Smashing different planets

 
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By Ray O’Reilly

The Scientists shouted they would get “smashed in a different world”. But do the words of this punk band reveal something profound about human nature?

7 September 2010

Look at it this way: our species is a master at taking what’s available and abusing the hell out it. People get smashed on the brews, opiates, or whatever, that nature offers up. People also cut up our Earth-ball, as my son calls it, in search of nature’s other bounties, from precious stones for adornment and tropical forests for cheap furniture, to coltan for mobile phones.

I’m under no illusions that if we do find other planets to colonise for their wealth, we’d ‘smash’ them as thoroughly as we do ourselves, and our planet. I’ll substantiate with another lazy cultural simile – because life imitates art and all that.

First, you’ve got the avidly fictitious, but rather entertaining Avatar whose indigenous population resists the rapacious multinationals’ hunt for (wait for it) ‘unobtanium’, an unelaborated mineral with the name to match. Around the same time Avatar came out, the BAFTA-winning sci-fi film Moon was released, starring Sam Rockwell in pretty much all roles bar the ‘Sarang’ lunar-base’s affable computer, Gerty,  played by Kevin Spacey.

Rockwell’s character (also Sam) is a contractor employed to extract helium-3 from moon dust – used in the production of fusion energy, according to the movie. Most of this is pure fiction, of course, except that fusion bit, which is a very real science. Actually, the world’s nuclear research community have been pumping billions of euros into the ITER project to develop an experimental fusion reactor which, simply put, unlocks the power of the sun.

“If you haven’t heard about ITER, chances are you will soon,” boasts the ITER website. “The scale and scope of the ITER project rank it among the most ambitious science endeavors of our time… scientists are now poised to begin construction on the buildings that will house the ITER fusion experiments.”

This is a serious research programme backed by the international scientific community from China, India, Russia, Korea, Japan, the US and the EU. There’s been political rows during the formative years of the project – over where to site ITER’s tokamak reactor and, naturally, over who will stump up the billions to pay for it – but the seriousness of the Earth’s energy woes seems to trump all such concerns.

Disturbingly real

So, in many ways, the fact that the film Moon strays so easily into factual territory makes it that much more disturbing when the plot unfolds. The movie delivers what we did wrong as a eulogy delivered at the start, a bit like in Mad Max except more polished, documenting the depletion of fossil fuels and the quest for clean technology.

I don’t want to spoil the film, so I’ll just say Sam learns a lot about the motivations of his employer – the mining company – as he approaches the end of his three-year contract. The spectre of cloning is tackled when his character has an accident and the company needs a replacement to operate the extractor. Trouble is,  Sam 1 doesn’t die. He reappears at the lunar station when Sam 2, his human replica, retrieves him from the wreck of the lunar rover. The two Sam’s don’t get along at first. The movie unfolds as they both discover there is a lot about their work and their so-called contracts that the company has been hiding from them.

These films give us an unusual, half-credible, glimpse of a possible future outcome if we continue to abuse the resources on this planet. And the suggestion is that it’s more than just an environmental problem. You’ve only got to watch the news every now and then to see what socio-political havoc the extraction industries are having on many communities worldwide, from tribes coping with shrinking rainforests to the wars and bloodshed fuelled by diamond and coltan mining in sub-Saharan Africa.

Where it will all lead in reality is anyone’s guess but something tells me that human nature – being the way it is – will find a way to continue smashing this planet and any other planet should these sci-fi plots prove prescient of a real future scenario.

Published here with the author’s permission. © Copyright Ray O’Reilly.

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