On Tuesday July 12, as the horrors of war in Ukraine ground on, chewing up soldiers and civilians alike in its indifferent maw, the January 6 Committee held yet another hearing that tied the pathologically narcissistic Mr. Trump ever closer to a conscious conspiracy to violently subvert our election process, a conspiracy that resulted at least seven deaths and many more injuries and ruined lives.
But if we saw Putin and Trump each misusing power that unleashed unnecessary death and havoc, on that same ordinary day we also saw humans at their extraordinary best. Approximately 20,000 scientists from all over the world celebrated as they shared with us some of the first images downloaded from the Webb telescope, or, as they would like it called, either the JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) or the Webb Observatory.
It took a quarter of a century of highly technical creative work, involving 14 countries, $9.7 billion, and most of all a scientific spirit of cooperation that sadly feels far rarer than it ought to be on our small planet, to put those microscopically aligned mirrors millions of miles out beyond the distortions of our atmosphere. Three hundred forty-four procedures, “points of failure,” any one of which gone wrong would have completely halted the mission, had to go exactly right over the deployment period of 30 days. And every one of them did, including the launch of the reliable Arianne rocket, the intricate unfurling of the layers of protective foil that keep the instruments from overheating, and the mind-bogglingly complex imaging technology that has now begun to send back crystal-clear images of the early universe, a gift to all of us on earth.
Clearly the universe brought to us by the Hubble and now the Webb is so huge and so numberless in its stars and galaxies that it is impossible that we are alone here. It is only a matter of time until contact happens between us and other forms of sentient life somewhere out there. Given the dire state of our planet, it is tempting to indulge the fantasy that a benign advanced alien civilization might communicate to us some pointers about sustainability and war-prevention.
But we can already intuit the kind of advice we might receive from these hypothetical aliens, over and above any magical new energy technology they might provide. Surely such advice is perfectly modeled by the cooperative spirit that made the Webb a reality: the aliens would tell us that we are pouring money into the useless sinkhole of a nuclear arms race that will render us extinct unless we stop. That we are quibbling about who should bear the burden of changing to sustainable forms of energy. That we are denying that we occupy a single ecological system of ocean, air, and soil. That our leaders are stuck in obsolete fantasies of power and control. That we need to redefine self-interest beyond pointless nationalism, learn to get along, and share the finite resources our small planet, because our fates are radically interdependent.
There is a valid moral argument to be made that the $10 billion it took to design, build and deploy the Webb could have been spent to ameliorate the many forms of suffering endured down here on earth. But the counter-argument is that we desperately need living examples of high-risk/high-gain cooperation toward common goals that point the way toward how realistic and feasible it is for us to ease our global suffering. The resources are available to do both the Webb and feed the starving, but we continue to siphon them off into ill-conceived projects like the Lockheed F-35 Joint Strike Fighter ($1.7 trillion) or the renewal of the American nuclear arsenal over 10 years ($634 billion)—or the brutal vanity of Russian imperial delusions.
In the light of the stupendous achievement of the Webb, Trump’s screaming fits as he refused to relinquish power or Putin’s ridiculous dreams of restoring Russia to 17th century glory look primitive, infantile, grossly detached from reality.
Putin with his state terror and Trump with his pathetic but dangerous schemes operate in a context of grievance, fear, and hate. The line from the song from “South Pacific,” “You’ve got to be carefully taught to hate and fear,” implies that this infection is hard to catch. Not so; we are far more vulnerable to it than the most contagious Covid variant. I have to inoculate myself constantly against it, as perhaps this column already demonstrates. These self-centered leaders give me raving fits of indignation. The Webb story on the other hand is, refreshingly, one of detached, open curiosity. Does this open and curious attitude have any implications for our political culture? I hope so.
We can look upward and outward from the echo-chamber of despair, greed, fear, and cynicism that mark our era. We can dare to set new planetary goals—feeding all the hungry, finding homes and work for refugees, demonstrating the advantages of representational government, and deploying the technologies of wind, solar, and battery to move beyond fossil fuels. The scientists that pulled off the Webb have provided the most powerful possible example of setting a high goal and then learning how to work together to achieve it.