Present global culture is a kind of arrogant newcomer. It arrives on
planetary stage following four and a half billion years of other acts,
after looking around for a few thousand years declares itself in
of eternal truths.
~ Carl Sagan
Carl Sagan's novel Contact (1985) and its recent film
adaptation (1997) concerns the odyssey of Dr. Ellie Arroway, her
passionate search for extraterrestrial intelligence. A brilliant
scientist with a promising career, she has marginalized herself by
focusing on issues considered disreputable by many of her peers. But
when contact is actually made, her beliefs are vindicated and the
position of homo sapiens in the universe is changed irrevocably.
Able to decode "the message" from outer space,
scientists realize that it is a blueprint for constructing a machine for
rapid space (and perhaps time) travel. The machine is built, and Ellie
and her team make contact, but their entire trip and conversation takes
only twenty minutes. Lacking evidence that their conversations with
aliens were real, their testimony is rejected by their peers. We are
left to wonder for ourselves as to the actuality of contact in the
story, the possibility for it in real life, and the implications such
contact might have for human beings.
Contact is a literary mapping of Sagan's scientific
ideas. Both the book and film versions dramatize encounters with a
vastly superior cosmic intelligence and prompt fascinating reflection on
the limitations of science and human understanding, and the fragility of
life on the "pale blue dot." Contact is a symptom that human beings are
starting to raise seriously the question -- as one of science rather
than science fiction -- for the first time: are we alone? The fact that
NASA has sent cosmic messages in a radio-satellite bottle shows that
there is at least some belief in the possibility of alien life.
Following Sagan's scenario (where the first images
aliens picked up were those of a Hitler rally), it is somewhat amusing
and embarrassing to consider that the messages that might be received
are not those representing our greatest achievements in science,
philosophy, and art, but rather the most insipid products of American
mass culture. If aliens were to receive the sounds and images of Three's
Company, The Jenny McCarthy Show, and Wheel of Fortune, rather than the
dialogues of Plato, the sonatas of Mozart, the equations of Einstein,
and the peaceful visions of Gandhi and King, they might wonder, indeed,
if there is intelligent life on earth and pass us by.
The most critical theme of Contact concerns less the
possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence, than the reality of an
earthbound technological rationality which is so narrow and
control-oriented that it is destroying the evolutionary opulence from
which it emerged. The main message of Contact is that human beings have
to overcome their hubris to recognize that they are not the most
important, or certainly the only, life form on earth and likely within
the cosmos at large.
If she only gets to ask one question to the alien
"Vegans," Ellie says, it will be this: "How is it that you are so
technologically advanced, and yet have not destroyed yourself?" How can
a culture, in other words, be technologically advanced, peaceful, and
sustainable all at once? In their dialogue with Ellie, the Vegans
frankly state that they see us as backwards socially, economically, and
technologically, and knew our planet was in serious trouble when they
received televised images of Hitler. We learn that the Vegans are cosmic
shepherds, part of a community of space beings who for billions of years
have cooperated in stopping the dissipation of the universe by recycling
galaxies through black holes.
Clearly Sagan is issuing a warning that our current
society, intensely driven by science, technological innovation, an
insatiable profit motive, and bitter rivalries is completely
unsustainable, tail spinning into oblivion. Sagan is also suggesting,
however, that things could be different, that we need not be embarking
on a path of ecocide if, among other things, we related to the earth and
its myriad life forms in a more respectful and compassionate way.
A satellite-mediated contact would mean "that someone
has learned to live with high technology, that it is possible to survive
technological adolescence. That alone, quite apart from the contents of
the message, provides a powerful justification for the search for other
civilizations" (Cosmos: 251). It would mean, in other words, that there
is no inherent logic of technological destruction, no necessary path
from the slingshot to the atom bomb, and that human beings can develop
sciences and technologies that are advanced, sustainable, peaceful, and
life-promoting instruments of Eros rather than Thanatos.
