Archive for June 26, 2012

Scientific American, May 25, 2012

Climate scientists think a perfect storm of climate “flips” could cause massive upheavals in a matter of years

Adapted from The Fate of the Species: Why the Human Race May Cause Its Own Extinction and How We Can Stop It, by Fred Guterl (Bloomsbury USA, 2012).

The eminent British scientist James Lovelock, back in the 1970s, formulated his theory of Gaia, which held that the Earth was a kind of super organism. It had a self-regulating quality that would keep everything within that narrow band that made life possible. If things got too warm or too cold—if sunlight varied, or volcanoes caused a fall in temperatures, and so forth—Gaia would eventually compensate. This was a comforting notion. It was also wrong, as Lovelock himself later concluded. “I have to tell you, as members of the Earth’s family and an intimate part of it, that you and especially civilization are in grave danger,” he wrote in the Independent in 2006.

The world has warmed since those heady days of Gaia, and scientists have grown gloomier in their assessment of the state of the world’s climate. NASA climate scientist James Hanson has warned of a “Venus effect,” in which runaway warming turns Earth into an uninhabitable desert, with a surface temperature high enough to melt lead, sometime in the next few centuries. Even Hanson, though, is beginning to look downright optimistic compared to a new crop of climate scientists, who fret that things could head south as quickly as a handful of years, or even months, if we’re particularly unlucky. Ironically, some of them are intellectual offspring of Lovelock, the original optimist gone sour.

The true gloomsters are scientists who look at climate through the lens of “dynamical systems,” a mathematics that describes things that tend to change suddenly and are difficult to predict. It is the mathematics of the tipping point—the moment at which a “system” that has been changing slowly and predictably will suddenly “flip.” The colloquial example is the straw that breaks that camel’s back. Or you can also think of it as a ship that is stable until it tips too far in one direction and then capsizes. In this view, Earth’s climate is, or could soon be, ready to capsize, causing sudden, perhaps catastrophic, changes. And once it capsizes, it could be next to impossible to right it again.

The idea that climate behaves like a dynamical system addresses some of the key shortcomings of the conventional view of climate change—the view that looks at the planet as a whole, in terms of averages. A dynamical systems approach, by contrast, consider climate as a sum of many different parts, each with its own properties, all of them interdependent in ways that are hard to predict.

One of the most productive scientists in applying dynamical systems theory to climate is Tim Lenton at the University of East Anglia in England. Lenton is a Lovelockian two generations removed— his mentors were mentored by Lovelock. “We are looking quite hard at past data and observational data that can tell us something,” says Lenton. “Classical case studies in which you’ve seen abrupt changes in climate data. For example, in the Greenland ice-core records, you’re seeing climate jump. And the end of the Younger Dryas,” about fifteen thousand years ago, “you get a striking climate change.” So far, he says, nobody has found a big reason for such an abrupt change in these past events—no meteorite or volcano or other event that is an obvious cause—which suggests that perhaps something about the way these climate shifts occur simply makes them sudden.

Lenton is mainly interested in the future. He has tried to look for things that could possibly change suddenly and drastically even though nothing obvious may trigger them. He’s come up with a short list of nine tipping points—nine weather systems, regional in scope, that could make a rapid transition from one state to another.

Each year, the sun shines down on the dark surface of the Indian Ocean, and moist, warm air rises and forms clouds. This rising heat and the moisture form a powerful weather system, a natural pump that pulls up water and moves it in vast quantities hundreds of miles to the mainland. This is the Indian monsoon, which deposits rainfall on thousands of square miles of farmland. About a billion people, most of them poor, depend for their daily bread on crops that depend in turn on the reliability and regularity of the Indian monsoons.

India is a rapidly developing country with hundreds of millions of citizens who want to move into the middle class, drive cars and cool their homes with air-conditioning. It is also a country of poor people, many who still rely on burning agricultural waste to heat their homes and cook their suppers. Smoke from household fires has been a big source of pollution in the subcontinent, and it could disrupt the monsoons, too. The soot from these fires and from automobiles and buses in the ever more crowded cities rises into the atmosphere and drifts out over the Indian Ocean, changing the atmospheric dynamics upon which the monsoons depend. Aerosols (soot) keep much of the sun’s energy from reaching the surface, which means the monsoon doesn’t get going with the same force and takes longer to gather up a head of steam. Less rain makes it to crops.

At the same time, the buildup of greenhouse gases, coming mainly from developed countries in the northern hemisphere, has a very different effect on the Indian summer monsoons: it acts to make them stronger.

These two opposite influences make the fate of the monsoon difficult to predict and subject to instability. A small influence—a bit more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and a bit more brown haze—could have an out- size effect. Lenton believes that the monsoons could flip from one state to another as quickly as one year. What happens then is not a question that Lenton can answer with certainty, but he foresees two possibilities.

