We Have a Problem: Live with our eyes open without allowing ourselves to be defeated
It is July 20, 1969. The Apollo 11 manned space mission lands on our Moon, and a few hours later, Neil Armstrong takes his first steps on the lunar surface, filling the world with amazement and admiration. With this accomplishment emerges the deep emotion of feeling an intimate union with an Earth that impels us to love and protect it, the home of all the humans we have known and, in all probability, will know.1
Four years earlier, Aleksei Leonov, the Russian astronaut, made the first spacewalk in history, expressing that the Earth is “our home, small, blue and touchingly lonely,”2 a point lost in the enveloping cosmic darkness.
The preparation, realization, and subsequent follow-up of the first trip to the Moon was a long, expensive, and difficult process,3 full of achievements, but also many difficulties. “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” said Armstrong when stepping onto the Moon, symbolizing the enormous human achievement. But another expression, often used jokingly when faced with a setback, has become even more popular: “Houston, we have a problem.”4
Earth Has a Problem
Today, it is not Apollo but the Earth that has a big Problem. Of course, humanity faces many problems: growing social inequality, the danger of nuclear war, movement toward an authoritarian and plutocratic society subject to tight global techno-digital control, the rise of neo-fascism, the emergence of pandemics, massive social control and surveillance, new collective addictions, the global geopolitical risks derived from the decline of the North American empire and the emergence of China, and many others.
Today, that blue balloon suspended in an infinite and dark space has an even bigger problem, if possible, the biggest challenge that we have ever had to face, a challenge that persistently knocks at our door: the socio-ecological crisis. No, it is not just about cleaning our rivers, planting trees, caring for forests, recycling products, or encouraging the use of renewable energies, all of which are essential and urgent initiatives. Nor am I referring to the crucial fact that we are facing a climate emergency that is already having dire consequences. Our problem is more complex; it is something else.
Earth is our home. Our planet is the only world in which we know with certainty that the matter of the Cosmos has become alive and conscious, although it is not necessarily the only one that can be inhabited.5 The first time that humanity contemplated “our smallness” took place on Christmas Eve of 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission when a photograph exploded the consciousness of our species.
That day, the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote:
“To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold – brothers who know now they are truly brothers.”6
In his books and television programs, the astronomer and great popularizer of science Carl Sagan recalled that we are the legacy of 15,000 million years of cosmic evolution and that we have the pleasure of living on a planet where we have evolved to be able to breathe the air, drink the water, and love the nature that surrounds us. Our cells have been forged in the heart of the stars. “We are stardust,” he used to say. Today, we are facing an absolutely new circumstance, unprecedented in human history. We have created a civilization in which we have achieved tremendous social progress and technological advancements but where, willingly or unwillingly, we have profoundly (and ever more rapidly) altered the global environment and life on our planet. We no longer understand that we are part of nature, and that makes us a danger to all life on Earth, including ourselves. The Chilean poet Nicanor Parra warned that we have made the mistake of “believing that the Earth was ours when the truth of things is that we belong to the Earth,” and that we continue to have an anthropocentric, scientific-technological, and narcissistic way of thinking based in an “ego-awareness” instead of in an “eco-awareness.”7
We tend to be blind, to attenuate what threatens us, to muffle what is harmful or negative, to not look at what we do not like. Despite it being in front of our eyes every day, we don’t see, we don’t feel, we don’t understand; we do not want to become fully aware of the atrocious socio-environmental crisis in which we are immersed. We find it hard to believe the incessant and terrifying warnings that scientists are constantly throwing at us. It is worth noting that we find many reasons to ignore the voices, and that many people, social groups, and institutions do everything possible to prevent us from hearing. However, it is crucial that we understand that it is not enough to enjoy the goods, resources, and well-being that nature gives us; we must also understand it and understand each other. That awareness must come from a clean human gaze that is scientific, ethical-political, and spiritual at the same time. It is not enough to enjoy electric light, said the Brazilian Dominican friar Frei Betto; one must understand how and why it is produced: “[O]nly those who have been trained as electricians know how to look at it with different eyes, because they understand how light reaches the room… that is political awareness: seeing the threads, knowing what is going on behind the scenes.”8 The first thing is to know. In a well-known essay, the Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant recalled an old slogan coined by Horace (1st century BC): Sapere Aude. He said: “Whoever has started, has already done half: dare to know, start.”9
Tiny and Fragile Habitat
For a long time, the planet seemed immense to us, the only explorable world. For a million years, humanity believed that we were the center of the world, that apart from the Earth there was no other place. Today, the Earth has become very small. In the latest phase of the life of our species on the planet, we have realized that we live in a tiny and fragile world lost in immensity and in eternity, adrift in a great cosmic ocean.
