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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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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.