In the opening lines of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic War of the Worlds (1898), the narrator observes:
“No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s [sic] and yet as mortal as his own…”
What’s truly unbelievable regarding Wells’ observation is that just over one century later the Kepler spacecraft was launched into orbit with its mission to discover Earth-like planets in our region of the Milky Way galaxy. So far, the telescope has discovered several planets in what astronomers call the habitable zone or Goldilocks Zone of distant solar systems. According to scientists, it’s just a matter of time until planets are located that are in that zone orbiting around a distant star that is neither too hot nor too cold to sustain life. With the right amount of stardust and water, a few additional variables like the probable atmosphere and size of these planets need to be determined to make a guess about whether or not life in some form may be sustainable on them. Whether life is common or uncommon throughout the universe, it almost certainly exists in some form. If life someday is found in faraway places, how sophisticated are those societies and how do they deal with the conflicts of living in some distant place? How are conflicts resolved?
My brother and I were returning from a trip to Montreal in the spring of 1970. I had just returned from basic and advanced training in the military and had a few days off until I resumed my work as a junior high school social studies teacher. We returned to the US by way of the highway that pierces the heart of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. Although it was mid April, the mountains still firmly held onto their snowpack as was common then. Fastened to a hillside, enveloped in an early-morning shroud of fog was a sign proclaiming the first celebration of Earth Day. As we drove down through the middle of the state the environmental movement was in its infancy. The antiwar movement was still at its zenith, and I was more concerned about issues of war and peace, although I recognized the importance of the environment. The searing images of villages being burned, bombed, and napalmed in Southeast Asia allowed uneasy connections to be made between war and the environment. Agent Orange would hammer home those connection years later!
But, in 1970, the world’s average temperature had not yet climbed 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit. The planet was still a few decades away from heating up more than it had done in the previous 400 years! The Arctic Circle had not heated at twice the rate of the rest of the planet. Glaciers and mountain snows had not receded or disappeared, as was evident on the drive through central New Hampshire. Coral reefs were not dying in response to increasing sea temperatures. And finally, extreme weather events were just that: extreme and not routine. Rain often fell softly and for short periods of time. Humans had not let carbon emissions from the burning of fossil fuels heat up the atmosphere to record, unsustainable levels. And, there were no environmental destruction deniers! Anyone who thinks that Republicans and Democrats are any different needs to take a hard look at both parties’ records on the environment. Since both parties are the parties of wealth, any substantive commitment to limiting and reversing carbon emissions is a pipe dream. Despoiling the Earth is immaterial to political parties in search of dollars.
As I commute to work on the long drive from Western Massachusetts to upstate New York, I often wonder how the people in the SUVs whizzing by me came to accept it as their entitlement to drive such environmentally dangerous machines. I don’t wonder, however, how people have been so easily hooked on the song of the sirens of consumerism.
In terms of war, humans were just at the cusp of making civilians the primary causalities of conflict a mere 100 years ago. War would meld with technology, producing awful consequences! Despite evolving rules of war, here are some of the rounded out figures for wars of the past two centuries. The Napoleonic Wars (merely an arbitrary place to begin) accounted for millions of soldiers killed. The estimate of civilian deaths during that conflict between 1799 and 1815 were about 600,000, and that figure is “just” for civilians killed in France. The US Civil War was grotesque in terms of loss of life and grotesque battle wounds! Between the North and South a total of about 600, 000 lives were lost including more than 100,000 Union deaths related directly to combat and wounds, while the South suffered about 94,000 combat deaths. The Spanish American War of 1898 produced about 70,000 combat and combat-related deaths for Spain and about 7,000 casualties for US troops. World War I was another machine for mass murder with deaths in the millions, the highest casualties suffered by Russian, French, British, Italian, German, and Austro-Hungarian troops. World War II was the deadliest world war with a death toll of between 62 to 78 million. Of that figure, 40 to 52 million were civilians. Then, history witnessed smaller wars such as in Korea and in Vietnam. Korea produced about 7 million casualties among soldiers and 3 million civilian deaths. Vietnam saw about 1 million killed in the North and a like number of war dead in the South (many note that the number of dead in that war was higher by millions). The US suffered about 58,000 dead.
Without adding in war and war-related deaths of the past forty years in places as diverse as Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan, and New York City, to name just a few, a reader easily may conclude that despite very specific rules governing military engagement between peoples and nations, that we are, at least in general, a murderous species. Greed, the lust for power and influence and empire, and tribal and ethnic hatreds, are the fuels to this fire of murder!
Whether driven by a feudal, a communist, or a capitalist system (or “simply” by terror), our species has gained the uncomfortable notoriety of allowing mass murder to take place irrespective of political, tribal, ethnic, or economic systems! The list includes (at least in fairly contemporary terms) Armenia, Germany and Eastern Europe, Cambodia, Darfur, and Rwanda, not to mention politically motivated purges large and small to punish the opposition or to eradicate an indigenous people. Both genocide and purges are often the hallmark of the species!
Another hallmark of our species’ behavior is the conflict between the haves and have-nots. In the US, the gap between those who have lots of money and those who don’t has grown exponentially over the past three decades. The top 10 percent of the population own 80 percent of the wealth and the bottom 90 percent only own the remaining 20 percent. Incomes of the top 1 percent during the same period grew 275 percent. The poverty level rose to 15.1 percent of the population in 2010, up from 14.3 percent in 2009. That’s a whooping 46.2 million people (out of a total population of about 307,006,000). An amazingly high 22 percent of those living in poverty were under the age of 18 that year.
So, occupying the Goldilocks Zone doesn’t guarantee that life will go on without serious complications for a species. Perhaps there are better and worse civilizations where the Kepler telescope has and will train its sights. Maybe some are just about the same as the Earth. Nevertheless, as a species, we could do much, much better than spilling the blood of so many of our fellows. We could alleviate the pain and suffering of millions of others. And, we could actually save the planet from cataclysmic environmental destruction! Goldilocks survived by being cautious. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned from that children’s tale?
Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He blogs at howielisnoff.wordpress.com.