On February 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 space probe photographed the Earth from six billion kilometers away.10 It was an almost imperceptible point of light.
Carl Sagan expressed his feelings dramatically upon seeing that photograph:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena… Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.”11
Human beings live in an environment that we shape and that at the same time shapes us. We inhabit a natural world created over billions of years by the processes of physics, chemistry, and biology. We are just one of the species.12
We are able to build comfortable houses to care for our elderly and also huge 26-lane highways.13 We invent books or the global Internet, and we also build deadly nuclear weapons We can explore the Poles and visit the Moon or Mars, create musical beauty, and develop elegant and powerful scientific theories and highly efficient technologies. We remake nature to suit us… we are a species capable of almost everything. We are not just another species.14
We live in two worlds that are in constant interaction: the ecosphere or natural biosphere – the thin global skin made up of air, water, land, and the plants and animals that live in it – and the technosphere created by human beings, with all the gadgets and products that we have been able to invent. Two worlds at war, as the great biologist and ecologist Barry Commoner reminded us.15
The current human capacity to wield enough power to intervene decisively over nature has its origin in the capitalist industrial revolution that began at the end of the 18th century. In the last century, we have witnessed the expansion of an unstoppable fossil-fuel capitalism, and in the last five decades, the economic and ideological triumph of a neoliberal and cognitive capitalism, capable of creating exponential growth and marvelous technologies, but also of destroying social ties and deep solidarity, promoting mass consumption and empty entertainment as a way of life and personal “realization.” The triumph of neoliberal capitalism has been vast and very deep, at all levels, everywhere.
Today the capitalist system does not seem capable of creating “well-being states” for all of humanity, not even, as the long-remembered Spanish urban planner and environmentalist Ramón Fernández Durán called, “simulations of well-being.” Capitalism is an all-encompassing materiality that destroys, builds, and consumes. Commodification extends from the microcosm to the macrocosm, encompassing all areas of life and things: health, education, nature, knowledge, culture, art, sports, the body… The body is analyzed, fragmented, commercialized, and finally, sold as another commodity. Genetically modified genes, bacteria, seeds, tissues, and animals are patented; organs are trafficked and bought; wombs, relatives, and even girlfriends are rented; and plots are sold on the Moon or on other planets.1617
It is also an immaterial way of life. Emotional capitalism is the ultimate cause of a widespread pathogenesis that enters our bodies and minds. It penetrates our brains, planting ideas, stories, and fictions that change our ways of thinking and transform human relationships. Pharmaceutical companies, active trackers of any potential profit, identify all kinds of discomforts, addictions, neuroses, disorders, worries, pains, humiliations, and fears caused by capitalism itself, to create all kinds of syndromes and diseases and sell their cures. However, for a large part of humanity, access to vital fundamentals as basic as eating food, drinking clean water, or breathing air in hygienic and healthy conditions is still an unattainable dream.
We have the means and resources to reeducate our minds, to see our Problem, but we need the determination and courage – personal and collective – to do it. We cannot resign ourselves to not thinking and feeling at the same time. We must use that concept borrowed by the Colombian sociologist Orlando Gals Borda from the fishermen of San Benito Abad in the Colombian municipality of Sucre: “sentipensar” (something like “feelthinking”).
The fundamental innovation of the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries was the asking of questions and discovering our ignorance, thus, realizing that we did not have all the answers. We learned that with effort, time, and resources we could investigate and learn more, gaining the power to change technology, culture, the economy, and the natural environment. Science, knowledge, and problem solving are continually initiated and nurtured by asking ourselves questions. Albert Einstein pointed out that the formulation of a problem is more important than its solution. The writer Mark Twain pointed out that the problem is not what we do not know, but what we falsely believe to be true. The artist and writer John Berger urged us to live with our eyes open without allowing ourselves to be defeated by nihilism, hatred, and despair. Will we finally be able to look at (and change) our Problem? •
Originally published in Spanish (April 23, 2022), at ctxt.es
- This emotion is known as the “overview effect.” Seeing the planet bathed in the darkness of space, the borders are blurred and we are all citizens of Earth. Ron Garan, a former NASA astronaut who spent two weeks working on the construction of the International Space Station, said: “For me it was a slow-motion epiphany… a deep sense of empathy and community, a willingness to give up having a immediate reward and have a perspective of multi-generational advancement… it is the home of all who have ever lived and all who will be.” See: Ian Sample. “Scientists attempt to recreate ‘Overview effect’ from Earth.” The Guardian, 26 December 2019.
