Do We Need Another Earth?

What would be the first thing you’d say if you met yourself?

Questions like this are posed in Another Earth, an Independent film that won the Alfred P. Sloan prize at the Sundance Film festival a year or two ago.  I won’t go deeply into the summary of the story (you can watch the trailer here, I’ve realized I’ve been posting way too many Youtube videos), but it’s basically about a young woman who attempts to befriend the man whose family she had killed in a drunk driving accident. Meanwhile, Earth 2, an identical planet has been discovered behind the moon that contains a duplicate population like the one here on Earth. Sound bizarre right? But the movie doesn’t really focus on the sci-fi aspect of it, instead it focuses on the internal struggle of Rhoda and her relationship with John. The double Earth situation is used as a metaphor and jumping point for the movie to explore deep philosophical discussions on the nature of “what is the self?” and finding forgiveness. It’s quite an interesting movie for those people interested in drama and philosophy with a dash of the fantastical. All the talk about doubles and alternate selves/realities reminded me of a discussion I had in my writing seminar. We discussed an essay by Freud in which he explains that our consciousness is basically an internal alternate form of ourselves, able to make judgments on our own actions by viewing our own selves from the outside (I’ve realized when talking about this movie and topic, one will use the word ”self” many, many times).

And while I’d love to spend hours (ok, maybe just two) discussing  the nature of the ”self” and what truly makes one person different from another,  I wanted to touch on another aspect of the film, the science fiction aspect: space travel. Interestingly enough, Another Earth originally was inspired by the science-fiction aspect of the story – the question “what would it be like to see yourself?”” But there is also a strong theme of space exploration. Rhoda originally wanted to be an astrophysicist, there are numerous scenes with planetary symbols or dialogue dealing with space travel and astronomy, and well…it’s Another Earth. In an interview, Brit Marling – the lead actress and co-writer of the film – said this:

”  … I think it’s a really sad thing that we’ve closed the shuttle program and I think that’s a symptom of something larger that’s happening, which is that we’re not like looking outward anymore. We’ve become so deeply inward, everything in our culture is like me, me, me, me, me, me, me. I think there’s something deeply alienating and sad about that. I think people want to feel, they want to connect, they want to explore the unknown, they want to reach out for more and I hope that this movie gives them some sense of that. I hope this movie makes people demand that we continue our space travel, because it doesn’t really matter what we find in our lifetime but the search in and of itself means something and to not search … what is it about not searching that’s so –”

While I agree with some points Ms. Marling made – mainly that our culture is very narcisitic – I also have a different opinion on space travel. I’m not a fan of the space exploration program to be honest. I think NASA, while very cool, is also somewhat of a waste of resources. I somewhat understand the original need for it, to beat the Russians and gather information about space. And space traveling technologies have brought us satellites and such. But it takes quite a bit of money to launch people and satellites into space, and  for what purpose? To say that we were first? To advance technologies? To find out if we are not alone? And then what? What if we discover life on another planet, what will we do? Will we attempt to make peaceful contact with them? Will interplanetary war eventually break out? I understand the human need to want to know more, to continually search, but frankly, there’s still a lot about the world we live in that we still don’t know a whole lot about. Our oceans for instance, we’ve barely penetrated the surface of the deepest oceans and we’re still finding weird creatures that live down there where no light can penetrate. If you want a whole world, just look under your feet, it costs somewhat less to get there too. While I am in support for peaceful contact with alien species and all, I think the main priority right now should be making sure the world we live on right now is taken care of, and understanding more about this world, cause so far, this is the only one we got right now.

Which leads me to my next point. My water treatment design Professor is not a fan of the NASA program, and I guess some of his opinion rubbed off on me. NASA’s goals, as presented on their website, include “…designing and building the capabilities to send humans to explore the solar system, working toward a goal of landing humans on Mars.” And while I support NASA’s research in more efficient and safer aeronautical travel, their mission for exploration is somewhat discouraging. Bascially NASA’s goal is to get people on different planets, hopefully planets that can sustain more life. Why? Well, I guess no one’s gonna say it, but in the event that we screw this world up so bad that the resources are depleted, we’ll have to move to a different planet in order to survive. It’s a pretty typical sci-if scenario, humans leaving earth in search of a new home. My professor likened this practice to the traditional slash-and-burn technique that small tribes use or used. Basically a tribe would cut down all the trees in an area and burn them down in order to create the fields. The ash fertilizes the soil and the people begin using the field for farming. After all the good soil is used up, they move on to a new land to let the used up land have a change to replenish (which can take decades). For a small group of people, this agricultural technique works…as long as you  have a large ratio of land to people, but becomes pretty unsustainable as the population grows since people would be using up resources faster than they could replenish them. That’s basically what the human approach to Earth is at the moment, or at least, through NASA. We are allowed to use up all the resources and then just move on to a new planet. But we don’t have a new planet yet, so I think we better keep our hands on this one, trying to find new planets may be beneficial in the knowledge aspect of it all, at least we know there’s life out there, but what does that mean for civilization in terms of progress?

I also don’t think space exploration is the only way humans can explore the unknown and reach out for a sense of of how small we really are in this universe. It certainly is one of the easiest ways though, just look up into the night sky and you’ll realize just how small and insignificant we really are compared to huge stars and celestial bodies. Nature here on earth can make us feel pretty small, there are some pretty huge mountains out there, as well as large expanses of oceans. And while I think it’s important we look outward as a species, I think the inward look is also not enough. I don’t mean looking at ourselves in a narcissistic way as the center of the universe, but I mean looking at ourselves reflectively, to contemplate who we are, a form of meditation if you will. Understanding why we do certain things is a pretty important step in order to change. I think the movie touched on the relationship between the self and selfishness pretty well, it certainly made me start thinking about it. Finally, Ms. Marling concludes:

“”…I think it’s going against our humanity and I think that’s what it means to be human, to question to wonder who we are and why we’re doing it and the exploration of space, the shuttle program is just a literal manifestation of that and I think we have to keep looking.””

And I totally agree with her. Humanity has a need to continually search, to question, to try to understand. But there’s so much here on Earth that we can explore, and after we learn all we can on Earth, then I suppose it’s ok to look farther. I don’t want to seem like I’m bashing NASA, cause I think space exploration is cool stuff, just maybe not what we need at the moment, and space exploration is not the only avenue to express our innate curiosity to know. We can certainly search here on Earth, and through it benefit not only humanity, but nature.

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