Paul Andersen: Fair Game
September 7, 2009
I love that “Planet of the Apes” scene where bedraggled, strung-out Charlton Heston is wandering a deserted beach and looks up with a gasp. The pained, twisted expression on his face is pure Hollywood as he sees something that the audience has yet to grasp.
What Heston sees are the arm, the torch, and the top of the crown of the Statue of Liberty. They are protruding from the sand, the ruin from a past age, which Heston, a lost astronaut, finds rather horrifying. His realization, of course, is that he has been on Earth the whole time, when he thought he was on some other planet, which means that the apes have gained intelligence, taken over the Earth, and become our masters. Yikes!
A poem by Shelley spells out a different irony. In “Ozymandias,” the poet describes a colossal stone statue of a once-great king jutting from the sand (in both settings, sand is a powerful metaphor for the passing of the ages), to which Shelley reflects on the hubris of fleeting power. “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But there’s no one to look, and there are no great works. All is waste.
On Easter Island there are similar tributes to hubristic leaders in statue form. The Easter Islanders slaved and toiled to move huge stone monoliths across the island and erect them in honor of their exalted rulers. Only the rulers blew it when they coerced obeisance from their people and forced them, unwittingly, to denude their island of trees in the act of transporting these giant stone heads on timbers used as rollers.
Jared Diamond cites Easter Island in his book “Collapse” as an example of an isolated people who disappeared because they abused the ecosystems on which they depended for life. Diamond minces no words on how this same cataclysmic cycle is occurring in the world today, only on a much larger scale: “History warns us that when once powerful societies collapse, they tend to do so quickly and unexpectedly. Peak power usually means peak population, peak needs, and hence peak vulnerability.”
Charlton Heston’s homecoming epiphany in “Planet of the Apes” is a cautionary parable. On Easter Island, administrative malfeasance, ecological ignorance, and a failure to set limits brought about an ugly combination of starvation and cannibalism.
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Humans are often aliens to our own world, ignorant of the fragility of the systems on which we depend for life. The dearth of eco-leadership since the Industrial Revolution is told in the collapse of ecosystems and species, and in the perils of climate change.
A friend who recently visited an oil and gas drill rig recalled a particularly cynical display of detachment from the precious planet we call home. The following was on a bumper sticker affixed to a pickup truck: “Earth First! We’ll drill the others later.”
Our ecological fate is common to us all, which spurred Garrett Harden to write a manifesto in 1968, “The Tragedy of the Commons,” in which he pointed out that unfettered exploitation of the planet’s natural resource base is a recipe for disaster. “Ruin,” wrote Harden, “is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons.”
Perhaps human beings are actually cosmic entities unattached to any material world at all, or entitled to a much larger commons that radiates beyond the stars. This would fit with the message of “Cosmos,” by Carl Sagan, who refers to us humans as planetary wanderers simply passing time on Earth until we can find the next great place to subdue, colonize and exploit for our own desires.
Still, for most astronauts, the view from the dark, lonely reaches space is profoundly humbling. Ultimately, most of them feel a deep longing for home, our green and blue Earth, covered by a thin bubble of atmosphere that is our life support on “Space Ship Earth,” as Buckminster Fuller called it.
Somehow we’ve got to transcend our detachment from this planet – our home – and behave as if we live here. Otherwise, we could experience a collapse that will have the Manhattan skyline jutting from the sands of time and no Charlton Heston to see it.
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