- Rafael Poch. “Vistas desde allá arriba.” Ctxt, 3 April 2019.
- The economic cost was about $288-billion in 2019 dollars, spent in just over a decade. In 1965 the program reached its zenith, with an investment equivalent to 2% of the US GDP at that time. Antonio Turiel. Cincuenta años del primer hombre en la Luna. 26 July 2019.
- The phrase is not exact nor was it said during the first trip but a year later, on Apollo 13. Nevertheless, that is how it has been recorded in the popular imagination. “Houston, we have a problem” is a popular but misquoted quote from Jack Swigert during the bumpy ride of Apollo 13, just after seeing a warning light accompanied by a bang at 21:08 CST, 13th April 1970. Swigert’s sentence was: “Ok, Houston, we’ve had a problem here.” Which was followed by his partner Jim Lovell saying: “Uh, Houston, we’ve had a problem.”
- Carl Sagan, one of the best popularizers of science and the Cosmos, said it in these words: “There are a hundred billion galaxies and a billion trillion stars. Why should this modest planet be the only inhabited world? To me, it seems far more likely that the cosmos is brimming over with life and intelligence. But so far, every living thing, every conscious being, every civilization we know anything about lived there, on Earth. Beneath these clouds the drama of the human species has been unfolded… National boundaries are not evident when we view the Earth from space. Fanatical ethnic or religious or national chauvinisms are a little difficult to maintain when we see our planet as a fragile blue crescent fading to become an inconspicuous point of light against the bastion and citadel of the stars.” See Chapter 1 of the series of 13 documentaries entitled Cosmos, based on the book Sagan, C. Cosmos. Barcelona: Planeta, 1980.
- Archibald MacLeish. The New York Times. December 25, 1968:1.
- Nicanor Parra. Ecopoemas. Santiago de Chile: Gráfica Marginal, 1982.
- Frei Betto: “No hay política progresista sin un trabajo de educación popular.” La Capital, 03 June 2017.
- Immanuel Kant. Answer the Question: What is Enlightenment? Strelbytskyy Multimedia Publishing, 2019.
- Voyager 1 is a 722-kilogram robotic space probe launched on September 5, 1977 that is the farthest human-made object from Earth. Its mission is to locate and study the limits of the solar system and to explore the immediate interstellar space. In June 2021 it was 22,909,417,919 km from the Sun and it has about 17,702 years left to leave the Oort cloud, where it will enter the 24th century.
- Carl Sagan. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Random House, 1994.
- Ward B, Dubos R. Only One Earth. New York: Ballantine Books, 1972:XIX.
- The largest highway in the world is a section of Interstate 10 and at its widest point it reaches 26 lanes between merging lanes, restricted to certain vehicles, and in both directions. See: “La carretera con más carriles del planeta, la carretera Katy Freeway.” Structuralia. 13 January 2016.
- Although the human being is one of many species, he is not one more of the species. “The [human] species has developed in its evolution, for better and for worse, a plasticity that is difficult to exhaust of its potentialities and needs. We must recognize that our natural capacities and needs are capable of expanding to the point of self-destruction. We have to see that we are biologically the species of the Hubris, of original sin, of pride, the exaggerated species.” See: Sacristán M. Pacifismo, ecologismo y política alternativa. Barcelona: Icaria, 1987:10.
- Commoner B. Making peace with the planet. New York, Pantheon books. 1990.
- The American businessman Dennis Hope registered the Moon in his name in 1980. Hope took advantage of a legal vacuum, since although there is an international treaty that indicates that no country can claim ownership of the Moon or another planet, it does not say anything about private people or companies. The satellite was divided, beginning the sale of plots through the Lunar Embassy. Through his company Lunar Embassy Hope he sells pieces of lunar land and the same could happen with Mars, Mercury and Pluto.
- See for example the books by Immanuel Wallerstein. Historical Capitalism. London: Verso Books, 1983; Yannis Varoufakis. Talking to My Daughter About the Economy. The Bodley Head Ltd, 2017.