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Sagan’s Hopes and Fears Have Never Been More Relevant Today
published during a waning crescent moon.
01/20/2017

When bad things happen on Earth, my instinct is to seek solace in space. I lose myself in images captured by Hubble and Cassini. I watch footage of Curiosity’s landing on Mars and my palms sweat, even though I know how it ends, and that the rover is currently still driving around Mars. Space may be dangerous, cold, and infinite, but here’s what’s so great about it: from space, you can’t see people, wars, or hatred. You can’t see skin color. Labels such as Republican and Democrat or conservative and liberal have no meaning; neither do national boundaries. I console myself with the knowledge that Earth is but one planet in our solar system and there are at least 100 billion stars in the Milky Way. The Milky Way is one of an infinite number of galaxies. In the cosmic scheme of things, what’s happening on Earth seems not quite so all-consuming.

Over the past couple months, this go-to strategy for comfort hasn’t been quite as effective—it’s hard to look at pictures of Earth without panicking about the imminence of a climate change denier in the country’s most powerful office. Searching for wisdom and perspective prompts me to wonder what Carl Sagan would say. Would he be outraged? Frightened? Reassuring? He wouldn’t be surprised, as he predicted the current situation in his 1996 publication A Demon-Haunted World:

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. 

Sagan's Hopes

Image of Earth taken by Cassini. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute

 From space, you can’t see people, wars, or hatred.

This prediction makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Sagan names a host of problems that have come to pass, linked by our inability to question authority and our failure to think critically. These breakdowns have been on glaring display throughout the election cycle, and we’ll likely feel their consequences for a long, long time.

Social media has enabled and even encouraged these failures. Even though Twitter wasn’t around 20 years ago, Sagan observed the growing slipperiness of information, as well as the public’s unwillingness to parse through decontextualized snippets, biased reporting, and fake news:

The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudo-science and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance. 

Sagan perfectly describes both the 2016 presidential election and why “I’d like to have a beer with him” became a common reason to vote for politicians, particularly over more qualified, intelligent candidates. He also nails the consequences of such ignorance:

 I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us—then, habits of thought familiar from the ages past reach for the controls…Through lowered educational standards, declining intellectual competence, diminished zest for substantive debate, and social sanctions against skepticism, our liberties can be slowly eroded and our rights subverted.

Sagan's Hopes

North America from space. Credit: NASA

 “When the people have lost the ability…to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true.”

Sagan describes shielding oneself, or one’s country, against external forces either by turning inward or by lashing out. People batten down the hatches as though against an impending storm, except the “storm” is people from other countries, or those with various skin colors, beliefs, and values, who according to some should be shut out of America, out of schools, hospitals, homes and economic and democratic systems designed to help them. The 2016 election demonstrates the agony of some over their “diminished cosmic place and purpose,” which comes both from entitlement and from fear that what others gain we might lose, and leads to the suppression of rights. Sagan’s genius involves not only understanding the cosmos but understanding human nature and the forces that act upon it.

Science is one such force, and Sagan argues it both makes democracy possible and can be used to undermine it:

The values of science and the values of democracy are concordant, and in many cases indistinguishable…Both science and democracy encourage unconventional opinions and vigorous debate. Both demand adequate reason, coherent argument, rigorous standards of evidence and honesty… If we’re true to [science’s] values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes. The more widespread its language, rules, and methods, the better chance we have of preserving what Thomas Jefferson and his colleagues had in mind. But democracy can also be subverted more thoroughly through the products of science than any pre-industrial demagogue ever dreamed. Finding the occasional straw of truth awash in a great ocean of conclusion and bamboozle requires vigilance, dedication, and courage. But if we don’t practice these tough habits of thought, we cannot hope to solve the truly serious problems that face us—and we risk becoming a nation of suckers, a world of suckers, up for grabs by the next charlatan who saunters along. 

Neither the rhetorical tactics that proved effective nor the ultimate outcome of the 2016 presidential election would have surprised Sagan, but he wasn’t a pessimist. He was a humanist. He believed in human responsibility and in the power of human knowledge and resourcefulness. He didn’t make grim predictions only to and render humanity a lost cause. While it’s important to understand how we got here, Sagan also makes it clear that we remain in charge of our own destiny as a species, as earthlings. He provides a path forward, a solution for the darkness he so aptly describes:

Education on the value of free speech and the other freedoms reserved by the Bill of Rights, about what happens when you don’t have them, and about how to exercise and protect them, should be an essential prerequisite for being an American citizen — or indeed a citizen of any nation, the more so to the degree that such rights remain unprotected… If the citizens are educated and form their own opinions, then those in power work for us. In every country, we should be teaching our children the scientific method and the reasons for a Bill of Rights. With it comes a certain decency, humility and community spirit…The Constitution and its Bill of Rights have done remarkably well, constituting, despite human weakness, a machine able, more often than not, to correct its own trajectory.

Sagan’s emphasis on the importance of free speech reveals his understanding of attitudes and dangers that have existed for centuries, as well as the solutions. We have the tools to repair the broken parts. The mechanism of democracy remains intact, but perhaps it’s hard to tell because of how many of its pieces have rusted and lost their shape. Human brains remain able to discern truth from fiction and propaganda from fact—we just need to relearn how to do that in a time when people can earn small fortunes publishing fake news stories. We need to remember what happens to countries that suppress free speech, and what we gain from the idea that all people are created equal, with inalienable rights.

We have the tools to repair the broken parts.

For all of Sagan’s critiques of society and the foibles of humanity, he believed in people. He daydreamed about humans traveling to distant galaxies and setting foot on other planets. If he had been a pessimist or misanthrope, he would not have urged humans into space. In his book Pale Blue Dot, Sagan asks, We, who cannot even put our own planetary home in order, riven with rivalries and hatreds; are we to venture out into space?”

In humanity’s big picture, this is the million-dollar question. It reaches far beyond one election, one country, or one century. Sagan adopts the long view, which contains more hope than fear:

By the time we are ready to settle even the nearest other planetary systems, we will have changed. The simple passage of so many generations will have changed us; necessity will have changed us. We are… an adaptable species. It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths, and fewer of our weaknesses; more confident, farseeing, capable and prudent.

For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness. What new wonders undreamt of in our time, will we have wrought in another generation, and another? How far will our nomadic species have wandered, by the end of the next century, and the next millennium?

Sagan's Hopes

Image of Earth taken by Voyager I. Credit: NASA

These words echo in my mind when I console myself with photos of galaxies dancing, of new planets being born, of volcanoes and oceans and jet streams on other worlds. They help put the present into what Sagan calls the “cosmic perspective” and demonstrate Sagan’s belief that, “Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” That we’re here—any one of us, individually, and Homo sapiens as a species—is nothing short of a cosmic miracle, as is life itself. If we prove unfit for the task of protecting our planet and each other, life on our world and on others will continue. No president, prejudice, or nuclear war can annihilate all life. While that’s a comforting thought in the grand scheme, Sagan maintains that humans will have a role to play in the coming millennia:

Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the solar system, and beyond, will be unified, by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that, whatever other life may be, the only humans in all the universe, come from Earth. They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings, how many rivers we had to cross, before we found our way.

Sagan's Hopes

Earthrise over the Moon. Credit: NASA

“Infancy” is the exact right word for our current stage. We are fording rivers, rapids, and waterfalls, and the going feels slow, messy, and dangerous. But there’s dry, stable land on the other side, and Sagan is cheering us on.