They were the “best and the brightest,” but on a spaceship, not planet Earth, and they exemplified the liberal optimism of their era. The original Star Trek, whose three-year TV run began in 1966, featured a talented, multiethnic crew. The indomitable Captain Kirk had the can-do sex appeal of a Kennedy; his chief adviser, the half-human, half-Vulcan Mr. Spock, offered the cool rationality of that “IBM machine with legs,” then–Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. And the USS Enterprise, on a mission “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” pursued a seemingly benign anthropological interest in seeking out, engaging with, and trying to understand the native populations of a fascinating variety of distant worlds.
The “prime directive,” designed to govern the conduct of Kirk and his crew on their episodic journey, required non-interference in the workings of alien civilizations. This approach mirrored the evolving anti-war sympathies of series creator Gene Roddenberry and many of the show’s scriptwriters. The Vietnam War, which raged through the years of its initial run, was then demonstrating to more and more Americans the folly of trying to reengineer a society distant both geographically and culturally. The best and the brightest, on Earth as on the Enterprise, began to have second thoughts in the mid-1960s about such hubris.
Even as they deliberately linked violent terrestrial interventions with celestial ones, however, the makers of Star Trek never questioned the most basic premise of a series that would delight fans for decades, spawning endless TV and movie sequels. Might it not have been better for the universe as a whole if the Enterprise had never left Earth in the first place and if Earth hadn’t meddled in matters beyond its own solar system?
As our country contemplates future military interventions, as well as ambitious efforts to someday colonize other planets, Americans would be smart to address this fundamental question. Might our inexhaustible capacity for interfering in far-flung places be a sign not of a dynamic civilization, but of a fatal flaw—for the country, the international community, and the species as a whole?
The Orange Zone
The United States has never had much use for a precautionary prime directive. It has interfered with “alien” societies at a remarkable clip ever since the late 19th century. Indeed, such interference is inscribed in the genetic code of the country, for America is the product of the massive disruption and eradication of an already existing native population. Columbus also boldly went where no (European) man had gone before, and we recapitulate his voyage every time we send the Marines to a foreign shore or our drones into foreign air space. Native Americans didn’t need “discovering” or new infectious diseases any more than Iraqis needed lectures about democracy from neoconservatives.
Despite considerable evidence of just how malign our recent interventions have proven to be—in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and elsewhere—the US government continues to contemplate military missions. Iran is, for the moment, off the hook, and so is Cuba. Washington has also repeatedly emphasized that North Korea is not in the crosshairs, though our aggressive military posture in East Asia might suggest otherwise, particularly to the paranoid leadership in Pyongyang.
But even the diplomacy-friendly Obama administration is still wedded to the use of drones in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, and Yemen, not to mention a new secret program in Syria. It has dispatched Special Forces to 150 countries. And it has conducted, along with its coalition allies, more than 5,000 airstrikes against the Islamic State. US troops remain in significant numbers in Afghanistan (9,800) and Iraq (3,500). Hundreds of US military bases, with around 150,000 service personnel deployed on them, gird the globe.
These military actions have remapped the world—and not in a good way. America’s post-9/11 invasions, attacks, and occupations have created a crescent of crisis that stretches from Afghanistan across the Middle East and into Africa. Fragile states, like Somalia and Yemen, have been thrown into desperate chaos. Syria and Iraq have become incubators for the most virulent strains of extremism. And authoritarian leaders in Egypt and the Gulf states are using this turmoil to justify their own iron-fist policies.
Even the recent refugee crisis, the most significant since the end of World War II, can be traced back to the Bush administration’s military responses to September 11. For many years, Afghanistan was the leading exporter of refugees to the world, with Iraq a close second. Today, the leading source of refugees is Syria. Although the United States hasn’t invaded that country, it has meddled there nonetheless, initially to depose Bashar al-Assad and then to “degrade” the Islamic State and its affiliates. In the 21st century, America’s efforts to reengineer societies across the planet are ending up just as badly as its 20th-century fiasco in Southeast Asia.
Meanwhile, the impulse to “boldly go” is no longer restricted to neocolonial interventionism or military adventurism. There is now growing enthusiasm for sending an expeditionary force beyond Earth. Several competing initiatives aim to begin the colonization of Mars, in part to provide humanity with an alternative should global warming make planet Earth inhospitable to human life. These extraterrestrial efforts reflect a growing anxiety that the end is nigh, at least for the home team.
Indeed, many writers (not to speak of scientists) have postulated that Earth is reaching a tipping point. Whether as a function of nuclear weapons, carbon emissions, or sheer reproductive fervor, humans seem to be approaching an important threshold in our life on the planet.
