Opinion » Maxed Out

Maxed out

Reason, logic and intelligent forms of life



My Perfect Partner and I are at odds over my latest theory about UFOs. Yes, UFOs. Having largely grown up within what can most graciously be called the Blast Zone of a number of first-strike military targets — Strategic Air Command military bases, cutting-edge weapons research labs and, in my youth, the U.S.’s largest concentration of U2 spy planes — UFOs have always fascinated me. Alas, they’ve also always let me down.

This fascination was fueled by the 1951 black-and-white sci-fi film, The Day the Earth Stood Still . To this day I may be the only one who regularly checks it out of the library. Made in the aftermath of World War II and just as the Cold War was heating up, the plotline is pretty simple. An alien from an unnamed planet lands on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to deliver a message to Earth’s leaders. Learn to live in peace or the really advanced planets, who have banded together to ensure no backwards planet threatens the social fabric of space, will send one of their powerful robots back to earth to reduce the planet to a cinder.

He’s shot by the army almost as he emerges from the spaceship.

I liked the idea that there may be powerful aliens who actually cared enough about Earth to destroy it if its alleged leaders didn’t get their act together and stop threatening to reduce it to a cinder themselves. When we were in the middle of those inane and pointless Duck-and-Cover drills — scrabble around on the dirty classroom floor and hide under your desk so it’ll somehow protect you from the shockwave and wall-o-fire that would reduce the entire building around you to dust in the event the Commies let fly their nukes — I would mutter to myself, “Gort, where are you when we need you most.” Gort was the robot who could stop time or cinderize Earth.

But despite regular scans of the night sky and living almost within smelling distance of Roswell, I never spied a UFO, let alone a robot destroyer/saviour. The only things I ever saw in the sky I couldn’t identify could be traced to pharmaceutical experimentation or the effects of altitude. I began to get skeptical, notwithstanding the best efforts of the Air Force’s Project Blue Book to explain UFO sightings as swamp gas or some other nonsense, explanations that made UFOs seem not only plausible but likely given the government’s desire to debunk them.

As time passed, photography grew in popularity, video cameras were invented and UFO sightings gave way to chillingly similar descriptions of alien abductions, my skepticism grew. Hell, if there was that much alien activity happening all around me why weren’t there any better pictures than the ones that looked remarkably like frisbees floating through the night sky?

Now I think I know. I’ve come to believe there really are no UFOs, no highly-advanced civilizations capable of cranking out Earth-destroying robots, no starship Enterprises cruising the galaxies or slipping through wormholes.

I still imagine there are other planets inhabited by lifeforms more advanced than flatworms. I just don’t think any have managed to figure out space travel. And I don’t think any ever will. It’s that travel at the speed of light problem.

The nearest planet to Earth is 10.5 light years away. No one is suggesting it’s inhabited. A light year is a very, very long way, 9.46 million million kilometres, if you must know. The fastest thing shot into space so far reached speeds of about 250,000 km/h. You do the math.

Two years ago, Dr. Franklin Felber presented research suggesting near light speed space travel might be achieved by the end of this century. I’m not certain we’ll be around that long but I am certain we’ll find other ways to spend the money it would take to bring his theory to fruition. There are undreamed of wars to squander the funds on, Horatio.

I am pretty certain the crushing weight of modernity, the unquenchable thirst humans have demonstrated for new and easier ways to make Earth uninhabitable by their own species and our seeming inability to solve problems far simpler than speed of light travel will conspire to keep interstellar travel a pipedream. At least until such time as we join the dinosaurs as extinct, past rulers of the planet.

And I suspect the same is likely on any other planet that ever became technologically advanced enough to ever spark an interest in visiting Earth.

That’s because the technological advancement and intelligence to even begin to contemplate the solutions to the barriers to space travel leaves a lot of detritus in its wake. Things like energy production, factories, cellphones, burgeoning populations and the very impressive array of BIG trucks hitched to BIG trailers filled with BIG snowmobiles parked in the lot behind my hotel room in Revelstoke. We’re smart enough to pave and power our path to our own extinction, we’re just not smart enough — at least so far — to stop ourselves from closing in on that destination.

The crux of the problem is our difficulty distinguishing between things we can do and things we should do… or more to the point, things we shouldn’t do. We can, for example, figure out how to catch fish. We can’t, it seems, figure out how to stop ourselves before we fish species to extinction. We can figure out how to build nuclear power plants, we can’t figure out what to do with the waste. We can contrive esoterica like financial derivatives, we can’t figure out how to keep ’em from bankrupting us.

Closer to home, we seem to be able to build a world class resort, but it’s becoming pretty clear we’re not entirely sure how to sustain one. Despite our commitment to sustainability, actually making progress on many of the key metrics of sustainability seems elusive. We seem perfectly capable of envisioning and even building infrastructure we deem desirable, but we seem to be losing the battle to find ways to afford to maintain it and keep our happy mountain home affordable.

What’s happening here, on a very small scale, is accelerating out of control everywhere else. B.C.’s Premier is lauded for taking baby steps on the environment — a carbon tax — while Alberta’s Premier prefers to reap the financial benefits of a rape and pillage policy on oil and gas while putting any serious environmental concerns off for another half century.

If this seems overly pessimistic, it’s not meant to be. I’m pretty comfortable with the notion mankind is just the latest incarnation of the dinosaur. My Perfect Partner counters my assertion about UFOs by arguing highly-intelligent life may evolve differently on other planets.

Ironically, I believe that’s my point.