One is that the monsoons grow in force and intensity, but come less frequently. We have already seen hints of this in the newspapers. In the last few years rains have grown erratic and less frequent, but when they do come, they tend to dump an enormous amount of water, and in places where they wouldn’t normally do so. This is almost as bad for farmers as drought, since the rain falls on parched ground with extra force, and much of it runs off without soaking into the ground, and it causes damage to boot by washing away soil and plants. The flooding that devastated Pakistan in 2011 is a case in point. If this trend continued and strengthened in intensity, it would be bad news for the two thirds of the Indian workforce that depends on farming. It would be nasty for the Indian economy—agriculture accounts for 25 percent of GDP. A permanently erratic and harsh monsoon would depress crop yields, increase erosion on farms, and cause a rise in global food prices as India is forced to import more food.

The other possibility is even worse: the monsoons could shut down entirely. This would be an unmitigated catastrophe. A sudden stopping of monsoon rain, which accounts for 80 percent of rainfall in India, could throw a billion people into danger of starvation. It would change the Indian landscape, wiping out native species of plants and animals, force farms into bankruptcy, and exacerbate water shortages that are already creating conflict. The Indian government would almost certainly be unable to cope with a disaster of such proportions. Refugees by the hundreds of millions would stream into big cities such as Mumbai and Bangalore, looking for some hope of survival. It would create a humanitarian crisis of unprecedented proportions. Lenton foresees a similar danger of sudden change in the West African monsoon, the second tipping point.

Tipping point number three in Lenton’s list is the sea ice of the north pole. For years the ice has been thinning and retreating more and more during the summer. Soon it may disappear completely during the summer months. We may already have reached this tipping point—a transition to a new state in which the north pole is ice-free during summer months is already at hand. Eventually the north pole may flip and be free of ice year-round. The knock-on effects of such a transition would be huge—they would cause marked increase of warming at the pole, since open water absorbs more of the sun’s energy than ice-covered seas. The effect of a year-round ice-free north pole would be like heating Greenland on a skillet.

The fourth tipping point is Greenland’s glaciers, which hold enough water to cause sea levels to rise by more than twenty feet. It takes a while for that much ice to melt, of course. Currently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projections say it will take on the order of a thou- sand years. Scientists currently don’t have a good handle on how such a big hunk of ice melts. For plenty of reasons it could happen much more quickly—recent observations suggest that the melting has not only exceeded what models predict, but has also begun to accelerate. A marked retreat of ice in coastal areas has led to an infusion of ocean water, which is relatively warm and promotes melting.

All this leads Lenton to conclude that the Greenland ice sheets could make a transition to an alternate state in three hundred years, rather than a thousand or more. Such a quick melting of Greenland would have a knock-on effect on the ocean currents that run up the Atlantic, bringing warmth to northern Europe and Scandinavia, the Atlantic thermohaline circulation. A sudden change in this current could plunge much of Europe back into an ice age. Scientists were getting nervous about this possibility a few years ago, until further research suggested that any switch in current is a long way off—perhaps a thousand years off. Lenton argues that an accelerated melting of Greenland would throw more freshwater on the northern Atlantic than these reassuring calculations have taken into account. “The canary in the coal mine is the Arctic losing its summer sea-ice cover,” says Lenton. “I am really worried about the Greenland ice sheet. It’s already losing mass and shrinking.”

If Greenland flipped into a completely ice-free state, it would cause massive rises in sea level—on the order of six or seven meters. Even if this took three hundred years to happen, “it would be an absolute disaster,” says Lenton, “a real game changer.” At such a rate of sea-level rise, it would be- come more and more difficult to protect coastlines. Low-lying areas would have to be abandoned. That includes cities such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Tokyo, and Hong Kong, not to mention the entire state of Florida and vast swaths of Indochina.

Tipping point number six—the west Antarctic ice sheet—is even scarier. It has enough ice on it to raise sea levels by about eighty meters. The ice is melting, but slowly—most worst-case scenarios give the ice centuries to melt. But there are some niggling doubts about whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could calve into the sea more quickly than expected, as the glaciers contract. If that happened, it would push sea levels up by five meters in as short a time as a century. Most experts consider this unlikely, but if it did happen, Lenton thinks the sheet could flip in as little time as three hundred years—three times faster than most models predict.

Water and ice aren’t the only worries. The Amazon rain forest, the seventh of Lenton’s tipping points, is also in jeopardy. Rain forests are always pretty wet, but they have dry seasons, and those dry seasons turn out to be a limiting factor on the survival of flora and fauna. As loggers reduce the number of trees that produce moisture to feed the gathering rains, the drier the dry seasons get, and the longer they last. Lately dry seasons in the Amazon have gotten more severe and have put a crimp on the survival of many of the trees that form the forest canopy, which is the backbone of the rain-forest ecosystem. As the dry season continues to lengthen, the flora draw more and more water from the soil, which eventually begins to dry out. The trees get stressed and begin to die. There’s more fodder on the forest floor for wildfires. This is not hypothetical; it’s already begun to happen. We saw this during the estimated twelve thousand wildfires that occurred in the Amazon during the drought of 2010. As the forest loses more and more trees, it loses its ability to feed the weather patterns with warm, moist air.

