Imagining the Anthropocene on Other Planets
Christopher Schaberg on Searching for Ourselves Beyond Earth
Julien received a microscope for his eighth birthday. During a rainstorm shortly thereafter, he dashed outside with a measuring cup and scooped a few tablespoons of water from a puddle in our small yard.
He brought the water back in and placed a few drops on a slide, and then Scotch-taped another slide to the top. (This was rough science.) He spent the next hour looking through the microscope, seeing what he could see: dirt particulates, plant material, and maybe even small living things squirming around—proof of another world right outside and under our feet, replete with its own real creatures!
A week later, I noticed that the slide was still there on his microscope. I asked him about it, and he told me that the creatures were dead. Julien asked me if we could look up what the microscopic things were, now that they were lying there dead—and I sort of fumbled, not knowing how to even start. These expired, miniscule aliens were beyond my immediate grasp, much less my paygrade as a mere English professor.
I managed to distract him with another project, but the slide remains in his room, waiting for further examination. Proof of life out there—somewhere beyond and beneath all the garish surfaces of the Anthropocene.
What motivates a search for another world? What can come from it, and where can it go wrong? Here is Friedrich Nietzsche beginning his 1873 essay “On Truth & Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense”:
In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. That was the highest and most mendacious minute of “world history”—yet only a minute. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die.
One might invent such a fable and still not have illustrated sufficiently how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened. For this intellect has no further mission that would lead beyond human life. It is human, rather, and only its owner and producer gives it such importance, as if the world pivoted around it. But if we could communicate with the mosquito, then we would learn that he floats through the air with the same self-importance, feeling within itself the flying center of the world. There is nothing in nature so despicable or insignificant that it cannot immediately be blown up like a bag by a slight breath of this power of knowledge; and just as every porter wants an admirer, the proudest human being, the philosopher, thinks that he sees on the eyes of the universe telescopically focused from all sides on his actions and thoughts.
Nietzsche is hinting at the ensnarled problems of the Anthropocene, this odd blend of confident myopia and cosmic insignificance that defines our species. I wonder about other attempts to think cosmically and in scalar ways about the Anthropocene. I see traces of this in so many unlikely objects and weird texts—they beckon to me, keys to the Anthropocene.
For instance, take the 1989 film Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, directed by Joe Johnston. The setup for this movie involves an inventor, Wayne Zelinski, played by Rick Moranis, who has created a machine that can shrink things. Zelinski is trying to sell the device to NASA, to benefit space exploration—and to bring him fame and fortune (things at home are on the rocks).
During his presentation at a quasi-academic conference we hear Zelinski claim, “… and given that my machine can substantially reduce the size of bulky payloads and fuel supplies, the savings to the space program would be staggering.” The audience guffaws in disbelief, and our would-be world-changer is made to pack up his box of scientific props and schlep it away in shame.
In the meantime, Zelinski’s kids are playing at home and end up getting inadvertently shrunk—along with the two kids from next door. The shrinking machine works after all. The bulk of the film involves the four children re-experiencing the Zelinski’s backyard as a different world.If the Anthropocene is frustrating as a concept, it is in part because of the relentless backward spiral it always takes at some point along the way.
This other world appears because of the profound shift in scale: a bee becomes an unexpected and erratic airplane; a lost cookie becomes manna from heaven; an ant becomes a surprisingly sure mode of transportation; a rivulet of dog pee becomes a river, and a found Lego brick becomes a safe, unexpected shelter. The kids are on another world, in their own backyard. Adapting to the Anthropocene means being ready to see the detritus of modern life anew, to reassess the space it takes up and potentially its use value.
The more recent film Interstellar, too, involves a radical scale shift—if across more astronomical dimensions of time and space. The drama of this film hinges on fantastic space voyages to remote, potentially habitable planets, via a wormhole.
But somewhat undercutting the space journey in Interstellar is the strange moment at the end, the most visually compelling part of the film, the tesseract, wherein Matthew McConaughey’s astronaut Joseph Cooper becomes a homunculus floating behind the books on an ordinary bookshelf—out in deep space but simultaneously back on earth, too.
Forget about the dark side of the moon: the dark side of the bookshelf becomes a bizarre, alien landscape—page leafs flapping in the faintest zephyrs. Cooper floats there trying to figure out where he is in the order of things, only to gradually realize that he is behind books—books on a familiar bookshelf. But the bookshelf has become uncanny, off scale, and in the wrong context. A cosmic warp in the space–time continuum is the cause of this trippy scene, but still, Interstellar curiously relies on a topographic trick similar to Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. The other world ends up being the interior space of a young girl’s bedroom, and the walls of books turn out to be a place to explore in miniature, and exploded in fractals. This is a terrain rife with secret codes, unfamiliar textures, and mysterious lifeforms.
Given the STEAMy vibes of Interstellar (STEAM is STEM with the Arts added after Engineering), it is almost certain that one of the books on those shelves is Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, a paragon of this narrative spiral maneuver. Shelley posits a “creature” out there only to bring the reader relentlessly back to the weird textures of reading the book in front of them and in their hands. The agitated Robert Walton writes letters to his sister Margaret Saville along his journey to discover a north passage across the pole. Victor Frankenstein shows up, and relays to Robert (and thus to Margaret, and to us readers) the story of creating his monster—but this story is continually interrupted by interior tales, snippets of poetry, the creature’s own narrative, and other interspersed missives.
At one point, Victor is recounting a letter that he received in which his father explains how he is about to deliver some terrible news: at the beginning of the letter Victor’s father acknowledges that he is deferring and delaying, and yet how, “even now your eye skims over the page, to seek the words which are to convey to you the horrible tidings” (95).
