We Are The World

“It seems to me that the natural world is the greatest source of excitement; the greatest source of visual beauty; the greatest source of intellectual interest. It is the greatest source of so much in life that makes life worth living.” – Sir David Attenborough.

Image by r1g00 from Pixabay

Dear Jasmine,

Today, we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of World Environment Day.

I know that many young people, including you and your friends, are greatly concerned about the future of this planet – particularly as that is where you will spend the rest of your lives. I understand that some 80 per cent of young people over 16 years of age are very concerned about climate change, and that many, like you, have been moved to personal activism, frustrated or outraged at the neglect of the issue from older people, corporations and governments.

Yes, Earth is home to ourselves and millions of other species, and while – like a beached whale that writhes and shudders a silent scream – segments of our home world are collapsing and dying under the weight of our populations and our possessions, and I hope that ways can be found to motivate more people towards enacting long-term change.

Yes, we should get angry and do something to stop the pending catastrophe. But on World Environment Day, it may be helpful to consider nuance as well as clear-cut black-and-white.

Many people are thoughtless or lazy – but we are all constructed in a way that makes us inclined to relate most closely to the micro rather than the macro. When approaching a jigsaw-sized problem, we tend to get enlightenment and understanding (and emotional connection) more readily from the individual jigsaw pieces rather than the big picture. In the real world, we can see one photo – of a crying baby in a famine, a Ugandan family killed in an unseasonably large mudslide, or a mother polar bear and her cub struggling to survive amidst the melting of Arctic ice – and such a photo can convey more emotional meaning and personal connection to us than all of the world’s websites and scientific lectures about climate catastrophe.

So I hope that your generation – and the older adults that you are trying to educate – come to see possibly the most important reason why it is important to save the Earth: because of its beauty.

Scientifically, it is beautiful. Our planet is a shelter from cosmic dangers, built from stardust and gas, meticulously crafted according to the natural laws of cosmology and stellar evolution and gravity. It is a natural laboratory sculpted by weather and geology, gravity and tidal forces, wherein chemistry and rock and water and wind and life intermix to form a glorious testament to the power of eclectic abiogenesis and evolution.

Biologically, it is beautiful. It is a cathedral in which a chorus of life chirps and tweets, bleats and barks. A choir of diverse voices is dressed in a patchwork quilt of colours and camouflages. Combined, they form a rich tapestry that has (so far, at least) been found nowhere else in the Universe.

Therein lies its arguably greatest ethical value: philosophically, it is beautiful because it is unique and indescribably precious. In a Universe that is so big that our mammalian minds cannot truly comprehend, our small planet Earth is the only known place where life exists, and multiplies in rich diversity.

Hosted this year by Côte d’Ivoire and supported by the Netherland, World Environment Day 2023 encourages us to beat plastic pollution. I hope this succeeds – but that they don’t stop there.

It is encouraging to see your generation taking a stand – and we can understand that this is a form of evolution. Survival of the fittest indeed – those best suited to adapt (and respond) to change will indeed survive the longest. But I also see a form of social evolution underway: your parents’ generation was raised in a culture that proclaimed Greed is Good; your generation proclaims that Green is Good.

Perhaps we should all be mindful of an early recollection in my own life:

In an old photo album belonging to my parents, one photo features me as a babe in arms, being held by my mother in the front garden of our home. With a mix of determination and curiosity on my face, I am reaching up to touch the leaf of an overhanging tree – using my infantile senses to timidly explore the touch, texture, shape and colour of this alien item in my young world.

Let us all rediscover anew this sense of awe and potential to be found in the world around us. Let us cherish our home, and do whatever we must, in order to preserve and conserve it for future generations.

Love from your Uncle.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

We Are All Spiderman

Finding Meaning in Modern Mythology: From Sherlock to Spiderman; from The Rocket to Star Wars.

How does New York City connect to modern-day Laos or to a galaxy far, far away? They are all the settings for movies that portray different aspects of modern humanity’s quest for significance in a post-religious era. They demonstrate that humanism, not heroism, provides the inspiration for modern mythologies.

I’m old enough to remember when Spiderman was some vaguely adult-aged superhero, running around to the tune: “Spiderman, Spiderman, does whatever a spider can”. Gone are those days. Now, he is a modern-day affluent teenaged American dude, imparting his white saviour complex upon the denizens of Europe while simultaneously worrying about whether or not to pack his Spiderman cozzie in his suitcase for his trip to Italy.

It is this human duality that contextualises the movie, Spiderman: Far From Home (SFFH), and the underlying philosophy that can be found in this film (and I presume in the companion movies of the modern Spiderman series). In SFFH, teenaged Spidie spends as much time worrying about girls as he does fighting the super-villain. Meanwhile, his school friends protect his secret and appear almost equally able to confront many types of change that range from puberty to possible armageddon.

SFFH is not a superhero movie so much as a teenage drama set in a superhero universe, almost a bowdlerised version of Heartstopper. Its feel-good nature is reminiscent of the adolescent energy from the Back to the Future movies. But it extends the superhero empowerment to all teenagers: you are future citizens who can change the world, starting today.

