Sunday 8 October 2023

Long Dead Venusians by Phil Wilson

Long Dead Venusians: Meditation on Climate Change as a Cosmic Theme

Guest post by Phil Wilson

The night sky has always been both a magnet for curiosity and a projection screen for fantasy. The ancients saw mythical beings in the Rorschach of celestial patterns. Galileo, Copernicus and the church fought battles over the nature of truth in these same heavens. Now, fittingly, in our era of collapsing economies, hypertrophied corporations and climate catastrophe, the cosmos embodies our political anxiety.

Hemispheric View of Venus Centered at South Pole © 1996 NASA

A whimsical piece in The Nation (“Are Aliens Who Visit Earth Likely to Be Socialist?”) features a debate over whether or not alien visitors are likely to be socialists. In “A Statistical Estimation of the Occurrence of Extraterrestrial Intelligence in the Milky Way Galaxy,” Cai et al. reflect on the likelihood that some, most, or all of our techno-savvy brethren, presumably scattered across the galaxy, have fatally befouled their home planets, or violently obliterated themselves before they were able to master interstellar communication or travel. The authors of this study conclude that “Pann” (the probability of self annihilation) is the most significant factor in deriving probability formulae for future interactions with extraterrestrials.

The human impulse to project has tossed Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher into the sky. These political ghouls are now entangled in the streaks of the Milky Way, deregulating the environmental protections of an entire galaxy and freeing ET to frack and strip mine to his heart's content. Are we all alone in a universe in which self destruction is an existential mandate, or are we earnestly expecting a species of interstellar socialists to descend from the heavens bringing a message of salvation?

Octopus © 2020 Diego Delso (BY-CC-SA)
Our own earth-bound stories are the default for extraterrestrial absence: aliens (as we imagine them) may be a bit more clever than ourselves (figuring out light speed travel and wormholes) and we routinely depict them with huge heads and atrophied limbs, resembling our future selves. We could, if we wished, imagine a species of interstellar octopuses. The octopus has, arguably, more magnificent neural structures than our own, enabling the blessed mollusc to instantaneously survey the complexity of the ocean floor and consciously—using themselves in lieu of a canvas—reproduce the colors, contours and shadows of their surroundings. How self-effacing! How brilliant to intuitively divine the techniques of photorealism in three dimensions! Octopuses, in their hundreds of millions of years of success, have proven that gifted creatures are not inevitably destined to channel intellect toward an endgame of self obliteration. No group of octopuses (so far as we know) has ever founded a corporation. Can human beings even imagine superior intelligence untainted by capitalism?

Mitski sang in her famous song, “Nobody”:

Venus, planet of love
Was destroyed by global warming
Did its people want too much too?

Years ago, in elementary school, I read a book about the planets that showed a fanciful picture of the surface of Venus—a lush world full of Dr. Seuss-like creatures and exotic plants. This was long before Soviet space probes determined that, beneath Venusian clouds, the planetary surface does not at all resemble a tropical lagoon, but rather imitates a pizza oven. The temperatures on Venus run as high as 900 degrees Fahrenheit thanks to a greenhouse effect on steroids. The atmosphere is 97% CO2, clouds of sulfuric acid obscure our view of the basalt paved surface and the atmospheric pressure would transform a range rover into a crushed hunk of melting metal.

And yet NASA climate modeling suggests that cool oceans may once have been a Venusian feature. Is Venus the ultimate victim of biblical rebuke? We earthlings know all about sin and the brutal forces of retribution. Has Venus, the wayward and ruined sister of our lovely blue marble, suffered the full ferocity of fire and brimstone? Jonathan Edwards, the 17th century New England preacher who made hellfire into a personal fetish, might as well have been describing Venus to his quivering congregants. In our florid, contemporary imaginations, we do not envision Venusian sin as a matter of skimping on interplanetary Jesus so much as we picture a Venusian society that capitulated to the menace of capitalism. But Jonathan Edwards was partly right. Sin and fire have a mutual plan.

Mitski's theory of Venusian demise has respectable, scientific support—at least speculatively. Jason T. Wright, professor of astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, writes in “Prior Indigenous Technological Species”:

In this paper, I discuss the possibility for such prior indigenous technological species; by this I mean species that are indigenous to the Solar System, produce technosignatures and/or were spacefaring, and are currently extinct or otherwise absent. The question of why this species is not extant in the Solar System is not relevant to much of my discussion, but needs to be addressed at least well enough to establish plausibility for the hypothesis. The most obvious answer is a cataclysm, whether a natural event, such as an extinction-level asteroid impact, or self-inflicted, such as a global climate catastrophe.

