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John Colson: Hit and Run

John Colson
Aspen Times Weekly

Are we alone in the universe?

That was the question on the cover of the December 2009 issue of National Geographic, and my answer is an unqualified, unambiguous, resounding, “No!”

Or maybe that’s just my deep-seated hope, because if we’re the only “intelligent” beings in the universe, then the universe is in big trouble.

And I mean “big,” because it’s a big place with lots of possibilities, and one possibility that gives me the willies is the idea that we, humanity, already are looking outward for new places to inhabit as we approach the saturation point here on our home planet.

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The willies come from my belief that we have this seemingly insatiable need to fill up what we deem to be empty spaces with our own kind, and we apparently have the know-how to do it. But once we achieve this goal, if history is any guide, we will then proceed to kick the living hell out of each other across distances much more vast and complicated than anything we’ve been used to here on Earth.

In the National Geo article, the focus was on recent innovations in stargazing technology that have given us the ability to identify what appear to be planets circling stars. The article presumes that this ability will be refined and deepened to the point where we can tell which planets are enough like our own that they will support life as we know it.

The inescapable next step, logic dictates, will be an all-out effort to get some of us off this planet and on to the next one.

Once again, history is the only guide here, and ours is a continuing story of rapacious expansion from one place to another, mostly after we have so overpopulated and befouled the first place that we have to have somewhere else to go. Once we get there, we generally kill off or subjugate the current inhabitants of some supposedly empty land, and take it over.

This cycle of conquest has been depressingly consistent here on Earth, and there is no reason to expect us to change our ways.

Science fiction has long warned us of these tendencies, from the swashbuckling days of pulp magazines to the buoyant eccentricities of the Star Trek mythology, which offers a more benign take on humanity’s willingness and ability to overcome our inherent barbarity and be a positive influence.

Most recently, there is the blockbuster movie, Avatar, in which the avaricious and brutal behavior of humanity is set against the Gaia-like innocence and purity of the local Na’vi and their world.

The world of the Na’vi is inhabited by flora and fauna that are far more interconnected than anything Earth has ever known. Human despoilers overreach, the Na’vi and their planet respond and are victorious in routing the humans, and all is well on the lush planet of Pandora. The multiple messages of the movie are fairly obvious.

For me, though, the most important message is that there are may be sentient beings out there who are able to overcome our greedy, ethnocentric ways and teach us a lesson, because we certainly haven’t shown an ability to teach ourselves much.

In the same issue of National Geographic, interestingly, is a telling piece about the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer culture in Tanzania that has survived for 10,000 years relatively unchanged until now.

Theirs is a tough existence, but they seem happy with it, and uninterested in the trappings of the more modern, “civilized” tribes that surround them. But their culture undoubtedly is about to be crushed and absorbed by the farming and mining cultures that consider the Hadza a rustic embarrassment, and already are encroaching on the Hadza’s ancestral homeland.

So it goes.

And, unless I miss my guess, so it will go if we somehow invent our way to interstellar flight.

Which is why I’m hoping we’re not alone, and that out there is a race of beings who are at least as cunning and clever as we are, but who have enough basic wisdom and patience to slap our collective wrist and tell us in no uncertain terms, “Cut it out, kids, and get some sense.”


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