 revealed it to be a lifeless world. It's also a moral tale of the battle between dark and light, infused with Lewis' Christian theology. Through Professor Weston (dark) and Ransom (light), Lewis presents two different experiences and ideologies about humanity's place in space.

I find myself returning again and again to the first two novels in this trilogy. Informed by his deep knowledge of Medieval worldviews, Lewis' vision of space is profound and poetic. I've quoted him more than once in academic papers (here for example), and frequently discover new insights in sentences read a thousand times before, depending on where my own thoughts are tending at the time.

Source: Twisty Turny Lanes

In the passage below, Lewis' distaste for the nascent genre of science fiction, and for the amateur societies who were the vanguards of space before the end of the war brought the potential of the V2 rocket to the world's attention, is very evident. (Never mind that he was now writing science fiction himself). However, the way he captures the tension between what we might now call an ecological position, and an colonialist one, prefigures very contemporary debates. You are left in no doubt which side he supports.

Professor Weston....was a man obsessed with the idea which is at this moment circulating all over our planet in obscure works of 'scientifiction', in little Interplanetary Societies and Rocketry Clubs, and between the covers of monstrous magazines, ignored or mocked by the intellectuals, but ready, if ever the power is put into its hands, to open a new chapter of misery for the universe. It is the idea that humanity, having now sufficiently corrupted the planet where it arose, must at all costs strive to seed itself over a larger area: that the vast astronomical distances which are God's quarantine regulations, must somehow be overcome. This for a start. But beyond this planet lies the sweet poison of the false infinite - the wild dream that planet after planet, system after system, in the end galaxy after galaxy, can be forced to sustain, everywhere and for ever, the sort of life which is contained in the loins of our own species - a dream begotten by the hatred of death upon the fear of true immortality, fondled in secret by thousands of ignorant men and hundreds who are not ignorant. The destruction or enslavement of other species in the universe, if such there are, is to these minds a welcome corollary.

Even in the last few weeks, I've come across debates about humanity's right to propagate indefinitely, in whatever form that might be. Space narratives still cleave to a naive colonialism abandoned (mostly) everywhere else in the modern world. 

But for Lewis, we are seduced by the 'sweet poison of the false infinite'. Infinity, he implies, is deceptive. The concept of a virtually endless universe is not an invitation to expand, in our own messy organic big bang, to fill all available niches; nor is it a palliative for the fear of death. 

Perhaps that is the crux of it. We must solve infinity within ourselves before we can drink the 'sweet poison' and survive.

Lewis, C.S. 1944 [1975] Perelandra. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co, p 81

Friday, August 21, 2015

Cold War material culture: the script of Ice Station Zebra

A random thought today sent me in search of the screenplay of the 1968 classic film Ice Station Zebra. Years ago it did not exist on the internet, and I couldn't find it now either, not even on the American Film Scripts Online database - but I did come across this image of the actual script on a bookseller's website.

Image courtesy of Royal Books

The script is described thus:

Revised draft script for the 1968 film. Copy belonging to an uncredited crew member, with notations in holograph pencil on the versos of pages throughout, mostly numeric notations, with a few pages noting on-the-set supplies, and some personal notations. 
Goldenrod studio wrappers, rubber-stamped copy No. 170, dated June 14, 1967, with credits for director Sturges, producer Martin Ransohoff, and writer Douglas Heyes. 189 leaves, with last leaf of text numbered 203. Mimeograph, dated variously between 4/28//67 and 6/30/67, with blue and gray revision pages throughout, dated variously between 6/27/67 and 7/3/67. Pages Very Good plus, wrapper Near Fine, bound with two gold brads.

Just incidentally, the script will set you back $1750.00 USD.  I was momentarily tempted, I have to confess.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

'Sliver of moon like a thin peel of soap': Apollo 11 and the poetry of longing and loss

As you know I love a bit of space poetry, and if it happens to be Australian, well, all the better. This wonderful poem, full of gentle rhyme and wistful metaphor, really resonates with me because it describes so well my own experience of the Apollo moon landing in 1965, where I similarly huddled, with an entire rural primary school of students, into the teacher's residence to watch the first steps on a black and white television.

It's really a poem, though, of love and loss. I could go on with my amateur analysis, but I won't: please read it for yourself and enjoy the subtle twists of the poet's art. This is by Stephen Edgar, and it won the 2005 Peter Porter Poetry Prize.

(Note on attribution: I was alerted to this poem by the Australian Book Review newsletter. Here it is on the original website).