The less salacious, more generally embraced speculation regarding Venus's sad history points the finger at Volcanism and increased solar output as the sources for greenhouse agents (NASA Study). We earthlings have our own volcanic history as a reference point. Many geologists agree that the remnants of the Siberian Traps Volcanic flows (categorized as a "large igneous province") are the smoking gun for the Permian/Triassic boundary extinction, colloquially referred to as "the great dying." Until now, the Permian extinction holds the title for climate ruin on earth, turning oceans into toxic, stagnant, murderous graveyards for Trilobites, Tabulate and Rugose corals. Even six species of insects—the great masters of industrial breeding—were wiped from evolutionary history by the rage of Permian climate warming.

Study of the deep, geological past offers generous imaginative license to scientists, and Gavin Schmidt—director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies—has stated that carbon spikes in the geological record should be scoured for biomarkers of fossil fuels. Is it possible that some large brained offshoot of Permian protomammals attained the capacity for Exxon/Mobile psychopathy? Are the Siberian Traps falsely accused of the crimes really enacted by the profiteers of a lost Permian empire?

Gavin Schmidt (“Could an Industrial Prehuman Civilization Have Existed on Earth before Ours?”) believes that intelligent life might have evolved at multiple times in geological history, only to succumb to the awful temptations of industrialization. Perhaps capitalism, consumerism and environmental destruction has run as a repeating loop—a horror show with sequels (canceled and renewed). Geologists have favored mass extinction as a reference point, a means of geological punctuation, but, until recently, extinction seemed like nothing more than a product of natural caprice. Now, we have an alternative explanation, a new story to mull over and consider. As we reflect on the sixth extinction, might our method of self destruction be more than a mere one off event? Are any of earth's past mass extinctions also rooted in the deadliest of all mortal sins—corporate greed?

No matter how hot Phoenix or El Paso get, no matter how many square miles of polar ice caps melt, no matter how many wildfires turn Canadian forests into New York City ash, climate change is, apart from the excruciatingly complex science, a story, an unfinished allegory written, perhaps, in an obscure dialect. There are many versions of climate change—the story—along a continuum between the imminent onset of human extinction espoused by Guy McPherson and The Heritage Foundation, oil industry funded pablum of drooling denial. The fate of humanity is absolutely founded on the climate story. In essence, our existence is contingent on a poetry slam, a narrative contest fumbling for the hearts and minds of the human race. Human survival, if it is to prevail, will require a ferocious explosion of narrative..

As storytelling creatures, humans have performed narrative contortions to make ourselves the beneficiaries of mass extinction. The Permian extinction gave us the treasured dinosaurs, and the KT extinction cleansed the earth for our own ascension as the apex of the mammalian empire. But The Long Dead Venusians story (whether or not it happened in the manner that Mitski sings about, or happened at all) rather stymies our self-congratulatory instincts. The Venusians fucked up big-time billions of years ago and turned their lush paradise into an irredeemable hellscape. They left not a thread of silver lining. In so far as we identify with the long dead Venusians, their relevance to us is exclusively cautionary.

UK environmental writer and activist George Monbiot often talks about the importance of storytelling as it pertains to politics and the existential threats of capitalism. Monbiot specifically extols the “restoration story”—a narrative form that describes both the nefarious forces throwing the world into disorder, and the solution that mobilizes disobedience to "restore" lost harmony.

All political stories have a vision (or nightmare scenario) of potential ruin should people fail to rise up and resist evil systems. Jonathan Edwards was a master storyteller focused obsessively on the matter of potential ruin. His virtuosity shames the tepid rhetoric of climate change. The very fire and brimstone that perhaps charred the bones of our long dead Venusians, became, for him, the narrative tool to move an entire society to tremble in the pews. Did Venus crash and burn for want of a Jonathan Edwards?

O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder.

