The Moon Loop

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Reading the news today about Elon Musk’s planned tourist flight to the moon, I decided it might be time to share a passage from a novel I’ve been working on for almost two years now. It’s called The Fourth Time, and my main characters are an archaeologist and her science-fiction writer husband, both of whom work at a place called Southeast Texas State University. Enjoy! 

“I have something to show you,” Seth said. I dragged a second chair up to the desk and sat down to wait while he found the something. “Ah, here we go.” A full-screen video popped up showing a photo of the moon that rapidly zoomed in to a close shot of the moon’s surface.

“Nice,” I said.

“Well, that’s just the opening screen,” he explained. “Here’s the thing.” He clicked on a little spaceship icon. “It’s a lottery, Meg. A lottery to win a trip on a shuttle right around the moon and back. Run by that private corporation that’s starting up commercial space travel – you know, Out There, Inc., the company founded by Nolan Saveur. Anyway, I want to use some of my book advance to buy you a lottery ticket for your birthday. What do you say?”

I said nothing. I knew Seth meant this as a pleasant distraction, another means of pulling me out of my funk. Instead I felt like crying.

“Meg?” Seth said. “Did you hear me? I thought you might think this was a fun idea.”

“It’s just… it’s like the dream I had. You know, just before we left? A space flight around the moon. With civilians…”

“Oh, gosh, now I remember. You thought it was from one of my stories. I’m sorry Meg. I guess this is sort of like dejá vu for you. ”

I struggled to tame my feelings—anger? fear? resentment? I shrugged and looked out the window. “No, it doesn’t feel so much like dejá vu as like… Is there a word for remembering something that hasn’t happened yet?” I laughed softly and tousled Seth’s thinning hair. “Maybe it just means you’ll win the damn lottery. Do you really want to go?” I’d missed the part about it being my birthday gift.

Seth frowned at the screen. “You know I’d love to buy the ticket for myself, but with my heart problem and high blood pressure, you know they’d never let me go. You on the other hand, with all your digging in the dirt, as you say, in the great out-of-doors – you’re plenty fit and healthy. Please, Meg? I really, really want to do this. It could be your birthday present. Or, if not for your birthday, then for mine. Although mine is still six months away.”

“Isn’t that the company that lost a ship on their first unmanned trial? Somewhere on the dark side of the moon?”

“Ah. Well, yes, they are. But since then they’ve had three successful flights – one unmanned and two manned. They wouldn’t be doing this if they weren’t confident of the safety of the thing. They’re calling it the Moon Loop.”

“Sounds like a new expressway. Or an amusement park ride. Or maybe a breakfast cereal.” I sighed. “How much are the tickets? God, Seth, I can’t believe I’m asking a serious question about your loopy idea! What are the odds?”

“Tickets are only $500,” Seth replied. “Odds, of course, depend on how many tickets they sell. But I can guarantee our odds are much improved if we actually buy a ticket!” He winked at me.

“Only $500? Gosh, Seth, think what else we could do with that money.” I was thinking about the new dishwasher we needed and our recent discussions about putting new tile in the bathroom.

“Oh, god, Seth. Let’s just cut to the part of this discussion where I give in and you send these nuts our $500. Happy birthday to us.”

“Are you sure, babe?”

“Yes, yes. I’ll think of this as an investment in the dubious cause of civilian space travel and my husband’s career.”

“Whatever did I do to deserve such an incredible partner in zaniness as my Meg?” Seth grabbed me, gave me a kiss, and let out a happy little whoop as he zeroed in on the part of the website where you actually buy the lottery ticket.

As I left the cabin to walk over to the lab for an afternoon of processing artifacts, I thought that maybe the combination of the jaguar sighting and Seth’s ill-conceived and badly timed offer of a lottery chance for a moon ride might have been just the ticket to pull me out of that place where I take myself and my experiences way too seriously. In the self-same moment, I felt a bitter sadness for the apparent randomness of it all.

Why Walls?

walls

All the talk about building that wall along the border between my home state of Texas and our neighbor to the south made me more than a little curious about who else around the world has built (or may plan to build) a wall. It’s an informative list. (See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Border_barrier )

Of 30 countries listed in the Wikipedia article (which may or may not be complete or accurate), only seven of the walls were built before 2000 and only four predate 1990. Prior to that date, the only border walls noted were between China and Hong Kong, between North and South Korea, between Egypt and Gaza, and between South Africa and Mozambique. There also used to be one between East and West Berlin in Germany, but that one’s history. (A history we should study, BTW.)

South Africa has subsequently built additional walls on its borders with Botswana and Zimbabwe, making it one of the most walled-in countries in the world. The second most walled-in is Uzbekistan, which has built border fences with Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has barricaded itself from both Yemen and Iraq. India has a wall along its border with Kashmir.

In Europe, a barrier separating Spain from Morocco was built in 2001 (an earlier section was built in 1998) and walls or fences have recently gone up between Bulgaria and Turkey (2014), between Macedonia and Greece (2015) and between Hungary and both Serbia and Croatia (2015).

Walls are currently under construction in eight more locations and are proposed for an additional six. India is fortifying its borders with both Bangladesh and Burma. The other walls being built separate Argentina from Paraguay, China from Korea, Iran from Pakistan, Slovenia from Croatia, Ukraine from Russia, and the United Arab Republic from Oman.

