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Know the West

A plan for Spaceship Earth


I’ve always gotten a chuckle out of the bumper sticker that says, "Earth First! We’ll mine the other planets later." But now that President George W. Bush has decided that America should expand its reach to the moon and Mars, my laugh is becoming a groan.

Oh, I know that Bush’s plans for a permanent human settlement on the moon and a manned space voyage to Mars are full of political hot air. With a record national debt and the ripening crises in health care and Social Security — not to mention an increasingly expensive military occupation in Iraq — you don’t just find hundreds of billions of dollars under any old rock these days. Heading into an election year, Bush, like presidents before him, is looking for a visionary idea that will lift the spirits of Americans uneasy with the war abroad and a tepid economic recovery at home. And what better place to look than the heavens?

But scratch the political veneer of the new space initiative, and you find the same kind of overweening hubris that has plagued western civilization from the beginning. Behind every visionary voyage of discovery — from Columbus to Lewis and Clark — lies an unseemly grasp for power and resources, supported by an insidious assumption: Human societies cannot live within their means. They must constantly find new supplies of resources, or die.

So, as NASA’s robots roll across the red soil of Mars, analyzing mineral composition as they go, I can’t help but envision the day when governments and mining corporations stake claims to the moon and the planets, much as they have to the American West. I am not alone. In a recent article in Time magazine, David Criswell, director of the Institute for Space Systems Operations at the University of Houston, that the moon could become a powerful solar station that could beam clean energy via microwaves back to earth. "If you want to provide sustainable energy for 10 billion people by 2050, there is no other way."

There has to be another way, for looking beyond Earth for salvation to our planet’s woes is, by definition, not sustainable. And it’s high time that Earthlings curb their appetites in the name of self-preservation. That’s something that’s happening in Port Orford, Ore., the fishing community profiled in this issue’s cover story. The town has suffered from the unregulated biological mining of the oceans, but now local fishermen and scientists are devising a plan to nurture their local fisheries back to health. The goal is something they’ve never achieved before — a sustainable fishing economy that will support the community far into the future.

It’s not the sexy stuff of election-year politics, but if the West, and the world, are to flourish in an age of overpopulation, careful, community-level management of natural resources must become the norm, rather than the exception. These tenuous efforts must be supported with intellectual and financial capital. They must be extolled by presidents and lawmakers eager to inspire us with their visions of human societies living richly within our planet’s natural bounty.

Earth First. We’ll travel the galaxy later, when desperation and exploitation are no longer the driving forces.