If and when the Amazon flips into a drier state, it would have an big effect of weather patterns. The Amazon is basically a big spot of wet tropics. Knock out the trees and lose that moist air, and the regional circulation pattern changes as well. A similar flip could occur in Canada’s boreal forests (tipping point number eight). A die-off of these forests would release much of the 50 billion to 100 billion tons of carbon now trapped in permafrost.

The basic weather patterns that we’ve grown used to on weather maps are also subject to rapid change. Among them is what’s called El Niño– Southern Oscillation—the ninth and last of Lenton’s tipping points. El Niño involves movement of a blob of warm water on the west side of the Pacific Ocean toward the east, bringing with it moist warm air. When this warm water cools and circulates back westward, El Niño comes to an end and La Niña begins. These two patterns alternate roughly every five years. From observations, scientists have begun to see a more erratic trade-off between these two patterns. They fret that the weather patterns could flip to some different state—perhaps a more frequent switching off between the patterns. That would have a detrimental effect on the Amazon, says Lenton, exacerbating trends that already threaten to destroy the rain forest.

The real nightmare scenario is when all these changes begin to rein- force one another. The Arctic loses its summer sea ice, causing Greenland’s ice to melt and encouraging the boreal forests to change as well. The freshwater runoff changes the thermohaline dynamics and affects the jet stream. The El Niño–Southern Oscillation and the Amazon interact in such a way as to reinforce one another, perhaps affecting the monsoon in India and Africa. “It wouldn’t be such a silly thing to say that if you meddle with one, you might affect the other,” says Lenton. “Which direction the causality would go is not always obvious. We know it’s connected, we know it’s nonlinear, we know they somehow couple together. When you see one change, you see changes in the other.”

“Then we start talking about domino dynamics,” says Lenton. “The worse case would be that kind of scenario in which you tip one thing and that encourages the tipping of another. You get these cascading effects.”

It would take a perfect storm of climate flips to get us to this particular worst-case scenario. If it does come to pass, however, at least it will happen quickly.


Steven Best

 “We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shore of  the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars.” Carl Sagan

 All inquiries carry with them some element of risk. There is no guarantee that the universe will conform to our predispositions” Carl Sagan

 A fascinating part of the postmodern adventure – the dynamic changes wrought by science, technology, and capitalism that bring mutations in modern thought and society of the last few centuries — is the longing for contact with other planets and extraterrestrial life.[1] As is clear from events at Roswell, New Mexico, during 1947; from a surfeit of books and movies about aliens and UFO conspiracies; from the craze over films like ET (1982) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977); from the popularity of TV shows such as The X-Files; from fascination with “ET Highway” and the mysterious Area 51 in Nevada; and from UFOphilic cult groups like Heaven’s Gate, people are weary of lackluster positivism and blockbuster films. Sometimes, when people want real adventure, only aliens will do. Space aliens are the ultimate spectacle, one that an increasing number of people generate for themselves in their inspired longings and imaginations, and there is endless fascination with UFO sightings, alien abductions, and the possibility of life on Mars and other planets. The entertainment industries and mass media feed off and perpetuate this frenzy through movies such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), Alien (1979), Prometheus (2012) and shows like Unsolved Mysteries and Sightings.

Space aliens are the ultimate “Others,” and thereby prompt reflection on the nature of Homo sapiens. Since H.G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds (1898), its frightening radio adaptation by Orson Wells (1938) that sent the nation scurrying in panic, and its popular movie translations (1953, 2005), sci-fi representations have depicted aliens as either benign beings who come to rescue us from social and ecological disaster, as one finds in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), or as malicious monsters whose goal is to enslave humanity or destroy the earth, as represented in Independence Day (1996). These antithetical attitudes stem from a psychological ambivalence human beings have relating to alterity of any kind, earthly or otherwise, and also to their repressed guilt over their own violent and destructive past.[2]

Independence Day, for example, puts human guilt and anxiety on blatant display, as a hoard of malevolent, super-intelligent aliens arrive to colonize the earth to sustain their bloated populations and energy-sucking technologies. If the scenario sounds familiar, it should, for Independence Day is an allegory of what human beings have done to other animal species and the earth for the last ten thousand years, by colonizing land, exterminating species, and devouring natural resources to fuel its ever-expanding empire, population growth, and energy addiction. Independence Day is a veiled anthropomorphic projection of our own murderous, ravaging, and destructive lifeways from our existence onto other-worldly creatures who live to kill and kill to live. In fact, we (humankind generally, but mostly western capitalist cultures) are the parasites who wantonly consume and kill to support our Promethean, growth-oriented, fossil-fuel addicted societies. We are the butchers and bloodsuckers who slice apart billions of bodies and drain the marrow from the earth to support unsustainable lifestyles. We are the aliens estranged from our fellow species and earthly home, We are the parasites drowning in our own wastes and toxic chemicals, as we bulldoze rainforests to feed cattle and replace natural environments with synthetic worlds of glass, steel, and concrete. We are the destroyers, but we have nowhere to run and cannot escape from the collapsing carapace of industrial capitalism and runaway climate change.

