A semester wrestling pessimism and optimism

Here are two things I’ve been doing this semester (in addition to taking this course)

  1. Watching Star Trek: The Next Generation
  2. Taking an investigative writing course focusing on climate change

While these two facts seem barely related to this course and even less related to each other, I promise they are very related.

The Pale Blue Dot of Earth
A Pale Blue Dot, courtesy of The Planetary Society

Look at this pale blue dot, “the only home we’ve ever known” as we heard Carl Sagan so elegantly say on the last day of class. “On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” Here it is now, reduced to a small and insignificant speck. How can that not make you start thinking about your life, everyone you know, and everything that’s going to happen in the future? That’s what astronomy does to people.

As I think about being small and mortal, and I can’t help but think about the future. What’s next? How far will we go? How much will see? Will we get to see it? The seed of this wondering was planted by this class. My answer has been pulled in two directions: optimistic and pessimistic. It’s being pulled by two different things: Star Trek and my writing class.

Image result for star trek tng
The cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation

The show Star Trek is, to me, a relic of an older and more optimistic past. It spoke of the fabulous technology we would create and intricate societies we would develop. Compare this to more recently developed shows that take place in the future: they focus instead on dystopian, authoritarian governments and overcoming genocide and environmental disaster. Star Trek is not conflict-free, but all of it rests on the premise that humans get really smart, build really cool ships, and are fundamentally virtuous enough to build important relationships with others in the universe. I’ve been working my way through the show this semester, and can’t help but think about their exciting travels as we talk about exoplanets in class. It all feels so optimistic–there’s so much out there to explore, and here’s a show that lets us see exactly what we could do!

In contrast to this is my other class, where we write about climate change. Sometimes we write about hopeful things like eco-friendly innovations. Most of the time, we write about pessimistic things like past extinctions and the likelihood that the next one (involving us) will be soon. We talk about how many emissions we need to cut down, and how unlikely it is that we will make the necessary changes in time. We talk about bull-headed politicians and greedy corporations and extreme imbalances of power that prevent any real progress from happening. In short, I’ve spent the semester thinking and writing about how utterly doomed humanity is and it all makes me doubt that our civilizations can survive long enough to explore the stars.

This is why the Great Filter theory of the Fermi paradox is so captivating to me. I like to imagine Star Trek: The Next Generation as our future–one full of courage and exploration. Perhaps we already made it past the Great Filter. Maybe there’s a thrilling future ahead where we actually develop the technology necessary to see the universe and realize that there are other civilizations out there. But as I’ve spent the semester researching the complex problem of climate change, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that the Great Filter is still ahead of us, and that it comes in the form of climate change. Will we be able to manage the environmental changes? Or will the instant gratification of more primitive and destructive forms of energy destroy us before we develop from more advanced and sustainable technology.

Depending on the day of the week (and how recently I’ve watched Star Trek) I’m either optimistic or pessimistic about the future. Sometimes, thinking about space is exciting and fun. Sometimes, it’s worrisome and exhausting. All we can do is keep going.

One thought on “A semester wrestling pessimism and optimism

  1. Great post! I think these ideas are something that a lot of astronomers spend time thinking about. Especially if one interpretation of the Fermi Paradox – that creating life is so exceedingly rare that we are one of the only (if not the only) planet with life on it – is true, then we may soon destroy the only planet capable of hosting intelligent life in the whole universe! Although that thought is *extremely* pessimistic, hopefully our potential importance as a planet might also help some people better understand the stakes when it comes to issues like climate change.


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