Photograph by Victor Rogus

Man on the moon
Hardly a feature in the evening sky
As yet  near the horizon the cold glow
Of rose and mauve which, as you look on high,
Deepens to Giotto’s dream of indigo.
Hardly a star as yet. And then that frail
Sliver of moon like a thin peel of soap
Gouged by a nail, or the paring of a nail:
Slender enough repository of hope.
There was no lack of hope when thirty-five
Full years ago they sent up the Apollo 
Two thirds of all the years I’ve been alive.
They let us out of school, so we could follow
The broadcast of that memorable scene,
Crouching in Mr Langshaw’s tiny flat,
The whole class huddled round the TV screen.
There’s not much chance, then, of forgetting that.
And for the first time ever I think now,
As though it were a memory, that you
Were in the world then and alive, and how
Down time’s long labyrinthine avenue
Eventually you’d bring yourself to me,
With no excessive haste and none to soon 
As memorable in my history
As that small step for man onto the moon.
How pitiful and inveterate the way
We view the paths by which our lives descended
From the far past down to the present day
And fancy those contingencies intended,
A secret destiny planned in advance
Where what is done is as it must be done
For us alone. When really it’s all chance
And the special one might have been anyone.
The paths that I imagined to have come
Together and for good have simply crossed
And carried on. And the delirium
We found is cold and sober now and lost.
The crescent moon, to quote myself, lies back,
A radiotelescope propped to receive
The signals of the circling zodiac.
I send my thoughts up, wishing to believe
That they might strike the moon and be transferred
To where you are and find or join your own.
Don’t smile. I know the notion is absurd,
And everything I think, I think alone.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

How would lunar mining affect the cultural significance of the Moon?

This is an excerpt from my (pre-revision) forthcoming publication Managing cultural heritage values in lunar mining? What are the issues?
Consultation with stakeholders is part of both assessing the social significance of cultural heritage and obtaining a Social Licence to Operate (SLO). Despite the best intentions, however, gaining free, prior and informed consent is frequently overlooked (Bice 2014). How could this be achieved for an entire celestial body, and with meaningful consultation with the ‘local’ community of Earth’s seven billion people? While the UN offers obvious mechanisms through the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOUS), UNESCO and the  advisory organisation the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS), private commercial interests may prefer to undertake their own community engagement.
Lunar surface mining. Image courtesy of NASA
How will people feel if they look at the Moon in the night sky, and know that is being mined underneath their eyes? While diverse publics have been tolerant of scientific missions, commercial ventures may be received very differently. Mining and exploration will have impacts on the lunar environment much greater than the low level created by robotic and scientific missions to date.
While it is probably broadly true to say “humanity as a whole has embraced the historic events and objects associated with space research as part of our jointly held heritage” (Walsh 2012:234), this obscures deeply entrenched divisions between colonial/spacefaring nations and colonised/'developing' nations (Gorman 2005a, Gorman 2009b, Redfield 2005). These divisions have been very evident in the politics around the formation of the Outer Space Treaty (OST), the Moon Agreement even more so, and contribute to the impasse that resource utilisation on the Moon is currently facing (Hoffstadt 1994).
The reaction of, say, an Australian to a US-based profit-making mine in which they have no say or share could easily be negative. A First Nations Australian may have another layer of reaction, based on their experience of alienation from country and destruction of cultural heritage arising from terrestrial resource exploitation. Moreover, an assault on the integrity of a celestial body which belongs to what is commonly called the ‘Dreaming’ – a suite of cultural knowledge in which the past is simultaneously entwined with the creation of law, identity and land in the present – may be a matter of some concern. Aboriginal people are by no means the only First Nation to have such a relationship with the Moon.
Moon Dreaming, by Ronnie Tjampitjinpa, 2007
Ronnie Tjampitjinapa is a Pintupi man from the Western Desert  He was a founding member of the Papunya Tula Artists group. .
Image courtesy of Aboriginal Art Directory
What is considered to be for ‘the benefit and in the interests of all countries’ (OST Article 1, see also Moon Agreement Article 4) depends very much on how regulation unfolds in this next critical period. Again a parallel with terrestrial mining industry may be instructive. Management strategies in SLO frameworks include the concept of ‘offsets’: compensating for impacts at one location through activities at another, either directly or indirectly. A direct offset might be setting aside a protected area of land to compensate for the loss of that impacted by mining. Increasing the value of a heritage place could be considered a direct offset – for example, committing resources to conserving Tranquility Base to compensate for ‘sacrificing’ a Lunar Orbiter impact site. Indirect offsets may include funding research or education around the environmental/heritage resource that will lead to benefits for it. Note though, that offsets are determined during the planning phase, not in retrospect ie they do not compensate for damage already caused.
Lunar mining will take place in an environment where social media are a major part of public engagement with space. Space agencies, private companies, astronauts, missions, and rovers have their own Twitter accounts and there is an expectation of public involvement. Crowd-funded space missions such as Lunar Mission One, a probe designed to drill a deep core in polar regions, is possibly the vanguard of more such projects. The investors in off-world mining companies are likely to be the same people who buy shares in terrestrial mining. The moon’s seeming remoteness will not protect industrial operations from the scrutiny of the public.
Bice, Sarah 2014 What Gives You a Social Licence? An Exploration of the Social Licence to Operate in the Australian Mining Industry. Resources 3:62-80
Gorman, A.C. 2009b Beyond the Space Race: the significance of space sites in a new global context. In Angela Piccini and Cornelius Holtorf (eds) Contemporary Archaeologies: Excavating Now, pp 161-180 Bern: Peter Lang
Gorman, A.C. 2005a The cultural landscape of interplanetary space. Journal of Social Archaeology 5(1):85-10
Hoffstadt, Brian 1994 Moving the heavens: lunar mining and the ‘common heritage of mankind’ in the Moon Treaty. UCLA Law Review 42:575-621
Redfield, P. 2005. Space in the Tropics. From Convicts to Rockets in French Guiana. Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Walsh, Justin 2012 Protection of humanitys cultural and historic heritage in space. Space Policy 28:234-243