We end up reading about ourselves in the deep recesses of the novel. Reading Frankenstein becomes something like Interstellar, or rather something like Honey, I shrunk the novel. Shelley pulls the reader far into this nested narrative adventure only to expose the phenomenology of reading as an awkward, shared baseline—anticipating, as it were, Cooper’s own metaphysical reencounter with the bookshelves in his daughter’s room.
If the Anthropocene is frustrating as a concept, it is in part because of the relentless backward spiral it always takes at some point along the way. We start off talking about icebergs or coral reefs or species extinction, rising sea levels and atmospheric levels—and next thing you know we’re examining our own most mundane habits: the cup I’m drinking from, the daily conundrums of how to dispose of trash, what can be recycled or composted, and what will remain … the horror of dryer sheets, the hang-ups in our minds. Yet some of these hang-ups don’t pose themselves as hang-ups, but rather as fantasy and fun. But with the Anthropocene in mind, we can work with that, too.
For me one of the most enjoyable aspects of the Star Wars franchise is seeing how the other distant worlds reflect or reference our own planet: the forest moon of Endor, with its giant redwoods, the utopia of a green world in perfect balance, with cuddly creatures to boot; the desert planets of Tatooine and Jakku, reminding us of our own expansive, arid environs, just barely habitable, and yet sublime, too; the icy climes of Hoth, and the Starkiller base, arctic regions that would have made Robert Walton himself swoon. Or Dagobah, that bayou country where Yoda lives, a place that looks eerily like my own backyard: home to aliens of varying times and scales.
Weirdly, in the Star Wars films it seems as though the more familiar the planets are, the more delightfully alluring they become—and the more gripping the action that ensues there. It is no mere coincidence that the final battle in the spinoff film Rogue One ends on a planet that basically resembles a Caribbean paradise. To keep laser fights interesting, simply add a beach. When war becomes a destination, this might be another symptom of the Anthropocene at full tilt—or nearing its disastrous end.
It is as if we know deep down that this place “in a galaxy far, far away” is in fact right here: the other world is the one we’re already exploring, plundering—even ruining.
Another minor detail in Rogue One evinces this point. The new ship introduced in Rogue One, the U-Wing, was in fact inspired by and loosely modeled after the Bell Huey helicopter. The Huey is an “armed escort” gunship originally introduced by the US Army during the Vietnam War, typically outfitted with rocket launchers, machine guns, and grenade launchers. Even though the Star Wars films are full of combat, we seem suddenly very far from the Romantic landscapes of Endor or Hoth.
Here we find a Mobius strip between the other, sci-fi world far, far away, and a terrible era on our own planet: the ramping up of the mechanization of doom, the becoming-blurry spectrum between conflict and war, active Empire and the imperial imagination. The other world is one where we’ve been before, a planet on which we’re all troublingly entangled. What is both enamoring and disturbing about the Star Wars films—and I think what makes some people not even ever want to see them, in the first place—is the close proximity to our own foibles. Star Wars is really a protracted story about the Anthropocene, about a human penchant for destroying planets. How else are we to understand the destructive magnitude of the Death Star, or its only slightly revivified iteration as the Starkiller Base?
Fantasies of space travel and domination are all too near, these days. Musk’s Space X continues to successfully launch more Falcon rockets, sending satellites and other test pods into orbit while managing quite impressively to land its reusable boosters.
Meanwhile Virgin Galactic continues to develop and test the SpaceShip Two, a traditionally piloted craft that promises to take the ultra-wealthy into the edges of Earth’s atmosphere for a few minutes of viewing pleasure. Here is Virgin Galactic’s founder Richard Branson in a 2018 New Yorker article, explaining in pithy form his rationale for such costly and privileged endeavors: “I believe that, once people have gone to space, they come back with renewed enthusiasm to try and tackle what is happening on this planet.”
But what is happening on this planet? It’s the Anthropocene, and it’s something that humans will take with them wherever they go. It’s in the oceans and in the atmosphere above us, and it’s spewing out of our exhaust pipes and even in our backyard, too.
We’ve been coming back to this planet, for millennia—and we’re not exactly “tackling” our self-made challenges with collective enthusiasm or shared vision. Mary Shelley explored this dilemma in her infamous novel of whorled creations and creators, 200 years ago: the creature, whoever that is, is left “in darkness and distance”— but intimately among us, as well. Our visions of the otherworldly twist back onto where we are—always already on the other world.
It is no wonder that Musk’s SpaceX program evokes comparisons to Boeing aircraft in their marketing material. To grasp the relative size of the Falcon Heavy, we have to make recourse to our regular old airliners, those grubby, germ-filled tubes that roar overhead hour upon hour, day after day, belching emissions into the atmosphere. Air travel is itself another world that we frequent and which freaks us out—especially when we’re stuck in the midst of a long delay or cascade of weather cancellations. There’s nothing more distressing than feeling stranded at the airport, sleep deprived and stretched out across painful armrests.
Or even worse, on the taxiway while your plane just sits there, with no information, no idea of what will happen. An hour in this weird place can feel like an eternity, like being suspended in a black hole. Move over Matthew McConaughey.
David Bowie may have once wondered if there was life on Mars, but are we even sure there is life on the ordinary airport tarmac? I mean, isn’t it somehow telling that of all the big fixes Elon Musk has tackled—electric cars, a tunnel under L.A., trips to Mars—he won’t touch airports? These places are utterly alien to us!
And yet still we hasten on, flying more and more each year, directly accelerating the Anthropocene. Air travel churns on, and to question it is to question all of modernity.
From Searching for the Anthropocene by Christopher Schaberg. Used with the permission of Bloomsbury. Copyright © 2019 by Christopher Schaberg.
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