David Brooks proposes this question:
"What would happen if a freak solar event sterilized the people on the half of the earth that happened to be facing the sun?"
His answer predicts the breakdown of civilization on the sterile half of the planet, due to a "cataclysmic spiritual crisis," involving the lack of a legacy, the desolation of a future without children. Brooks maintains, "We don't live individualistic lives," and that much of our current happiness results from thinking about the success of future generations.
What Brooks misses is that for many people, being childless is a perfectly happy existence--in fact, far happier than dealing with the myriad problems of parenting. As for our long-term historical legacy, I think Brooks overestimates the importance of such thoughts for the average person. People are motivated by immediate, individual gratification--the long-term consequences be damned. This attitude is prevalent in much of our actions regarding the environment.
The environment would be a great beneficiary of this thought-experiment. While we can strive to reduce our footprint, and in individual steps contribute less to destroying our planet, by far the biggest savings in environmental terms would result from population stability. In other words, if you change your incandescent lights to fluorescent, this saves a little energy. If you decide not to have a third child, this saves a great deal more.
Everywhere, in everything we do, we are faced by the crush of people--parking spaces virtually impossible to find, lines at the ATM, lines to get on the subway, lines to get in line on the freeway. Parts of this planet are virtually choking on the masses of people trying to eek out an existence. How like a breath of fresh air it would be to find the lines at the supermarket a little shorter, to find the lines at the DMV manageable.
Brooks envisions Mad Max-style apocalypse. I think another vision is of a population much better suited for our lifestyles.

Apollo 11

Today is the 40th anniversary of the most significant day in human history.

In her 1958 book The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt noted that the greatest event of the 20th century up to that point, was the escape of Earth by the Sputnik satellite, and that the glory and accomplishment of this event was almost completely overshadowed by the Cold War paranoia that dominate coverage of this Soviet triumph.
Eleven years later the crew of Apollo 11 would settle gently onto the surface of the moon. What transpired between Sputnik and Apollo 11 was a cooperative human endeavor unparalleled in history. Up to 400,000 people were employed in a variety of ways in the effort to achieve the lunar landing. It was an effort infinitely more complicated and risky than the building of the pyramids.
Many people during Apollo, and many people afterwards, bemoaned the money spent, and in their myopic view squandered, in putting men on the moon. However, in total NASA spent less than $20 billion dollars, which in today's terms would come to a little over $80 billion. The Bush administration routinely wrote $80 billion checks to fund oil-rich Iraq, yet somehow this expenditure raised not a fraction of the uproar that the Apollo budgets caused. Walter Mondale, who would later serve as Carter's vice president, made his political name in attacking Apollo spending.
The Apollo missions were not created by mysticism or superstition; Apollo achieved its victory because of science, reason, testing, and math. Apollo-do, the way of Apollo, like its mythical namesake, the bringer of light, can be a beacon for how we as a species might think and behave if we are to survive and prosper.
We humans need a goal, a task. Our spirit requires a quest. Without this necessity, we wander aimless, like a hound without a chase. Some ask why we should go back to the moon, why we should go to Mars. As an answer, simply look at the listless and disaffected youth who plague this country, so divorced from any goal that weekends are spent "cruising"--driving around and around aimlessly--while listening to toxic music blaring from speakers.
Imagine instead that the youth of this nation were set upon a goal, instructed from an early age they they must work to learn science and math, and given the pedagogical tools to enable them to reach their potential. As it stands now, most American students are lost to science, their potential squandered to their toxic "friends," with whom they mutually self-destruct in an indifferent orgy of excess and self-gratification. Imagine instead that the youth of our country were tasked with learning enough math and physics that they might make a serious attempt to solve a major problem.
As has become apparent over the course of the last few years, our petroleum lifestyle is unsustainable. Not only is peak oil production eminent, but the carbon dioxide waste of this energy source is rapidly changing our climate in unpredictable, but throughly negative, ways. Even worse, because of the grim irony that the world's oil reserves sit under nations that hate us, we prop up dictatorships--Saudi Arabia, Putin's Russia, Chavez's Venezuela, the Shah's Iran--with our money, making us complicit in funding regimes with terrible human rights records. We need a cleaner, more moral source of energy: fusion.
The science behind fusion is very complicated and the achievement of fusion will be a feat comparable with the Manhattan Project and Apollo. Imagine the benefits if we committed our nation to educating all of our children to learn enough math and physics that they could make a serious contribution to this problem. Most would not achieve this; but eventually a child would be born--an Einstein who would be squandered otherwise--who would have the insight to solve the problem of fusion. The benefits of having so many citizens so well educated would be astounding. It would cost money to educate children to this level, but education is now so terribly underfunded that perhaps only such a national mission could bring education funding up to a reasonable level. The benefits of achieving fusion would be practically unlimited, clean energy.
Apollo showed us what humans can achieve when the political will relaxes its death grip upon scientific innovation for a few years. The 20 July 1969 Apollo 11 may come to be regarded by historians as the first of many such human triumphs. Or perhaps the first lunar landing will mark the high water spot, when mankind's potential reached its apex, and then slid back into darkness, ignorance, and mysticism.


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