In many ways, aliens are the new opiate of the people, fantasies of the gullible who leap from any seeming shred of evidence to a devout belief in the existence of extraterrestrial life. The belief in aliens is not necessarily irrational, however; as scientists like Stephen Hawking, Stuart Kaufmann, and Carl Sagan accept the possibility or even likelihood of cosmic intelligence, and astronomer Frank Drake worked out a formula to estimate the number of detectable civilizations in the Milky Way galaxy. “Drake’s equation” inspired the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Project that began in the 1960s, lured Sagan’s enthusiastic support first in 1980, and ultimately can be traced back to the Nikola Testla’s pioneering use of radio signals to contact extraterrestrial life in 1899.[3] Whether UFOs are real or not, much of the present craze is fuelled by distrust of the US government and a predilection toward conspiracy theories, such that any official denial of UFOS and alien abductions only encourages some people to believe that it must be true.

For scientists like Carl Sagan, however, contact has been a lifelong desire and no one has done more than he to popularize science and to promote extraterrestrial research. Sagan sought both to advance astronomy through technical means and to communicate with a popular audience with cosmic poetry and by awakening wonder. Where most of his peers would not deign to speak to the lay audience, wrote in execrable technical jargon, and rigidly divorced facts from values as they raked in cash from corporate grants and affirmed the technical mastery of nature, Sagan was a public intellectual who explained astronomy in stimulating terms and made general concepts of science interesting and assessable to the public through his popular books and films.[4]


Sailing the Stars

 “We have heard so far the voice of life on one small world only. But we have at last begun to listen for other voices in the cosmic fugue.” Carl Sagan

Sagan does not use postmodern discourse that we have made sharp breaks in thought, culture, and history from the classical modern period of the eighteenth through the mid or late twentieth century, but clearly he sees the post-1960s era of space travel era as a qualitatively different stage in the modern project of discovery, exploration, and adventure, since “this is the epoch in which we began our journey to the stars.”[5] I myself see space travel as part of the postmodern, rather than modern, adventure, in that, for the first time, human beings fly not only within the planet’s atmosphere, but also beyond it, having broken free of “gravity’s rainbow” (Thomas Pynchon) and earthly constraints in movement and possibilities. Humanity is venturing toward other planets to inhabit and colonize other worlds, perhaps altering the course of human evolution. Indeed, as the modern adventure unfolded in an era of rapid and dramatic discoveries; of bold new mappings of the land, sea, and stars; of startling scientific paradigm shifts; and of rapidly accelerating technological innovation hastening the pace of social change generally and altering life forms and human identities, the postmodern adventure is a continuation of this discovery, voyaging, and transformative process through a mapping of the Milky Way Galaxy and beyond. The term “astronaut” (Gr.: astron, star, and nautikos, ship) literally means one who sails the sea of stars. Yet this continuation of modern exploration dynamics is so qualitatively different, and has such more consequential implications, that it is best understand as a postmodern adventure.

Sagan traces a direct line from Columbus and other early voyagers who sailed the seas and explored new lands — space technicians and astronauts venturing into the sea of stars: “The Voyager spacecrafts are the linear descendants of those sailing-ship voyages of [early modern] exploration.”[6] As Sagan emphasizes, we have already become multiplanet travelers with earth as our home base. Standing on the shores of the cosmic ocean, Sagan feels we should take the plunge into the unknown. This, for Sagan, is the next big human adventure, one that frees us from the shackles of the earth to explore other planets, to build space colonies, to journey to the outer edges of the galaxy and perhaps beyond, as we shift toward post-geocentric, multiplanet identities, such as dramatized in the television and film series Star Trek.

The postmodern adventure would have as profound an impact on human identity as did modern explorations centuries earlier. The exploration of the cosmos, Sagan points out, is a voyage of self-discovery, a cosmic genealogy since we are ultimately born from the stars, beings “starstuff gathering starlight.” When life develops eyes and ears, the cosmos sees and hears; when it develops thought and intelligence, we become, as in a fantastic Hegelian evolution, the cosmos reflecting on itself. But the history of human thinking, as Nietzsche points out, is the history of crude errors, and the falsehoods and lies that prove most useful to life, such as which posit the existence of a God, the soul, the afterlife, and our privileged place on this planet and cosmic narrative. These delusions to which we cling tenaciously, as they soothe our fears, assuage our vanities, and transform our insignificance and nothingness into a sublime drama that enthrones us as the center of ,meaning and value.            

Unlike ancient times, Sagan notes, when everyday life was intimately connected to the celestial sphere, humans living in technoscientific culture have grown so distant from the starry firmament that the infinite space and beyond the earth’s stratosphere seems remote and irrelevant to human life. Focused on building dominator cultures, exploiting other species, and commandeering the earth without restraint or sense of limit, humanity has evolved from humility to hubris, as speciesist and anthropocentric philosophers, theologians, and scientists sunder us from our origins, strip us of our deep interrelationships with other species and embeddedness in and dependency on the ecological foundations of the biocommunity, while expounding endlessly on the twaddle of human uniqueness, destiny, and supremacy.