Let’s call it the Orange Zone, in honor of the erstwhile terrorism color index. For the last half-century or so, humans have had the capacity to blow up the planet with our nuclear toys. We have also been burning up fossil fuels at a remarkable and increasing rate in a burst of economic activity that has brought us to the brink of irreparably destroying the ecosystem. And we have reproduced so successfully that, like voracious locusts, we threaten to outstripthe planet’s capacity to feed us.
If we can figure out how to lower the threat alert and leave the Orange Zone, we will have passed the civilizational test. Once we put away our childish things—our nuclear weapons, our coal-fired power plants, our religious prohibitions against contraception—we can graduate to the next level of planetary consciousness. Otherwise, we flunk out. And there won’t be any make-up summer school credits available.
There may, in fact, be an even more fundamental test than the nuclear, carbon, or demographic challenges. And that’s the human propensity for intervention—across borders, over seas, and potentially even in outer space. That Star Trek urge “to boldly go,” obeying the prime directive or not, has gotten humanity into a heap of trouble. Establishing outposts in far-off lands is often considered the ultimate American insurance policy, but it’s precisely our predilection for getting mixed up in other people’s messes that has distracted us from fixing our own. The focus on setting up a colony on Mars, instead of getting serious about climate change on Earth, is the functional equivalent of devoting close to a trillion dollars a year to the US military instead of using that money to fix all that is broken at home. Talk about an advanced case of attention-deficit disorder.
The Chinese Way
In the 15th century, the Chinese admiral Zheng He took a fleet on seven voyages throughout Asia, to the Middle East, and as far as Africa. He defeated marauding pirates in the vicinity of China and intervened militarily in far-off Ceylon. His huge treasure ships, each one six times larger than Columbus’s Santa Maria, brought back rare items, including a giraffe, for the Chinese emperor. As a diplomat, he established tributary relations with dozens of foreign lands, though not Europe, which was still too backward to attract Chinese interest. Zheng’s last journey, in the early 1430s, took place two decades before Christopher Columbus was even born.
Zheng He’s maritime explorations might have served as the basis for China’s colonial domination of significant parts of the world. But it was not to be. “Shortly after the last voyage of the treasure fleet, the Chinese emperor forbade overseas travel and stopped all building and repair of oceangoing junks,” Louise Levathes has written in When China Ruled the Seas. “Disobedient merchants and seamen were killed, and within a hundred years the greatest navy the world had ever known willed itself into extinction.”
China didn’t entirely turn its back on colonialism. It maintained a tributary system in its Asian backyard. Nor did the Middle Kingdom immediately lose out to a rising Europe, for the Chinese would remain a dominant force for several more centuries. Still, the emperor’s decision to renounce Zheng He and his accomplishments is often identified as a key pivot point in modern history. China effectively decided not to go the way of the Enterprise. It would not “boldly go” into unexplored lands or establish a far-flung colonial empire. Nor did it develop the military means to police such domains.
By the 19th century, it would instead find itself subject to the predations of European colonial powers, which divided up the coastal areas of China as if they were a treasure chest for the taking. More than 100 years of humiliation ensued, followed by a succession of Chinese efforts to regain the wealth and power of dynasties past.
China today is not a military weakling. But it also doesn’t possess the kind of expeditionary power of the United States or even Russia. It has vast commercial interests around the world. But it does not style itself the world’s policeman. During its “soft rise,” China has focused largely on cultivating its own garden—transforming its enormous economy into a global powerhouse. Although it has certainly increased military spending over the last several decades, it does not want to get into the kind of arms race with the United States that doomed the Soviet Union. It has not generally shown itself interested in establishing neocolonial relationships—it has extracted resources from Asia, Africa, and Latin America without installing client states, building military bases, or sending in the equivalent of the special forces—and even its semi-tributary relationship with North Korea generates considerable skepticism in Beijing.
As its economic growth declines from the stratospheric to the merely impressive, however, China may be facing another Zheng He moment. Dramatic economic growth has allowed for double-digit increases in military spending. China is currently modernizing its nuclear arsenal, acquiring more significant air and sea power, and flexing its muscles in territorial disputes with its neighbors. Can Beijing refocus on its economic project, ensuring environmentally sustainable growth at the expense of global ambitions? In other words, will China follow the self-destructive path of other superpowers or will it help lead the planet out of the dreaded Orange Zone?
China could go either way. Chinese hawks worry that if Beijing repeats the emperor’s rejection of Zheng He, foreign powers will again humiliate the Middle Kingdom. And indeed, Beijing certainly might feel the need to acquire even greater force projection capabilities if Washington doesn’t engage it in serious arms-reduction efforts.
The Escape Clause
The multi-billionaire Elon Musk is not one to rest on his laurels. He’s a product of the dot.com age—he made his first millions with PayPal—and has transformed the electric car into a real contender in the marketplace. He is also betting big on solar energy through his SolarCity venture.
