Resisting intervention on earth and beyond.
Image from Flickr user James Vaughan
By John Feffer
By arrangement with
They were the “
The “prime directive,” designed to govern the conduct of Kirk and his crew on their episodic journey, required non-interference in the workings of alien civilizations. This approach mirrored the
Might our inexhaustible capacity for interfering in far-flung places be a sign not of a dynamic civilization, but of a fatal flaw—for the country, the international community, and the species as a whole?
Even as they deliberately linked violent terrestrial interventions with celestial ones, however, the makers of Star Trek never questioned the most basic premise of a series that would delight fans for decades, spawning endless TV and movie sequels. Might it not have been better for the universe as a whole if the Enterprise had never left Earth in the first place and if Earth hadn’t meddled in matters beyond its own solar system?
As our country contemplates future military interventions, as well as ambitious efforts to someday colonize other planets, Americans would be smart to address this fundamental question. Might our inexhaustible capacity for interfering in far-flung places be a sign not of a dynamic civilization, but of a fatal flaw—for the country, the international community, and the species as a whole?
The Orange Zone
The United States has never had much use for a precautionary prime directive. It has interfered with “alien” societies at a remarkable clip ever since the late nineteenth century. Indeed, such interference is inscribed in the genetic code of the country, for America is the product of the massive disruption and eradication of an already existing native population. Columbus also boldly went where no (European) man had gone before, and we recapitulate his voyage every time we send the Marines to a foreign shore or our drones into foreign air space. Native Americans didn’t need “discovering” or new infectious diseases any more than Iraqis
Despite considerable evidence of just how malign our recent interventions have proven to be—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere—the US government continues to contemplate military missions. Iran is, for the moment, off the hook, and so is Cuba. Washington has also repeatedly emphasized that North Korea is not in the crosshairs, though our aggressive military posture in East Asia might suggest otherwise, particularly to the paranoid leadership in Pyongyang.
But even the diplomacy-friendly Obama administration is still wedded to the use of drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen, not to mention a
These military actions have remapped the world and not in a good way. America’s post-9/11 invasions, attacks, and occupations have created a
Meanwhile, the impulse to “boldly go” is no longer restricted to neo-colonial interventionism or military adventurism. There is now growing enthusiasm for sending an expeditionary force beyond Earth. Several competing initiatives aim to begin the colonization of Mars, in part to provide humanity with an alternative should global warming make planet Earth inhospitable to human life. These extraterrestrial efforts reflect a growing anxiety that the end is nigh, at least for the home team.
Let’s call it the Orange Zone, in honor of the erstwhile terrorism
If we can figure out how to lower the threat alert and leave the Orange Zone, we will have passed the civilizational test. Once we put away our childish things our nuclear weapons, our coal-fired power plants, our religious prohibitions against contraception—we can graduate to the next level of planetary consciousness. Otherwise, we flunk out. And there won’t be any make-up summer school credits available.
It’s precisely our predilection for getting mixed up in other people’s messes that has distracted us from fixing our own.
There may, in fact, be an even more fundamental test than the nuclear, carbon, or demographic challenges. And that’s the human propensity for intervention—across borders, over seas, and potentially even in outer space. That Star Trek urge “to boldly go,” obeying the prime directive or not, has gotten humanity into a heap of trouble. Establishing outposts in far-off lands is often considered the ultimate American insurance policy, but it’s precisely our predilection for getting mixed up in other people’s messes that has distracted us from fixing our own. The focus on setting up a colony on Mars, instead of getting serious about climate change on Earth, is the functional equivalent of devoting close to a
The Chinese Way
In the fifteenth century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He took a fleet on seven voyages throughout Asia, to the Middle East, and as far as Africa. He defeated marauding pirates in the vicinity of China and intervened militarily in far-off Ceylon. His huge treasure ships, each one six times larger than Columbus’s Santa Maria, brought back rare items, including a giraffe, for the Chinese emperor. As a diplomat, he established tributary relations with dozens of foreign lands, though not Europe, which was still too backward to attract Chinese interest. Zheng’s last journey, in the early 1430s, took place two decades before Christopher Columbus was even born.
