Libertines, city women, interstellar space travel

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Silent Running is arguably the best science fiction film about the end of humanity, robots and gardens in space. But it has nothing on Rachel Armstrong’s plan for an ecological interstellar spacecraft.

I learned about this plan last night, as Armstrong gave a talk at the launch of the cities and power issue of Libertine (she is the cover star of this, the magazine’s third issue). Listening to Armstrong talk was a little like getting stuck in a lift with Foucault and a corporate executive who’s read too many self-help books. By which I mean, her talk was half so academic and deconstructed I couldn’t wrap my mind around it, and half soundbite (one of her favourite ideas is ‘black sky thinking’ - taking the naff phrase blue sky thinking up the stratosphere to the next level).

I don’t mean to criticise too much, though, because from what I could untangle Rachel’s talk was actually very interesting. 

One of the ideas she mentioned was an interstellar space project called Icarus, which aims to launch by 2100. Any such space travel would take a very long time. So if Icarus is to succeed, the spacecraft will need to fulfil the promise of Silent Running and become truly self-sustaining. Or alternatively to fulfil the promise of the biodomes of the latter 20th century, which tried and spectacularly failed to create their own ecosystems.

Nature is the technology that can get us there, Armstrong said, citing cases like genetic reprogramming, the use of soil and algae. All this could also help us live more sustainably on Earth, she added. 

Armstrong’s ideas are fresh and intoxicating in their optimism. And given this week’s news that 22% of sun-like stars in our galaxy could be habitable, perhaps her time has come.

But ultimately the manipulation of wildlife and plantlife to suit human ends hasn’t gone well in the past. Given our track record as a species, I’m not sure if creating ‘new species of technology’ without prompting a catastrophe is within our grasp.

Armstrong urged us to think beyond just humans, talking about, for example “non human investors in cities” (she means as in bees and foxes, not as in aliens). But we treat those non human investors as pests as soon as they inconvenience us.

And even if Armstrong’s intention to launch into space is more like a metaphor for her ideas about urban planning than a real ambition, I’m not convinced that it’s the best metaphor around. Should cities be planned to be bubbles separated from everything around them? 

One of the audience members asked Rachel what the ‘gender lens’ is on what she was talking about: the answer that followed was basically, let’s concentrate on what unites us not what separates us. She talked about breaking down the differences between species. But down on Earth, is it really ‘sustainable’ to pretend that sexism and other forms of oppression don’t exist? Is the best city of the future designed by pretending these problems aren’t real, or actively thinking about how to end them? At the very least, refusing to look through the ‘gender lens’ or to address other oppressions like racism or homophobia, and perhaps most importantly economic inequality, just means you are likely to perpetuate the same problems again. Even if it is an unintended consequence.

The lesson of Silent Running wasn’t to create an interplanetary life-raft. It was for us humans to get our dirty paws out of the business of destroying the one planet we do have.

Freeman Lowell: It calls back a time when there were flowers all over the Earth… and there were valleys. And there were plains of tall green grass that you could lie down in - you could go to sleep in. And there were blue skies, and there was fresh air… and there were things growing all over the place, not just in some domed enclosures blasted some millions of miles out in to space.