space exploration

As movies go deeper into outer space, it’s time to ask whether we are explorers or colonisers

Interplanetary colonisation, once the stuff only of science fiction, has taken over the cinema.

NASA’s recent discovery of seven new Earth-sized planets 40 light years away has generated more excitement in the hunt for life off our own. Many influential thinkers have turned their attention to the colonisation of other planets (usually Mars), including Tesla founder Elon Musk, and the groups behind Mars One. But while the search for extraterrestrial life is fascinating, our interplanetary exploration raises some interesting ethical questions.

Physicist Stephen Hawking has said that we should colonise other planets to protect the human race:

Although the chance of a disaster to planet Earth in a given year may be quite low, it adds up over time, and becomes a near certainty in the next thousand or ten thousand years. By that time we should have spread out into space, and to other stars, so a disaster on Earth would not mean the end of the human race.

The notion of a mass exodus and transplanting a planet is, on the surface, an attractive concept. But we rarely, if ever, critically ask why we ought to do such a thing in the first place. Have we truly earned the right to colonise other planets, especially after the way we’ve behaved on this one? Many films and books have turned their attention to these ethical questions.

Can we survive?

Interplanetary colonisation was once the stuff only of science fiction. Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy, for instance, showed the act of colonising and terraforming Mars (literally turning it into Earth).

Red Mars (1993), Green Mars (1994), and Blue Mars (1996) showed the gradual changes to the structure of the red planet as it became more habitable for humanity. The books also looked at the psychological effects of humanity’s ultra-longevity, including existential boredom. Even Robinson questions whether we should colonise Mars, indeed he has said of the Mars One project, which aims to establish a permanent human settlement on the planet:

“This is an example of the kind of fantasy that can emerge in the age of the internet, with the gullible scientism that comes from a culture that lacks scientific literacy.”

He also reasons: “I like the Earth too much”.

More recently, in Andy Weir’s The Martian (2015), astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) colonises Mars after being left for dead.

And in the 2014 film Interstellar, a group of astronauts go through a wormhole to examine three new planets for a “new earth”, after crop blights and a second Dust Bowl ravage much of the original earth. The remainder of humanity is left for dead while new colonies are set up on a new planet.

Both these films raise tough questions, suggesting that there’s no single utopian vision regarding the colonisation of planets. While both look at extending the lifetime of humanity beyond the Earth, we must ask, at what cost is humanity’s survival ensured?

Should we survive?

These discussions are taking place in a period of time known as the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene, according to scientists, is the current geological era in which we find ourselves: characterised by humanity’s impact on the planet, and a tendency to view everything through a human-centred lens.

Cultural studies theorist Claire Colebrook, whose work focuses on culture and the Anthropocene, has looked at the rhetoric of survival that is attached to many science fiction films, notably The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In both the 1951 and 2008 version, an alien called Klaatu is sent to Earth to warn humans that if they don’t change their disregard for the planet, they will be eradicated for the benefit of Earth. The 1951 version is set in the Nuclear Age, while the 2008 remake focuses instead on environmental catastrophe. When the alien sees another, more benevolent side of humanity, he calls off the attack.

Play
The 1951 trailer for The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Colebrook asks: “[why] is present discourse focused on how we might survive, rather than whether we ought to survive?”

Numerous writers and filmmakers have turned their attention to the question of what it means for humanity to be annihilated. In Nevil Shute’s critically acclaimed On the Beach (1957), a hallmark Nuclear Age sci-fi work alongside Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon (1959), a cloud of radiation slowly drifts from the Northern Hemisphere down to Melbourne after a nuclear war. The survivors, meanwhile, try to enjoy themselves before the inevitable end arrives.

Observes one character:

“It’s not the end of the world at all. It’s only the end for us. The world will go on just the same, only we shan’t be in it. I dare say it will get along all right without us.”

JG Ballard’s The Drowned World (1962) similarly demystifies the longevity of the human race, with the central character gradually welcoming the destruction of civilisation as the world reverts to its wild, primitive state. The novel ends with him disappearing into the wild:

“He left the lagoon and entered the jungle again, within a few days was completely lost, following the lagoons southward through the increasing rain and heat, attacked by alligators and giant bats, a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun.”

As theorist Gary Westfahl points out, in comparison to other sci-fi works, The Drowned World “rapturously embrace[s] human extinction”.

More recently, Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia (2011) follows the story of two sisters, played by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg, as another planet is on a collision course with Earth. Justine (Dunst), welcomes Earth’s destruction, saying: “The earth is evil. We don’t need to grieve for it […] Life exists only on Earth. And not for long”. At the end, the planet collides with the earth and obliterates it.

Play
Melancholia.

Similarly, in the Australian film These Final Hours (2013), the world comes to an end after a meteor collides with the earth, and the main character and his pregnant girlfriend sit on the beach as a firestorm bears down on the planet.

And in Michael Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things (2014), a pastor is sent to another planet to impart Christian values while Earth succumbs to severe climate devastation and famine. Despite this, the pastor tries to get back to Earth to die with his wife and their unborn child.

These works delve into the moral and ethical issues surrounding humanity’s survival, in contrast to other works that promote humankind’s longevity. In The Day the Earth Stood Still, humanity was seen to have jeopardised its chance of survival before being redeemed by the benevolence of the alien.

But in a world that is dragging its feet on climate change and other massive environmental problems, the concept of moving to other planets appears quite selfish.

In Independence Day (1996), President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) describes the invading aliens as a virus, saying:

“They’re like locusts. They’re moving from planet to planet…their whole civilisation. After they’ve consumed every natural resource they move on.”

As interplanetary colonisers, we would become the aliens.

Play
Independence Day (1996).

Some of these books and films suggest humanity doesn’t deserve to survive, others withhold judgement, instead hurtling towards the final moments. These usually offer redemption for at least some humans – through love, bravery, or freedom.

It appears all too easy to adopt a fatalistic attitude in light of such discussions of humanity’s ultimate fate. Woody Allen, for instance, has discussed what he calls “Ozymandias Melancholia”, or, the “realisation that your works of art will not save you and will mean nothing down the line”.

Yet he also notes that “the artist’s job is not to succumb to despair, but to find an antidote for the emptiness of existence”.

It isn’t as simple as nihilistically accepting the inevitable, but questioning the extent to which we are willing to ensure survival, and considering the inevitability of human extinction. Medicine, for instance, has kept humans alive for longer than they otherwise would have lived, an example of positive human survival.

But when the prospect of human survival intrudes upon the natural environment of other planets, which would be best left alone, the idea of colonising other planets becomes unethical.

Siobhan Lyons, Scholar in Media and Cultural Studies, Macquarie University.

This article first appeared on The Conversation.

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

Play

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.