“Present global culture,” Sagan states, “is a kind of arrogant newcomer. It arrives on the planetary stage following four and a half billion years of other acts, and after looking around for a few thousand years declares itself in possession of eternal truths.”[7]  In his role as SETI enthusiast, Sagan looks not within human society for a revolution in ethics, values, and social institutions, but rather in the other-worldly realm. For he champions the idea that contact with an extraterrestrial civilization would lead to “a profound deprovincialization of the human condition.”[8] It is likely, Sagan believes, that the Watson we might speak to on the other end of the cosmic phone would be far more intelligent and technologically advanced than us, such that we could not but be humbled by our limited minds and relatively primitive technologies. As Rachel Carson, author of the environmental classic, Silent Spring (1963), emphasized, we are still in the Paleolithic stage of science, benighted by our ignorance of ecology and lack of eco-wisdom.         

Breaking decisively from the will to power that deeply informs scientific “neutrality,” Sagan hopes to overcome humanist arrogance, to foster respect for life, and to promote “contact” on a number of levels, not only between humans and extraterrestrial species, but between scientists and the lay public, and amongst scientists themselves. Sagan feels that the present is a time of great danger but also profound opportunity. The danger is that human beings have not learned to direct scientific and technological powers toward peaceful and ecologically-sustainable modes of life; the opportunity is that humanity stands on the threshold of a potential evolutionary advance whereby they could overcome destructive histories and mindsets as speciesism, anthropocentrism, xenophobia, and tribalism, and thereby significantly broaden the boundaries of the ethical community.[9] Indeed, Sagan’s book, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980) and Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), is an extended critique of human supremacism, hubris, and alienation, accompanied by a call to dismantle destructive technologies such as nuclear weapons, to end the practice of warfare, to reconnect our isolated existence with the earth and the vast independent, interrelated biocommunity nature.[10]

Unlike eco-primitivists who reject the secular religion that links “progress” to advances in science and technology and long for a return to Paleolithic hunting and gathering cultures, Sagan feels we need more, not less, science to extricate humanity from the mire of self-destruction: “The present epoch is a major crossroads for our civilization and perhaps for our species. Whatever road we take, our fate is indissociably bound up with science. It is essential as a matter of simple survival for us to understand science.”[11] Specifically, Sagan believes that advancing space travel would facilitate overcoming human chauvinism. By learning our place in the cosmos at large, by understanding our cosmic roots, by realizing that we live together on one fragile planet with artificial national boundaries, Sagan hopes we might develop more peaceful and sustainable societies.

If nothing else, Sagan argues, contact with extraterrestrial life would teach us that it is possible for advanced technological civilizations to endure; beyond that, such civilizations might offer important knowledge about how we might survive our own suicidal technocapitalism. A satellite-mediated contact would mean “that someone has learned to live with high technology, that it is possible to survive technological adolescence. That alone, quite apart from the contents of the message, provides a powerful justification for the search for other civilizations.”[12] It would mean, in other words, that there is no inherent logic of technological destruction, no necessary path, as Theodor Adorno put it, from the slingshot to the atom bomb, and that human beings can develop sciences and technologies that are advanced, sustainable, peaceful, and life-promoting, instruments of Eros rather than destructive forces of Thanatos. Other scientists, however, disagree, and speculate that we have not encountered advanced extraterrestrials because none successfully survived the challenges posed by technologies far more advanced than the consciousness that spawned them.


Vegans: Space Aliens, Compassionate Earthlings, or Lifestyle Narcissists?

 “Once intelligent beings achieve capacity for self-destruction, the selective advantage of intelligence becomes more uncertain.” Carl Sagan

Sagan’s novel Contact (1985) and its film adaptation (1997) concerns the struggles Dr. Ellie Arroway encounters in her passionate search for extraterrestrial intelligence. A brilliant scientist with a promising career, she has marginalized herself by focusing on issues considered disreputable by many of her peers. But when contact is actually made, her beliefs are vindicated and the position of Homo sapiens – as the only alleged thinking beings in the universe — is changed irrevocably.

Able to decode “the message” from outer space, scientists realize that it is a blueprint for constructing a machine for rapid space (and perhaps time) travel. The machine is built, and Ellie and her team make contact, but their entire trip and conversation takes only twenty minutes. Lacking evidence that their dialogue with aliens were real, their testimony is rejected by a committee of their peers. We are left to wonder for ourselves whether her encounter was real or imagined, what possibilities for communication with aliens exist in real life, and the implications such contact might have for human beings.

Contact is a literary mapping of Sagan’s scientific ideas. Both the book and film versions dramatize encounters with a vastly superior cosmic intelligence and prompt reflection on the limitations of science and human understanding, and the fragility of life on the “pale blue dot.”[13] Contact is a symptom that human beings and the scientific community are starting to raise seriously the question: are we alone? The fact that NASA has sent cosmic messages in a radio-satellite bottle shows that there is at least some belief in the possibility of alien life.

Following Sagan’s scenario (where the first images aliens picked up were those of a Hitler rally), it is somewhat amusing and embarrassing to consider that the messages that might be received are not those representing our greatest achievements in science, philosophy, and art, but rather the most insipid products of (in particular) American mass culture. If aliens were to receive the sounds and images of The Bachelorette, The Jerry Springer Show, The Rush Limbaugh Show, The Glen Beck Program, and Wheel of Fortune, rather than the dialogues of Plato, the sonatas of Mozart, the sensitivities of Romantic poets, and the equations of Einstein, they might wonder, indeed, if there is intelligent life on earth and pass us by.