Jonathan Edwards engaged each listener personally—images of hellfire had an immediate, visceral impact. This is not the case for climate change storytelling, with rhetoric hopelessly focused on far away, slow moving events, like dysregulated ocean currents and glacial melt in Antarctica. Even the term “climate change,” utterly fails as a narrative device. As Kirkpatrick Sales notes, the phrase accurately describing the severity of our collective assailant is “global overheating.” We cannot address the issue of murderous capitalism and overconsumption without the full power of storytelling. Edwards railed at handwringing congregants who imagined themselves perched upon rotting floorboards, while below, the flames of eternity hungrily craved a bounty of sinners. Edwards was the master storyteller that is absent today.

We know that climate change is not inevitably an abstraction, because, according to Sarah Young, writing in The Independent, 19% of children in the UK have had climate change nightmares. A nightmare is unlikely to be about crop failure in Honduras, even if climate change is largely about the suffering of poor people long oppressed by colonial contingencies. The climate nightmare is about fire and flames honing in on the sweating dreamer.

Bad dreams inhabit the same personal range of fears as a Jonathan Edwards sermon. Thus, I very recently had a dream of running to the porch thermometer with my clothes trailing plumes of smoke, to see that the temperature had risen past 300 degrees Fahrenheit. The real thermometer on my porch tops out at 120, but dreams encompass a larger set of realities than a $10 hardware store device can reveal. The temperatures on earth have not reached 300 degrees since the Hadean Eon. Not even the end Permian apocalypse approached such scale. But my dreams, apparently outran the descriptive horrors of my native planet in search of Venusian geological history. Venus, and only Venus, tells us the true story of CO2 and its intentions.

The story of the long dead Venusians has what our own climate change story does not—an incontrovertible conclusion. Would human fate be altered if interplanetary visitors were in fact socialists who had surveyed the smoldering remnants of every capitalist planet in the Milky Way (and brought us the photos)? What if time traveling, alien socialists wielded the uncut documentary of Long Dead Venusians? Would we see rightwing Venusian think tanks funded by the Venusian oil industry? We suspect that Venusians rather obediently accepted dubious explanations from politicians and industry profiteers. If we imagine that Venus’s most gifted storytellers failed to inspire the passions of those who might have acted with collective resolve, would that move our own storytellers to aspire to attain the poetic force of, say, Jonathan Edwards? Edwards spoke about the agony of hellfire with absolute certainty, and yet we, with far more data, equivocate while being helplessly swept along by a Venusian reprise.

As bright and lovely as Venus has been in recent mornings, the orb reminds me that Venusians capitulated to absurd denialism. They failed to launch general strikes or to use force against psychopathic oil barons, banks, industrialist farmers and government officials. Their downfall was one of collective banality, a shared and shriveled imagination that could not conceive of a Venus devoid of profit motives, so called free markets, and the virulent addictions of consumerism and materialism.

Venus global view, © 1996 NASA

 What did the final moments of Venusian life look like? Was the planet bathed in the dull glow of smoke and fire resembling our own conflagrations in Canada and Siberia? What about floods, searing heat, draughts and the violent rage of the Venusians themselves as they acted out their climate induced frustrations upon one another?

A.M. Gittlitz took the "yes" position in The Nation's debate on whether or not alien visitors would inevitably be socialists. His answer obliquely addresses our losing battle with climate change:

J. Posadas, the leader of the Posadists, offered a political and economic defense of our future alien visitors in his 1968 “Flying Saucers” essay. For alien civilizations to travel hundreds of light years to Earth, he wrote, they would need to have an “infinitely superior” form of social organization, “without struggle and antagonisms.” Marxists call the type of society that has advanced beyond our current divisions of nation, class, race, and gender—a society in which each gives according to their ability and takes according to their needs—socialist.

I am almost certain that Gittlitz read the study referencing Pann. He must know that the capitalist impulse to chase profits over the cliff of self destruction is an existential challenge to every alien civilization. But, are we really talking about interstellar socialists or are aliens merely a rhetorical prop—like my Long Dead Venusians? We are unfortunate victims of The Fermi Paradox, and no aliens are going to instruct us about the virtues of socialism. The goalposts have moved; aliens are never anything more than thinly disguised earthlings, and interstellar travel is simply a fantasy like free markets, trickle down and Jonathan Edwards’ pyromaniacal God. We do not need to look up, like Fermi, and ask, “where are the aliens?” Instead, we should look straight ahead, at one another, and ask—“where are the socialists?”

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