But he has even grander ambitions. Writes Sue Halpern in The New York Review of Books:
While Musk is working to move people away from fossil fuels, betting that the transition to electric vehicles and solar energy will contain the worst effects of global climate change, he is hedging that bet with one that is even more wishful and quixotic. In the event that those terrestrial solutions don’t pan out and civilization is imperiled, Musk is positioning SpaceX to establish a human colony on Mars.
SpaceX is Musk’s escape clause for the planet. At the moment, SpaceX rockets perform a glorified FedEx function by sending supplies to the International Space Station that NASA and four other international space agencies have been maintaining since 1998. But Musk wants to put people on Mars by 2026, approximately a decade ahead of NASA’s best-case scenario.
Meanwhile, the outfit Mars One, started by Dutch entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, is winnowing down 100 potential Mars colonists to a final group of 24. These intrepid proto-astronauts plan to shove off for Mars in 2026 as well—on a one-way journey to lay the groundwork for a human colony on the planet. Blue Origin, another private space exploration firm started by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, also aspires to “extend humankind beyond our planet.” The space race once pitted the Cold War superpowers against each other in an effort to prove their technological superiority. Today, the space race is not so much between countries as between the planet’s richest alpha males.
In his influential 1893 essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” historian Frederick Jackson Turner argued that the American character had been shaped by endlessly “available” lands in the West and the desire to colonize the entire continent. The closing of that frontier at the end of the 19th century coincided with the onset of the American empire and the spread of “American civilization” to purportedly less enlightened corners of the globe. The pent-up energy to “boldly go” had to go somewhere.
We are now witnessing another closing-of-the-frontier moment. There are no longer any unexplored pockets of the world. And the frontier ideology of spreading civilization—or is it mayhem?—has come up hard against the realities of present-day Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the post-Arab Spring political disappointments of Egypt and Libya. It is no surprise, then, that restless spirits like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have identified space as their “final frontier.”
Mars is not inhabited. We won’t be displacing any native populations, nor will we have to debate the finer points of the prime directive in the absence of foreign cultures to interfere with. But don’t be fooled by that. Our intervention on Mars will nonetheless share some of the defects of our terrestrial follies.
“Wherever we go, we’ll take ourselves with us,” environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert writes in The New Yorker about the various developing plans to colonize Mars. “Either we’re capable of dealing with the challenges posed by our own intelligence or we’re not. Perhaps the reason we haven’t met any alien beings is that those that survive aren’t the type to go zipping around the galaxy. Maybe they’ve stayed quietly at home, tending their own gardens.”
Perhaps the truly intelligent ones followed in the footsteps of the Chinese emperor: They stopped building ships.
The Search for Terrestrial Intelligence
In tandem with the push to colonize Mars, scientists are putting renewed efforts into the search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). A new project, Breakthrough Listen, just established with a $100 million budget, will rely on two large radio telescopes to target the nearest one million stars and the 100 galaxies closest to the Milky Way. In a reflection of the growing importance of crowdsourcing, three million people are using their combined computer resources to help analyze all the radio telescope data that is flowing in.
Chances are good—according to the Drake equation’s calculations of habitable planets in the universe—that somebody or something intelligent is indeed out there. But if we can hear them, they can probably hear us, too. And what extraterrestrial intelligence in its right mind would want to contact a species that seemingly worships Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, and Kim Kardashian?
Whether there’s anything out there or not, trapped as we are in the Orange Zone, we are still heavily involved in the quixotic search for terrestrial intelligence. Scientists continue to await definitive evidence—Stephen Hawking, Toni Morrison, and Yo-Yo Ma aside—that human intelligence is not an oxymoron. After all, what we have traditionally defined as intelligence—a relentless pushing at borders both conceptual and territorial—has led us into the cul-de-sac of impending self-annihilation.
Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr once argued that human intelligence is itself a lethal mutation that has put the species on a collision course with its own and possibly even the planet’s extinction. We and the planet were, it seems, better off when we were just hunters and gatherers, before someone had the bright idea to rip up the earth, plant seeds, and build cities.
To go boldly forward, humanity will have to redefine intelligent life. That doesn’t mean returning to a nomad’s existence of venison and berries. But it does require a different kind of intelligence to turn one’s back on the treasures that the modern-day equivalent of Zheng He’s ships promise to bring from all corners of the universe. It requires a different kind of intelligence to close one’s ears to the siren song of democracy promotion, terrorism suppression, and market-access preservation. And it requires a different kind of intelligence to focus one’s energies on conserving this planet instead of putting so much time and money into plans to befoul another one.
With each nuclear weapon, jet engine, and space rocket we deploy, we venture further into the Orange Zone, heading blindly, if not boldly, toward the point of no return. Like those would-be Mars explorers, whether we know it or not, we are all on a one-way trip into the unknown, except that our rocket ship is our planet, which we’re about to destroy in a suicide mission before it can ever arrive at a safe and secure place.