Zheng He’s maritime explorations might have served as the basis for China’s colonial domination of significant parts of the world. But it was not to be. “Shortly after the last voyage of the treasure fleet, the Chinese emperor forbade overseas travel and stopped all building and repair of oceangoing junks,” Louise Levathes has written in
China didn’t entirely turn its back on colonialism. It maintained a tributary system in its Asian backyard. Nor did the Middle Kingdom immediately lose out to a rising Europe, for the Chinese would remain a dominant force for several more centuries. Still, the emperor’s decision to renounce Zheng He and his accomplishments is often identified as a key pivot point in modern history. China effectively decided not to go the way of the Enterprise. It would not “boldly go” into unexplored lands or establish a far-flung colonial empire. Nor did it develop the military means to police such domains.
By the nineteenth century, it would instead find itself subject to the predations of European colonial powers, which divided up the coastal areas of China as if they were a treasure chest for the taking. More than 100 years of humiliation ensued, followed by a succession of Chinese efforts to regain the wealth and power of dynasties past.
China today is not a military weakling. But it also
As its economic growth
China could go either way. Chinese hawks worry that if Beijing repeats the emperor’s rejection of Zheng He, foreign powers will again humiliate the Middle Kingdom. And indeed, Beijing certainly might feel the need to acquire even greater force projection capabilities if Washington doesn’t engage it in serious arms reduction efforts.
The Escape Clause
The multi-billionaire Elon Musk is not one to rest on his laurels. He’s a product of the dot.com age—he made his first millions with PayPal—and has transformed the electric car into a real contender in the marketplace. He is also betting big on solar energy through his
But he has even grander ambitions.
Meanwhile, the outfit MarsOne, started by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, is
In his influential 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American character had been shaped by endlessly “available” lands in the West and the desire to colonize the entire continent. The closing of that frontier at the end of the nineteenth century coincided with the onset of the American empire and the spread of “American civilization” to purportedly less enlightened corners of the globe. The pent-up energy to “boldly go” had to go somewhere.
But don’t be fooled by that. Our intervention on Mars will nonetheless share some of the defects of our terrestrial follies.
We are now witnessing another closing-of-the-frontier moment. There are no longer any unexplored pockets of the world. And the frontier ideology of spreading civilization—or is it mayhem?—has come up hard against the realities of present-day Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the post-Arab Spring political disappointments of Egypt and Libya. It is no surprise, then, that restless spirits like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have identified space as their “final frontier.”
Mars is not inhabited. We won’t be displacing any native populations, nor will we have to debate the finer points of the prime directive in the absence of foreign cultures to interfere with. But don’t be fooled by that. Our intervention on Mars will nonetheless share some of the defects of our terrestrial follies.
“Wherever we go, we’ll take ourselves with us,” environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert
The Search for Terrestrial Intelligence
In tandem with the push to colonize Mars, scientists are putting renewed efforts into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). A new project,
Chances are good—according to
Whether there’s anything out there or not, trapped as we are in the Orange Zone, we are still heavily involved in the quixotic search for terrestrial intelligence. Scientists continue to await definitive evidence—Stephen Hawking, Toni Morrison, and Yo-Yo Ma aside—that human intelligence is not an oxymoron. After all, what we have traditionally defined as intelligence—a relentless pushing at borders both conceptual and territorial—has led us into the cul-de-sac of impending self-annihilation.
Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr
To go boldly forward, humanity will have to redefine intelligent life. That doesn’t mean returning to a nomad’s existence of venison and berries. But it does require a different kind of intelligence to turn one’s back on the treasures that the modern-day equivalent of Zheng He’s ships promise to bring from all corners of the universe. It requires a different kind of intelligence to close one’s ears to the siren song of democracy promotion, terrorism suppression, and market-access preservation. And it requires a different kind of intelligence to focus one’s energies on conserving this planet instead of putting so much time and money into plans to befoul another one.
With each nuclear weapon, jet engine, and space rocket we deploy, we venture further into the Orange Zone, heading blindly, if not boldly, toward the point of no return. Like those would-be Mars explorers, whether we know it or not, we are all on a one-way trip into the unknown, except that our rocket ship is our planet, which we’re about to destroy in a suicide mission before it can ever arrive at a safe and secure place.
John Feffer is the director of