The highly evolved cosmic beings Sagan describes are from planet Vega, and thus could legitimately be called “Vegans.” Is it merely a coincidence that “vegans” are also earthlings who are considered utterly alien to human cultures dominated by speciesism (for ten thousand years at least) and flesh-eating (a tradition stretching back millions of years)? Isn’t it the case that for the vast majority of humanity vegans are perceived and treated as if they are from another galaxy? And thus are shunned, ridiculed, and ostracized. Why is it that vegans are treated with contempt, mistrust, and disrespect, whereas liberal cultures, at least, seem to better tolerate other forms of difference and deviate/from the norm? Among other reasons, ethical vegans are vilified  because they raise repressed feelings of guilt in  carnivores, because implicitly or explicitly they stand in judgment against those whose trivial pleasures are satisfied through the torture and death of others, because they challenge the speciesist assumptions that animals are mere resources for humans to use for their purposes and thus call into question human supremacy, and because they exclude themselves in the most basic of human rituals, which is to consume the corpse of murdered animals in the company of others.

Sagan says nothing about the diet of the Vegans — indeed, they seem to be disembodied spirits — but their level of wisdom, spiritual insight, care for the world, and compassion is something for which every ethically and philosophically oriented vegetarian here on earth should strive, and in principle represent. In practice, however, while vegans may have made huge changes in their diet and relation to animals, this does not translate into personal spiritual growth or interpersonal relations in general, as vegans retain every perfidious habit, truculent trait, and abominable behavior toward other humans as corpse consumers, In fact, with their religious-style vegangelicism, their moral fundamentalism, their facile one-dimensional “solutions” to complex problems, and their cultish cultures, vegans can be more flawed in their humanity that those upon whom they heap criticism. This, the main thing earthly vegans have in common with cosmic Vegans is the status of alterity and being “alien” to the earth and its dominant cultures and ideologies.


The Politics of Science

“We humans have already precipitated extinctions of species on a scale unprecedented since the end of the Cretaceous Period. But only in the last decade has the magnitude of these extinctions become clear, and the possibility raised that in our ignorance of the interrelations of life on Earth we may be endangering our own future.” Carl Sagan

Much of Contact concerns the politics of science, the competitive forces behind scientific discovery, and the hegemony of patriarchy in the scientific world. Contact also takes on the theme of the conflict between religious faith and science, , as well as a battle going on within science between the hegemony of positivism and more speculative theories exploring the possibility of unknown dimensions of space and time.

Sagan, of course, has always been an ardent critic of mysticism, superstition, and fundamentalism, and he champions scientific rationality and experimental methods as the means of gathering truth.[14] But he is hardly a narrow positivist and has always embraced a philosophical and ethical version of science that encourages a sense of connectedness with life and awe for the cosmos. Sagan does not promote religion, nor does he embrace a mechanistic paradigm that drains all meaning and poetry from the universe, and ethical responsibility and values from science. Sagan seeks a rapprochement between science and religion, arguing that an authentic religion is open to the discoveries of science, as a valid science is informed by a religious-like sense of wonder. Unlike religion, of course, science is not content with mystery and seeks to unravel the secrets behind the wonder.[15]

While the novel is far clearer on the reality of contact, the film leaves the issue of whether or not contact was made open to judgment. While the political and scientific dogmatists conclude that she fantasized her experiences, it is possible, according to black hole theory that Ellie slipped through another spacetime dimension. While no one believes her in the hearings, we are left to make our own decision, and many will no doubt embrace the idea of unknown beings and spacetime dimensions potentially available to human experience, a multiplicity of parallel universes about which superstring theorists and others speculate.[16]

The most critical theme of Contact concerns less the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence than the reality of an earthly technological rationality so narrow and one-dimensional that it is destroying the evolutionary opulence from which it emerged. The main message of Contact is that human beings have to overcome their hubris and recognize that they are not the most important, or certainly the only, life form on earth and likely within the cosmos at large. In the film, Ellie says if she gets to ask only one question to the Vegans, it will be this: “How is it that you are so technologically advanced, and yet have not destroyed yourself?” How can a culture, in other words, be technologically advanced, peaceful, and sustainable all at once?[17]

In their dialogue with Ellie, the Vegans frankly state that they see us as backwards socially, economically, and technologically, and knew our planet was in serious trouble when they received televised images of Hitler’s speeches. We learn that the Vegans are cosmic shepherds, part of a community of space beings who for billions of years have cooperated in stopping the dissipation of the universe by recycling galaxies through black holes.

Sagan advances an interesting hypothesis that may explain why we have not yet  communicated with advanced beings in space: “Once intelligent beings achieve technology and the capacity for self-destruction of their species, the selective advantage of intelligences becomes more uncertain.” If technology is to be an evolutionary adaptive advantage rather than a fatal flaw, Sagan suggests, we need new adaption strategies and new forms of learning and evolution; life becomes uncertain in the age of advanced technology.