This touches upon themes in another unrelated film, the charming Australian movie, The Rocket (2013), which is about a young Laotian boy (Ahlo) and his family as they struggle against the intergenerational after-effects of the Vietnam war and the lingering pollution of imperialism from both the USA and Australia. One character (“Uncle Purple”) lives as a Laotian version of a fanboy from US culture, and viewers are left to decide for themselves whether such cultural influence is beautiful or ugly. The Australian imperialist influence comprises the capitalist exploitation of environment and the forced displacement of whole villages of disempowered people in the name of corporate profits. It seems no wonder Hollywood ignored this covert rewriting and cultural terraforming of themes from the first Star Wars movie, and that Laos banned it. But its ultimate climax testifies to the power of human nobility and triumph in the face of adversity.

Similarly, forget the bland villain plot in the Spiderman movie, which is dominated by special effects and vacuous scripting. In Spiderman, as in The Rocket, not all heroes wear a cape, but they all play their part in changing the world. Their message is that if their audiences want to implement positive change in their local community (fight climate change, promote science and STEM, or whatever) then it is up to them to take the lead.

Here we see that, possibly despite themselves, the creators of modern mythology have transcended their own craft. The trend for pop culture movies, initiated by the runaway success of the first Star Wars movie – wherein modern movies now often rely more heavily upon special effects than they do upon a coherent script – has evolved into something more. In trying to capture modern paying audiences, movie makers have been forced to resort to common human existential tropes, and in doing so, have transformed modern movie mythology from mindless capitalist consumerism into more thoughtful human inner reflection. Whereas traditional mythology focussed upon gods, demons, angels and other supernatural agency, modern mythology finds the same inspiration through the better angels within our own humanity.

And while some audience members today bewail the rebooting of Doctor Who or James Bond movies, the rewriting of Roald Dahl or Enid Blyton novels, or the reworking of traditional straight white male hero stereotypes to be more inclusive and diverse – “god save us from censorship and the cancelling of old, white people!” – the reality is that cultures have been rewriting and reinventing heroes since forever. Zeus became Jupiter, and Jesus became Superman, while Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer became Harry Potter and Ron Weasley, and the Famous Five became Scooby Doo. Romeo and Juliet were copies of pre-Shakesperean versions of themselves. The original story of Robin Hood and his domestic partner Little John evolved into a heterosexualised series of Sherwood Forest tales featuring heroic outlaws who were eventually rebooted as the space age Blake’s Seven. We can even document how medieval France became the setting for a cultural reboot of the Camelot mythology – transforming King Arthur’s court from rebellious, anti-imperialist, post-Roman, Saxon England into a more refined medieval setting that introduced modern understandings of chivalry, courtly romance and nobility.

Similarly, we can understand Spiderman to be a modern-day Beowolf reboot that puts the ‘human’ back into ‘superhuman’.

But even more than that: modern Hollywood reboots of ancient mythologies demonstrate that our common humanity and existential angst provide deeper meanings than modern mindless consumerism: go to watch a seemingly mindless movie, and come out inspired or transformed into being more than you were at the start of that movie. It’s a philosophy that encapsulates fan fiction and fandom such as that found in the world of Sherlock Holmes over a century ago – fans who were transformed by their culture, and who in turn appropriated, reshaped and transformed that culture.

Modern-day activism does not involve attending lectures in a public library and then enjoying an oh-so-polite cuppa tea; it involves more than angrily marching down public streets while chanting slogans in support of some worthy cause or another. It is not exclusively donating to your favourite charity by painless monthly credit card payments if you want your life to represent more than tokenism. Activism is a way of life and it involves wholistic enactment of change. It hurts, it challenges, and it transforms its practitioners. Ahlo, Peter Parker and Rey Skywalker are role models for how to change the world: change begins with ourselves. Just ask their real-life superhero counterparts: Greta Thunberg, Malala Yousafzai or X González.

Thanks for the reminder, Spiderman.

©2023 Geoff Allshorn

Why Science Fiction?

Commemorating International Day of Living Together in Peace.

Art by Dick ‘Ditmar’ Jenssen

The Sky Is The Limit

I admit that I have not been blogging so much this year – I have been distracted by a need for activism in the world around me. My desire to help create a better world is not only my human instinct kicking in, but a manifestation of my interest in sci fi.

And in my quieter moments, I have been doing voluntary work for the Australian Science Fiction Foundation, especially helping to create their new website (soon to be launched) as my latest contribution to advancing futurism and cultural innovation. This is a refreshing exploration of other worlds and other realities, far from our mundane world of COVID and war and politics and world poverty.

And no, I have not been seeking mere escapism. I do not subscribe to the cliché that science fiction is a crutch for those who cannot cope with reality. Instead, I have been using the ideals and visions within SF to replenish my optimism for the real-life future and to contribute, in lateral ways, to building a better world by (hopefully) encouraging others to look upwards and ahead. Fictional character Sarah Connor once commented that a storm is coming, and her words should inspire us to prepare for whatever that storm may be – climate catastrophe, nuclear war, pandemic, political upheaval, or whatever the future may hold.