Further walls are proposed between Belize and Guatemala, between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, between Estonia and Russia, between Malaysia and Thailand, and between Pakistan and Afghanistan. And then, of course, there’s the one between Mexico and the USA, small sections of which already exist.

Why all this 21st-century wall-building? Of the 30 walls existing, under construction, or proposed, fully 25 of them are being built at least in part to curb “illegal immigration”. Eight instances are intended to inhibit smuggling, seven are built in (or define) conflict zones or “disputed territory”, and four are construed as “anti-terrorism” barriers.

Now it’s time for the anthropologist to make a couple of observations. First, I would point out that there are more people alive today than at any time in the past. Why does nobody talk about overpopulation anymore? Second, we need to talk about the fact that human beings have never been as fixed in place as most of our high school history and social science texts would lead you to believe.

Overpopulation

When I Googled “overpopulation” I got five options – definition, myth, problems, facts, and “in china”. This last entry is about China’s well known one-child policy and we’re going to leave that aside for our purposes here (although I will note that the policy has recently been abandoned).

The definition of overpopulation is this: “excessive population of an area to the point of overcrowding, depletion of natural resources, or environmental deterioration.” This is the standard applied to all species, not just humans.

As for the “myth”, this refers to the complexities of applying the above standard definition of overpopulation to a cultural, social, technology-enabled creature like Homo sapiens. The disturbing idea that there could be some natural limit to human population constituted by the carrying capacity of planet earth was designated a “myth” sometime in the mid-20th century and the declaration made that there really is no such thing as overpopulation for us. This arose in the heyday of our faith in science and technology and human creativity and was touted as recently as 2013 in the opinion pages of the New York Times.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/14/opinion/overpopulation-is-not-the-problem.html )

Ongoing research into climate change and other forms of human destruction of our planet and its resources calls this optimistic myth-busting faith in human capability into question. Or maybe it’s becoming not so much a question of “can we” continue to support a burgeoning human population, but rather “will we”. When we deny the admonitions of climate scientists to rein in our carbon-transforming ways and refuse to change our high-consuming habits, we are clearly not living up to our potential and may be producing the very overpopulation that scientists have for several decades now told us we didn’t need to worry about. Rachel Carson’s 1960s classic Silent Spring has suddenly become a bestseller again on Amazon, recently grabbing #1 in environmental books. Climate refugees are a reality – people fleeing lands that no longer produce a livelihood – and nations become more possessive and defensive about their own resources. We increasingly perceive a limited-sum game and immigrants are no longer resources who can potentially make our nation stronger. Rather, they are “taking our jobs” and otherwise straining the limited resources of our nations.

You want some facts? Consider that between 1999 and 2011, global population increased by a billion people. That’s a lot of strain on human ingenuity. Furthermore, our population continues to grow by more than 3,000 hungry mouths every twenty minutes. Just this past week, the United Nations declared a state of famine in South Sudan. Clearly, our human creativity and engineering potential are struggling. It’s also worth pointing out that these 3,000 new people per day hunger not merely for food and clean water but also for cars and air conditioning and cell phones. (SOURCE: http://www.postconsumers.com/education/10-facts-overpopulation/)

Human Migration

When I taught cultural anthropology, one of the most stubborn misperceptions of my students was the idea that there were great benefits to humans “settling down” during the Neolithic farming revolution and even that humans would have found it a great relief to do so! First of all, I would explain, the initial stages of living in the same place year-round would have meant a less varied diet (relying on a limited range of crops) and a much less hygienic environment (living in the midst of your own waste is not so pleasant). Archaeological data support this hypothesis that the earliest farmers were less healthy than hunters and gatherers in a strong environment. Furthermore, how can you argue that humans are naturally sedentary in light of our thriving tourism industry? We love moving about! And the archaeological record clearly shows that we have always done so.

We also tend to have these crazy ideas about European countries being somehow ethnically homogeneous entities. To begin with, most European countries encompass relatively small territories. France is comprised not merely of French, but also of Flemish, Alsatians, Jurassians, Bretons, and Occitanae, all speaking distinct languages. Spain, too, has its Basques, Catalonians and Galicians, in addition to its Spaniards. Add to this the shifting boundaries through history and you begin to get the point, which is that national boundaries have always been artificial and the notion that they enclose “a nation” is a tribal myth.

Humanity is diverse and always on the move. Our numbers are inexorably increasing. In our eagerness to incorporate “primitive” peoples into the world economy, we induced them to give up subsistence farming and plant cash crops. In many places those crops have led to more rapid deterioration of farmland and we now berate these same people for their inability to “feed themselves”. The global competition for resources – led by the richest and most powerful nations – contributes to conflict and political unrest on almost every continent. It is no wonder that desperate people are fleeing their failing and conflict-ridden homelands in record numbers.

Because population increase continues apace and because our drive for survival always outweighs any sense of rootedness in a home territory, the flood of refugees and migrants worldwide will only grow. The 21st-century phenomenon of wall-building is rooted in the growing suspicion that there really may not be enough for all of us.

Walls are not going to fix anything.