Clearly Sagan is warning that our current society, intensely driven by science, technological innovation, insatiable profit and growth imperatives, and deadly state rivalries is irrational, unsustainable, and disastrous. Sagan is also suggesting, however, that things could  be different, that we need not be embarking on a path of omnicide if, among other things, we related to the earth and its myriad life forms in a more respectful and compassionate way.  

Sagan feels that if a successful technological culture exists somewhere in space, we would have much to learn. Thus, he concludes, we ought to fund the space program. Sagan claims that funding for projects like SETI would cost no more than a new military plane and would not jeopardize needed spending on social programs here on earth. He is certainly aware of the need to take care of pressing social problems on earth, as evident in his citation of Anaximenes speaking to Pythagoras: “To what purpose should I trouble myself in searching out the secrets of the stars, having death and slavery continually before my eyes?”[18] Yet if space programs are relatively inexpensive, Sagan feels that there is no conflict between exploring space and improving society.

Nevertheless, Sagan’s reasoning is flawed by two non sequitors. First, simply because a civilization is technologically advanced enough to make contact with earth and survive a threshold of complexity, it does not follow that it is benign. Rather, as Battlestar Galactica (1978-2010), War of the Worlds, and Independence Day reminds us, advanced species may seek to destroy us or survive parasitically through appropriating human and earthy energy sources. In response, however, Sagan might reasonably ask: how is that a civilization that turns on other species would not also turn on itself? Perhaps only a species at war with itself, such as Homo sapiens, would wage war on other species, or vice versa.

Second, it does not follow that simply because sagacious aliens have crucial knowledge and wisdom to offer, that we would accept it, as if philosophy rather than profit, growth, and efficiency imperatives do not rule this planet. This points to a key flaw in Sagan’s work, namely the abstract detachment from the all-too-worldly hegemonic power of global capitalism, state repression, social conditioning, culturally  enforced ignorance, crude utilitarian values, and the domination of technical knowledge over the values, ethics, wisdom, philosophy, and holistic thinking that Sagan himself embodi

Moreover, assuming earthlings were by and large open to acquiring wisdom, philosophical insight, and spiritual knowledge, it hardly follows that the most plausible path to enlightenment lies in contact with the erudite spirits drifting in deep space. As interesting and paradigm-shattering as contact would be, our world cannot wait light years for a cosmic Godot to save us from self-destruction. Nor, in fact do we require a black hole Buddha or supernova Socrates to manifest in the Milky Way through a wormhole portal, since the wisdom and learning we need to dismantle dominator societies, to harmonize our existence with other species and the earth, and to develop sustainable cultures has can already be found in ancient Eastern and modern Western traditions alike. It is not much that the storehouse of knowledge lacks knowledge of ecology or advanced technologies but rather that capitalist social relations and elite interests block progressive applications of holistic medicine or alternative energies in order to reinforce the status quo that serves their political and economic interests so well, suffering individuals, dying species, and collapsing ecosystems be damned.

Finally, while Sagan is infectious in his utopian optimism about the emancipatory possibilities of technology and science, he seriously underestimates the dialectic and dark side of accelerated technoscience innovation — such as theorized by a critical tradition stretching from the Romantics and Luddites to Martin Heidegger and the Frankfurt School to postmodernists and primitivists. The hegemony of technology over nature is problematic enough, let alone as controlled by market forces, sociopaths, and nihilistic whose sole concerns are profit, power, and conquest.

 Sagan does not recognize that the causes of warfare, domination, and ecological crisis stem not simply from dysfunctional primate behaviors or arrogant humanism, but also from the objectifying, and domineering logics of technocracy, bureaucracy, and capitalism. Most conspicuously, Sagan divorces all levels of crisis and catastrophe in contemporary society from the institutional imperatives of a global capitalist economic system dominated by elite monopoly powers who control resources, media, communication systems, and have governments and armies at their beck and call to quell dissent and silence opposition.

To gain an adequate understanding of the catastrophe radiating triumphant and the critical crossroads at which humanity currently stands, however, we have to appreciate how radically we have colonized the earth in so short a time. Here Sagan’s very useful device is a cosmological time line from the Big Bang to the present.[19] If we squeeze the entire history of the universe into a year of time, such that the Big Bang begins on January 1st, we gain a remarkable perspective: the Renaissance does not begin until 11:59:59 and the industrial revolution arrives at the first second of the New Year. Sagan’s conceptual exercise reminds us how rapidly human beings have colonized this planet, how quickly we have depleted and destroyed it, how little time is left, and how radical the evolutionary leap must be lest we ourselves succumb to the black hole of extinction crisis we have opened on this once vital and fecund planet.


