There Is Actually Planet B, It Just Won’t Save Us From Climate Change
By Kalliopi Monoyios, in response to Tilt West’s roundtable on Fire and Water: The Art and Science of the West in Crisis
On any given day while sitting at a traffic light between Here and There, I like to contemplate what rush hour might look like on other planets. One planet might have significantly weaker gravity, giving commuting a comically slo-mo feel, with plushy organisms grazing the surface of the planet and floating up in graceful arcs like dandelion seeds in a bouncy house. On another planet life might be reliant on echolocation–the location of objects by sound rather than sight. There, beings ping chaotically between obstacles in a screaming din of noise. A third planet might orbit three suns, so no matter which direction you’re headed, the sun is always, always, always in your eyes. Mercy.
These places are fanciful, yet not out of the realm of possibility. NASA’s exoplanet encyclopedia puts the number of confirmed planets revolving around our nearest-star neighbors at 5190, but they are comically beyond our reach to visit or even see (hundreds to thousands of light years away). To date, we’ve only sent two spacecraft outside the boundaries of our solar system. Launched in 1977, the space probes Voyager I and Voyager II have been traveling for 45 years and are 14.75 and 12.26 billion miles from Earth. The farthest a human being has been from Earth is just beyond the moon: 248,655 miles away. For comparison, our closest star neighbor, Alpha Centauri, and presumably its exoplanets, are just over four light years away. That’s more than 25 trillion miles. The distances in space are punishingly large.
Our Place in the Cosmos is Here On Earth
As a twenty-something, I spent a portion of the summer of 2001 in the high Canadian Arctic on a fossil expedition. The following year, the same expedition would recover the ancient pioneer, Tiktaalik roseae, a fossil fish that illustrates how the transition from water to land happened 375 million years ago. Each evening while we were there, we had a radio check-in with the Polar Continental Shelf Program, which provided logistical support to all the field researchers scattered across the Arctic each summer. They were also the ones who received our gear from Chicago, flew it (and us) to a rocky airstrip in the tundra around the 78th parallel, and then helicoptered us the remaining miles to our field site. If you missed your nightly check-in, they’d send a rescue mission whether you needed it or not, and if you hadn’t died of exposure, you might instead die from a truly frightening bill. So we’d fire up our radio fifteen minutes early just to be safe and sit waiting as all the other scientific field crews checked in to relay the news that all was well.
Our place in line was immediately after a team of researchers on Devon Island who were holed up in an impact crater determined to be as close as one could get to simulating life on Mars. We used to giggle about it, but it’s a serious research program backed by NASA. Normally, I’m a dedicated supporter of basic research, but anyone who thinks this research will pan out as a near-term solution to climate change is kidding themselves. If you’ve read or seen The Martian or heard the often repeated phrase, “There is no Planet B,” you can appreciate the option of simply moving to another planet is impractical. The glorious experiment of life in which we are enmeshed only exists for us here, now, on this planet, period. Full stop. And that makes dire warnings of pending climate catastrophe all the more perilous.
What Doesn’t Bend, Breaks
When humans invented agriculture 10,000 years ago, they defined a new way of living. Nomadic lifestyles receded. A steadier food supply allowed for larger communities and ultimately the technological advancements that define humanity today. People freed from toiling for every calorie could specialize, which enabled them to build cities of skyscrapers, museums of art, information superhighways, and the global supply chain. Paradoxically, as we’ve become more virtuosic in some ways, we’ve grown more brittle in others. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the face of climate curveballs. Our nomadic ancestors might have responded to an ice age by migrating to greener pastures, but our hands are tied (or, as Sara Bareilles sings, “The tide’s coming in, and I’m bound for a swim, in a pair of cement shoes.”) The increasing frequency and severity of storms, wildfires, and droughts of the last decade reveal what we have too long taken for granted: society was built on a steady, predictable climate.
In my work on plastic pollution, I often point out that every era in human history has its triumphs and its missteps. It makes no more sense to go back in time before plastic was ubiquitous than it does to bring back asbestos because it was such a great insulator. (Plastic, it bears mentioning, is just another symptom of life in the petroleum age.) After all, plastic confers benefits on modern life, including lighter vehicles that are more fuel efficient, PPE that protects us from pathogens, and synthetic materials that reduce pressure on our forests, agricultural land and freshwater resources. Going back to life before plastic would be renouncing important gains. Similarly, it follows that the answer to our dependence on fossil fuels is not to bring back the horse and buggy. The only way out of this bed we’ve made with its suffocating CO2 blanket is through innovation and problem solving. Our only path is forward.
Mirrors, Visionaries, and Purveyors of Hope
Where does that leave us as artists? Likely, our skill set doesn’t put us in a position to find the key to nuclear fission any time soon, and I’d bet decent money we won’t be calculating the specs on any future manned flights to Mars. (I might be underestimating some of you, and if so, mad respect!) Instead, I find it more likely that we are the eyes and ears and often the conscience of society. Some of us will draw attention through art to the suffering that climate pressures create, which fall disproportionately on those most marginalized and oppressed. Some will hold mirrors up to the powerful to expose how the stories we tell ourselves about who we want to be don’t quite align with who we actually are. Others will remind us of our connection to nature, and still others will envision alternative, greener futures that give us hope.
With almost eight billion humans on the planet, it is right and appropriate that each of us reflects what we see from our unique outpost. None of us can capture the whole picture, but together our perspectives form a compound eye where each lens conveys a unique and important piece of a larger puzzle. As artists, we see, hear, and feel deeply. We also have the unique ability to make others do the same.
My sincere hope is that all of us take a moment — in traffic, perhaps, or wherever you do your best reflection — to appreciate just how precious this planet is. It holds everything we’ve ever known. It’s hokey, and yet profound to think that if we each add “Earthling” to the list of identities we carry with us — and maybe even consider putting it first, above all others — we might have more success in banding together to protect this planet that sustains us all.
Kalliopi Monoyios is one small human on Planet Earth. She creates art about plastic and American consumerism, curates exhibits with environmental and science-forward themes, and writes about science and connection. Her greatest joy is contemplating other mysterious Earthlings evolution has produced: lichen, moss, cephalopods, and nudibranchs, to name just a few.