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Space Aliens or Compassionate Earthlings?
By Dr. Steven Best
Present global culture is a kind of arrogant newcomer. It arrives on the planetary stage following four and a half billion years of other acts, and after looking around for a few thousand years declares itself in possession 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, tailspinning 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 assassination.
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 the "civilized."
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 ecological sustainability.
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.
Steven Best is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Texas, El Paso. For more articles, visit his website http://www.drsetevebest.org.
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