by Quinn O'Neill
A warm wind blew over the African grassland and stirred the leaves of empty trees. A long time ago, the faint sounds of a nearby tourist lodge were carried on the breeze and the trees cradled sleeping baboons. These baboons were special. Studied by neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky in the 80s, they would sleep in the trees to gain easy access to garbage from the tourists – half eaten hamburgers and leftover drumsticks.1
The practice proved lethal for the baboons, who met their demise when a TB outbreak contaminated the food. Those who frequented the garbage site happened to be the most aggressive and least socially affiliated in their troop. The more socially-oriented and peaceful members were spared, and a curious change occured in the dynamics of the troop, with the remaining baboons subsequently enjoying a persistent peaceful culture with relatively little agression and more grooming.
But that was a long time ago and much had changed. Faced with climate change, human pollution, and habitat loss, the baboon's numbers had dwindled dramatically and few places remained on the planet that could attract human tourists with their wild and natural beauty. Our own “alphas”, for too many decades, had put their own immediate interests above everything else, including collective human well being, animal welfare, and environmental sustainability. Our tar ponds and nuclear waste sites were now too widespread to be hidden from our view and the few remaining old trees, still beautiful were too wise to be enjoyed. “There used to be more of us,” you could almost hear them saying. “We were surrounded by life once.”
Over the years, lots of people had objected to what was taking place even as they watched it unfold. Credible authorities like James Hansen, head of the NASA Goddard institute for Space Studies, and Canadian geneticist and journalist David Suzuki warned of the need to radically reduce CO2 emissions and make environmental issues a priority. Had they been part of the tiny percentage that wielded awesomely concentrated wealth and power, perhaps they could have done something to stop it sooner.
The prescient Stephen Hawking had predicted that humans would eventually need to abandon the planet for humanity to survive. “Life on Earth,” Hawking said, “is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers … I think the human race has no future if it doesn't go into space.”
With the seeds of the idea planted, space travel became part of the ultimate solution, one that blossomed and evolved over time with diverse input from some of humanity's most brilliant thinkers. Human colonies would be designed around a new set of values. They would be sustainable and provide an optimal standard of living for all citizens. Talent from many different fields was harnessed to design all aspects of the civilizations, from social structure and government to sustainable agriculture. The aim was to ensure the new civilization's stability and prevent its devolution into unhealthy hierarchies, with selfish and destructive leadersip. We could not afford to rape and pillage our own habitat again.
Large “spaceships” were to be constructed. With the world's superpowers investing heavily in military fields and in means for maintaining their power, space travel technologies had advanced disappointingly little since man's momentous first step on the moon. The destination would be much further away than the moon, and the ships would need to provide comfortable accommodation for passengers for an extended period of time – years even.
The trip wouldn't be affordable for the vast majority of the population. These passengers would be from an extremely privileged minority. Life aboard the ships would be a step down for them, but when the time was right they would clamour for a place.
The right time came soon enough. Facing a devastating impact from an Earth-bound asteroid, some of humanity's most wealthy and powerful were lining up with their families to board the carefully designed ships. The colonies too had been carefully designed and reports of their construction and testing had appeared in the media over the years. The passengers were confident that they'd be safe – certainly safer than those who stayed. Most, if not all, of those left behind were expected to die.
The mood at the many launch sites around the globe was subdued. There was no media coverage and none of the excitement that had surrounded previous milestones in space technology. Not everyone knew about the asteroid and that was no accident.
Unlike space technologies, the control of information had evolved rapidly over the decades. A tremendous number of bright people had been harnessed by powerful forces to control not only what the public would think but also what information those in power received.
These employees had been through extensive background checks, profiling, fingerprinting, retinal scanning, and DNA analysis. The screening assured that they were not criminals, but the process had still failed those in power. Among those cleared to work in these top secret roles, were people of not only extreme intelligence and talent, but with strong moral senses and integrity. Their loyalty was not to their leaders or employers but to their values. They organized themselves, and they knew better than anyone how to keep secrets and how to share them strategically.
The last entrance to spaceships was closed and locked. At least for this round of voyages, all of the passengers were in place and no one else would be getting on or off.
None of the ships had yet taken off, but scientists and collaborators at the launch sites shook hands and congratulated one another. The ships wouldn't be going anywhere. Despite media reports of construction on Mars, we didn't yet have the technology to get there in a time frame that would be acceptable even to those hoping to escape a fatal Earth-asteroid collision. And of course there was no asteroid. The greatest threat to collective human well being and long term survival had been on Earth with us all along. With this threat now safely contained, the carefully designed, sustainable, and truly civilized colonies would be implemented soon, on Earth. It was a great turning point in history, the point when humans began making decisions as a species.
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1 Sapolsky RM, Share LJ (2004) A Pacific Culture among Wild Baboons: Its Emergence and Transmission. PLoS Biol 2(4):e106.doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020106
Photo source: NASA Ames Research Center; photo author: Donald Davis.