Which of course brings up an obvious question: why science fiction?

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

The Human Adventure Is Just Beginning

Humans have probably been telling stories since our distant forebears leant how to communicate. Those stories reflect our cultures, our values and our circumstances.

Where Jason and his Argonauts once explored unknown vistas, we now have James Kirk and his astronauts exploring strange new worlds. Where King Arthur or Robin Hood once fought for justice against corruption and oppression, we now have Harry Potter and Leia Skywalker. Superman and the Marvel Avengers police the ethereal skies where Olympian deities or other divinities once claimed exclusive sovereignty.

In the past, we had Pythia or Merlin or Sherlock Holmes as our fictional or mythological guides for morality and rationality responding to technology and circumstance; today Spock or the Doctor or R. Daneel Olivaw serve as transHumanist and secular reworkings of our template Everyman.

Through such timeless motifs – including the use of metaphoric humans disguised as robots, superheroes, artificial intelligence, or other forms of sentient life – science fiction holds up a mirror to ourselves and teaches us what it means to be human.

Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4934401

Mission to Planet Earth

Climate change and pollution are hardly new kids on the science fictional block. They have been explored for decades. Through SF films like Silent Running, I became aware of the looming threat of environmental catastrophe, while The Omega Man introduced me to the dangers of epidemics a decade before HIV/AIDS appeared on the world scene and a generation before COVID. Through the Planet of the Apes books and films, I became aware of the power of metaphor and nuance in exploring religious or philosophical themes, while 2001: A Space Odyssey taught me that the Universe’s poetry could be visual if we gaze into the cosmos.

Perhaps most powerfully, Star Trek and Thunderbirds showed me the power of people working together to explore strange new worlds and helping each other out of natural disasters.

And all of this before I hit puberty (which is testimony to the power of sci fi – as a genre that explores the future, it has special power to inspire and empower young people especially).

In the wider world, science fiction has the ability to warn us (The Handmaid’s Tale) or inspire us (Hidden Figures). I have known people whose career choices were inspired by SF: authors, teachers, human rights activists, scientists, doctors, even astronauts. And in turn, the real-life space program has helped to create the technological and scientifically literate cultures in which we live today.

More than all that, space and science fiction have already saved our planet, through NASA’s ‘Mission to Planet Earth‘ (launched in 1991) which led the world response in solving the hole in the Ozone layer.

I have previously written about the inspiration that can be found within science fiction:

I enjoy science fiction because it promises me that humanity has a future, full of dreamers, explorers and heroes. It promotes the joy of diversity – including aliens, robots, cyber citizens, sentients, men and women, [variously] queer and trans and gender non-binary humans – all living together in peace and equality.

We can do more than dream of such a world: we can help to create it. Make it so.

© 2022 Geoff Allshorn

Human Rights Day 2021

“Women everywhere are faced with discrimination. They have fewer opportunities for economic participation, less political representation, are refused access to education, face greater health and safety risks, and are confronted with violence and abuse.” – UN Women Australia.

On 10 December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the world community, and over seventy years later, its secular humanist ideals permeate our world and our cultures. Today, even those who misunderstand and misrepresent human rights adopt the vocabulary of human rights in their claims for advancement.

10 December each year now marks Human Rights Day, to commemorate the UDHR and its principles. Eleanor Roosevelt – a woman – helped to author and launch the UDHR, and the birth of modern understandings of human rights will be her greatest bequest to humanity. Two generations later, how do human rights stand for women in particular?

After the abandonment of Afghanistan by western nations earlier this year, millions of women and other human beings face oppression, murder, and devolution of their human rights. From Mozambique to Kazakhstan, women’s rights are under attack.

In Islamic nations,women are still oppressed, although there are some advancements at glacial pace. Across Africa, there is equally slow progress, but social evolution is taking place. In western nations, women’s rights are facing opposition and kickback. From Algeria to Australia, there are many issues facing women, and I could not presume to write an authoritative list within the limited confines of this humble blog entry.

Nevertheless, I see three young women who give me hope for the world.

Malala Yousafzai is a young woman who has faced terrorism and gained the world’s admiration. She continues to advocate for girls and women around the world.

X González (born Emma González) is a young woman who became famous after a the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings. She led March For Our Lives and other activism that confronts the culture of violence and death in the USA, spearheaded by disproportionate gun rights. She and her young compatriots promote a less violent, more compassionate world.

Greta Thunberg has led the world in fighting for the future of humanity and the entire planet. Her ‘school strike for climate‘ became an international movement that has triggered the activism of millions, and challenged purveyors of unfettered capitalism to stop destroying our biosphere.

Such young women are the latest heroes in a long line, stretching back through Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Coretta Scott King, Emmaline Pankhurst, Boudicca, Madame Cissé Hadja Mariama Sow and other African women, and many others around the world. We have hope.

©2021 Geoff Allshorn