Sagan also believes that contact with an alien culture
would lead to "a profound deprovincialization of the human condition"
(Cosmos: 259). By learning our place in the cosmos at large, by
understanding our cosmic roots, by realizing that we live together on
one fragile planet with no real national boundaries, Sagan hopes we
might develop more peaceful and sustainable societies. It is likely, he
holds, that the Watson we might speak to on the other end of the cosmic
phoneline would be far more intelligent and technologically advanced
than us, such that we could not but be humbled. As Rachel Carson, author
of Silent Spring, emphasized, we are still in the paleolithic stage of
science, given our ignorance of ecology and lack of eco-wisdom.
Is it merely a coincidence that "vegans" are also
earthlings who embody principles of a compassionate diet and lifestyle?
Is it only accidental that vegetarians -- and vegans especially -- are
considered utterly alien to the dominant culture of carnivores? Isn't it
the case that, for all intents and purposes, we are from another galaxy?
Every vegetarian has encountered ignorance, bias, and
prejudice. We aren't targeted -- at least not yet -- by bigots for
violence, as are many people of color and homosexuals, but it is
interesting how our lifestyle choices that are informed by awareness and
compassion are routinely assaulted when the topic of food choice arises.
I have noticed that most polite and liberal people would never directly
challenge the beliefs, say, of a muslim fundamentalist or a homosexual,
yet don't hesitate to put vegetarians on the defensive with a barrage of
misinformed questions such as "Where do you get your protein?!" While
such queries superficially may regard pragmatic issues, the tone of
voice and vehemence suggests that they really are attempts at character
Why is it that vegetarians are treated with contempt,
mistrust, and disrespect, whereas liberal culture seems better able to
tolerate any other form of difference and deviation from the norm? I
don't think it is because we wear onion rings in our noses, dye our hair
with spirulina and beet juice, or have orgies with cucumbers and
cantaloupes (vive le difference!).
Clearly, vegetarians are treated with prejudice and open
hostility because we raise repressed feelings of guilt in the conscience
of the carnivore (such as it is), and because we violate the most
fundamental norm of this society -- THOU SHALL NOT REFUSE TO DINE ON THE
REMAINS OF MURDERED ANIMALS! Tearing the flesh of chickens, drinking the
blood of cows, and gnawing on the bones of pigs -- such is the tao of
In our culture, eating animal flesh is associated with
masculinity, modernization, and social status. Yet people of any race,
gender, creed, class, and sexual preference can always sit down over a
burger to gossip, to argue over current affairs, or even to discuss
their differences. However weird or strange one carnivore may view
another, they share one main thing in common (besides high cholesterol
rates and proclivities toward disease): they believe the purpose of
animals is for human consumption. Still, even the vegetarian can belly
up in solidarity with the carnivores, if the animal-derived food is a
milkshake or cheese pizza. But the vegan -- ah, the lonely vegan, a
prisoner to principles -- must part ways with them all.
Sagan says nothing about the diet of the Vegans --
indeed, they seem to be disembodied spirits -- but their level of
wisdom, spiritual insight, care for the world, and compassion is
something for which every ethically and philosophically oriented
vegetarian here on earth should strive. Every vegetarian knows that one
should become a vegan for the same reasons that one becomes a
vegetarian: to enhance one's health, to renounce the torture and
slaughter of animals, and to improve the earth as a whole. Every damn
dairy dollar of the vegetarian goes to raising cholesterol rates,
perpetuating the suffering of chickens and dairy cows, and eroding
Well, who knows, maybe vegans are from another galaxy.
Wherever we're from, we have "a message" for others -- carnivores and
vegetarians alike -- regarding why we have broken with animal products
completely and irrevocably. I hope we can make contact.
This review originally appeared in "Life Giving
Choices", the newsletter of the Vegetarian Society of El Paso (VSEP).
Steve Best is Associate Professor of Philosophy and
Humanities at the University of Texas, El Paso. He is Vice-President of
the Vegetarian Society of El Paso, a long time vegan and animal rights
activist, and author of numerous books and articles in the areas of
social theory, postmodernism, and cultural studies. Some of his writings
are posted at http://utminers.utep.edu/best/.
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