What Lies Beyond Mars?

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Recently by Butler Shaffer: Where Are the Leprechauns?


I have to admit to having mixed feelings about this week's landing of NASA's research vehicle on Mars. The technological accomplishment as well as the scientific implications of the project impress me. Long before experiencing the guffaws of my junior-high school classmates (in the late 1940s) for arguing that humans would, during my lifetime, walk on the moon, I was interested in the exploration of space. As I grew older, I came to realize that the discoveries that had the greatest meaning for the quality of life were to be found within the unseen, dark side space of the human mind.

I regard mankind's movements into unknown territories — be they geographical or intellectual — as an expression of our spiritual needs for transcendence; for our need to connect up with all of existence. This is what energizes both religious and scientific inquiries into such basic questions as "where did it all come from, where is it all going, and what rules are in place in the present?" I go even further and, drawing upon Frederick Jackson Turner's work, believe that what made early America so free and prosperous was the presence of a relatively unstructured frontier into which creative people could move and exercise their liberty. Beginning, apparently, in Africa, this frontier-seeking behavior was doubtless responsible for sending our pre-historic ancestors on treks from one continent to another; from Asia to North America; from eastern Europe to western Europe; and from Europe (and elsewhere) into the open spaces of the "New World." So considered, mankind's movement from Earth to other worlds may be regarded as a continuation of this process of movement into openness, a phenomenon one finds contributing to the decentralization of cities into the suburbs.

How societies are organized and operate has been such a preoccupation of mine as to temper my enthusiasm for the latest Mars adventure. How this project was undertaken [i.e., by the forcible looting of taxpayers] and by whom [i.e., the corporate-state political establishment], and for what purposes [i.e., to extend the state's powers of coercive control beyond Earth] is most troubling. Had this project been carried out privately — such as by someone like Burt Rutan — I would be cheering the feat. But as with other government projects, there is something annoying in watching a gang of uniformed [they all wore blue shirts] state functionaries whooping and stomping as they celebrated the results of getting to play with other people's involuntarily-taken money.

In a televised interview minutes after the successful landing, one NASA official commented: "it's a great day for America and the world." It is the nature of nearsighted activity to focus on the immediacy of costs and benefits — particularly of projects extending over many years — and to fail to consider the longer-term, unforeseen consequences of what is being done in the present. I suspect that the successful splitting of the atom, and the resulting creation of nuclear weaponry, were celebrated by earlier myopic [and well-intentioned] scientists as "a great day for America and the world."

In a world dominated by material values and the grasping for coercive power to promote such interests, the longer-term implications of politically-directed action tend to get ignored. We live in a world centered around what economists call "short-term time preferences," and those who warn of the consequences of pursuing short-term benefits while disregarding the long-term costs, are dismissed as being "impractical" or driven by "ideology." If you have not yet figured out that the worsening economic mess — including trillions upon trillions of dollars of indebtedness — of Western countries; American Empire expansionist wars against the rest of the world; an ever-more-abusive and surveillant police-state; and the dictatorial powers asserted by presidents who declare their authority to torture, assassinate, and imprison without trial persons of their choosing; are all the long-term consequences that earlier thinkers warned would one day be visited upon future generations [i.e., us!]. That historians have long warned how such practices have brought down past civilizations has been of little interest to people whose temporal range of interest extends no further than inquiries into Olympic medal-counts, or contemplating who will be the next "American Idol."

All of this is a way of emphasizing the importance of engaging in what I call "the art of implicit thinking." The study of chaos informs us that complex systems are unable to satisfy our desires for predictability. But there are probabilities that attend all human activity. A man who drinks a quart of Scotch each day is not certain to develop cirrhosis, but such an affliction is implicit in his behavior, even though he might go on to lead a healthy life.

Atomic scientists could have been more responsible had their work been informed by an awareness of what was implicit in their designing weapons of mass slaughter for the state to employ. The state is defined [see Max Weber] as a system that enjoys a monopoly on the use of violence within a given territory. Such agencies of unrestrained power serve as "attractors" to men and women whose ambitions are centered on their presumed authority to command and control others.

Perhaps those who pursue science and technology on behalf of the state could learn a valuable lesson from earlier scientists who failed to fully understand the character of their employer. The state is nothing more than a mechanism of violence; an apparatus that synthesizes all kinds of destructive, dehumanized, dishonest, anti-life thinking. Such an awareness on the part of those engaging in state-funded genetic research, for instance, might prove beneficial to all of humanity. The long-term consequences of government space programs – with their extra-territorial military implications — should also be considered by persons working in this field. Those who regard such a concern as alarmist might recall the post-doctoral employee of NASA who warned of the possibility of Earth being attacked by forces from another planet, due to our failure to heed the warnings of Al Gore and his "Gang-Green" religionists.

What young minds have not been adequately prepared — by numerous films and television series — to participate in the "Manifest Destiny" of Earth, or Earthly "Exceptionalism"? Today it's Mars; tomorrow the constellation of Andromeda!

Butler Shaffer [send him e-mail] teaches at the Southwestern University School of Law. He is the author of the newly-released In Restraint of Trade: The Business Campaign Against Competition, 1918–1938, Calculated Chaos: Institutional Threats to Peace and Human Survival, and Boundaries of Order. His latest book is The Wizards of Ozymandias.

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