[1] On the concept of “postmodern adventure,” see Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, The Postmodern Adventure: Science, Technology, and Cultural Studies at the Third Millennium. New York: Guilford Books, 2001. The notion of the postmodern adventure underscores that we are in a tempestuous period of transition and metamorphosis, propelled by transmutations in science, technology, and capitalism. This critical analysis seeks to grasp continuities and discontinuities with the earlier modern era, while mapping striking changes, threats, and promises now before us. The postmodern adventure involves leaving behind the assumptions and procedures of modern theory and embracing a dynamic and ongoing encounter with novel theories, sciences, technologies, cultural forms, communications media, experiences, politics, and identities – all fraught with both opportunities and dangers. Thus postmodern discourse to have theoretical and political weight, it must be articulated concretely with the profound alterations of the day. At stake is the development of modes of social theory and cultural criticism adequate for capturing salient aspects of our contemporary predicament, and connecting them with projects of social transformation.

[2]. One might find it ironic that many people yearn for contact with the ultimate Other, space aliens, as they harbor racist and sexist sentiments toward members of their own kind, and speciesist biases toward their evolutionary ancestors in the animal kingdom. But aliens fill a huge gap in the human psyche that earthly forms of alterity cannot. By clinging to a belief in aliens, people nourish the hope that we are not alone in the universe and perhaps our existence is not meaningless.

[3] “The Drake equation is closely related to the Fermi paradox in that Drake suggested that a large number of extraterrestrial civilizations would form, but that the lack of evidence of such civilizations (the Fermi paradox) suggests that technological civilizations tend to disappear rather quickly…..The astronomer Carl Sagan speculated that all of the terms, except for the lifetime of a civilization, are relatively high and the determining factor in whether there are large or small numbers of civilizations in the universe is the civilization lifetime, or in other words, the ability of technological civilizations to avoid self-destruction. In Sagan’s case, the Drake equation was a strong motivating factor for his interest in environmental issues and his efforts to warn against the dangers of nuclear warfare” (

[4] Here we should recognize the contribution Sagan has made to society in his capacity as a liaison between the scientific and public worlds. Unlike so many of his peers, Sagan broke free from the sterile enclaves of science to address a lay public; he communicated difficult concepts in simple and interesting terms. He aroused public interest not only in astronomy and the planetary probes of NASA. It was most unfortunate that many of his ingrate peers denied him admission into the prestigious National Academy of Sciences, unable to comprehend that one could be both a serious scientist and a popular public intellectual. This is an exemplary case of the elitism of science and its rarified separation and detachment from the general public.

[5] Carl Sagan, Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books, 1980, p. 284.

[6]  Cosmos, p. 121.

[7]  Cosmos, p.  276.

[8]  Cosmos, p.  259.

[9] See Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors: A Search for Who We Are. New York: Ballantine Books, 1992.

[10] For the documentary films made on each book, see Cosmos ( and A Pale Blue Dot ( The latter documentary is an unauthorized attempt to produce a documentary based on Sagan’s book.

[11] Cosmos, p. xvii.

[12] Cosmos, p. 251.

[13] Both versions dramatize encounters with a vastly superior cosmic intelligence and prompt fascinating reflection on the limitations of science and human understanding, and the fragility of life on the “pale blue dot.” Much of Contact concerns the politics of science, the competitive forces behind scientific discovery, and the hegemony of patriarchy in the scientific world. Contact also takes on the theme of the conflict between religious faith and science, between two competing interpretations of the world, as well as a battle going on within science between the hegemony of positivism and more speculative theories exploring the possibility of unknown dimensions of space and time. Sagan, of course, has always been an ardent critic of mysticism, superstition, and fundamentalism, and he champions scientific rationality and experimental methods as the means of gathering truth. But he is hardly a narrow positivist and he has always embraced a philosophical and ethical version of science that encourages a sense of awe for the cosmos. While Sagan does not promote religion, nor does he embrace a mechanistic positivism that drains all meaning and poetry from the universe, and ethical responsibility and values from science. Sagan seeks a rapprochement between science and religion, arguing that an authentic religion is open to the discoveries of science, as a valid science is informed by a religious-like sense of wonder. Unlike religion, of course, science is not content with mystery and seeks to unravel the secrets behind the wonder.

[14]. See, for example, his critique of irrationalism in The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

[15]. Sagan’s ideas about religion and science are laid out in the confrontation between Ellie and religious fundamentalists in Chapter 10 of Contact. See especially the end of novel where she and the fundamentalist reach some surprising agreements.

[16]. For those disinclined to believe her (and Sagan also by implication), a likely conclusion to draw is that the reckless and gullible governments of the world squandered a trillion dollars on a sophisticated tinker-toy, once again ignoring the plight of real citizens here on earth. Such a conclusion, quite unintentionally, would contradict Sagan’s passionate efforts to promote interest in space exploration and more funding and support for programs like SETI. Whatever conclusion the audience draws from the film, Sagan clearly wants us to accept the rationality of funding space travel and attempts to make contact.

[17] This is an important part of the film, but one can’t help but notice that in her extraterrestrial dialogue, the question is never raised. Rather, following the novel, Hollywood embodies cosmic alterity in the image of Ellie’s father (apparently a gesture of kindness from the aliens) and delivers a largely banal discussion. It is also worth pointing out that in the novel a team of researchers from various countries travel to Vega, whereas in the film Ellie goes it alone

[18] Cosmos, p. 263.

[19] Carl Sagan, The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence. New York: Ballantine Books, 1977, pp. 13-17.

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