Cosmic Litterbugs

© 2015 Eleanor K. Sommer

As the European Space Agency attempts to wake up the Philae lander this month, it might be time to take stock of just how much junk Earthlings have hurled into outer space.

Homo sapiens have thrived on this planet a mere 200,000 years compared to the first lifeforms that appeared and evolved for 5 billion years. Yet in our comparatively short existence, we have managed to transform the planet and likely cause the extinction of species.

Not satisfied with destroying our home world, we have begun the devastation of outer space as well: crashing spacecraft into planets, abandoning our mechanical detritus on moons, hitching exploration vehicles to asteroids, and cramming satellites into near-space orbit.

Humans have a propensity for littering. In addition to roadside trash, beer cans in pristine wilderness areas, teeming plastic gyres in the Pacific Ocean, and litter on the tops of mountains, we have found a new environment to assault: outer space. If the universe had intergalactic law enforcement, Planet Earth, a speck of dust in an unremarkable galaxy in the backwaters of a vast and mysterious universe, might get slapped with a cosmic littering fine.

Look no further than the recent crash landing of Messenger on Mercury. Well, okay, the spacecraft incinerated on entry—but the point is that we seem to have little respect for planetary systems, considering them only vast storehouses of resources and mysterious place to be poked, prodded, and ultimately conquered. Our species has launched 500 objects into deep space or landed on planets and moons, and sent 1,253 satellites whizzing around our own planet.

In November 2014, we dumped a washing machine sized probe onto a comet that at the time was more than 300 million miles from Earth, moving at 84,000 mph. Hello universe! The litterbugs have landed.

Sure, the comet landing was an awesome accomplishment—the culmination of decades of research and labor and the cooperation of nations and private and public sectors, sponsored and coordinated by the European Space Agency (ESA). The world breathlessly watched as the lander Philae awkwardly bumped and bounced onto comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, while its the parent spaceship, Rosetta, recorded from a distance. Comet 67P, with Rosetta trailing nearby, continues its six-and-a half-year orbit around the sun, getting as close as 186 million kilometers (about 115 million miles) in August 2015. Philae, which is wedged precariously in a crevice on the comet, may not survive the journey, as it was not able to anchor itself properly to the comet.

In May, as the comet nears the sun, ESA hopes that Philae will wake up after recharging its solar batteries, and check in. So far, Rosetta has not been able to spot the lander on the comet. And if it toppled off 67P, Philae may become just another piece of space junk that we have ejected into an ecological system we know little about.

This is no big deal for some people. Even when I inquired of Christopher Stone, the author of the seminal 1972 essay, “Do Trees Have Standing.” Back then, Stone explored the thorny issue of whether or not trees (and mountains) have rights exclusive of their relationships with human beings. Additionally, in a 1996 work, he pondered more deeply the rights of landscapes and commons. Yet, he was not sure how to consider what rights might be assigned in the vastness of outer space.

“Thinking of planets and other celestial bodies—trillions and trillions—would the obliterating of one be more onerous than squashing a one of a trillion terrestrial termites?” Good question. But on the other hand, he wrote in an email exchange, “suppose astronauts on a celestial body come across a totally unique life form lacking consciousness or interests: would there be a moral tug in favor of not stepping on it—or eating it?”

It may be worth exploring these ideas before it is too late. There have been plenty of writers and scholars who have called for the preservation of outer space, including Ryder Miller (“Astroenviornmentalism: The Case for Space Exploration as an Environmental Issue) and others, such as Bernard K. Schafer who in 1996 wrote that outer space “deserves to be preserved in its original pristine state, for its own sake and for future generations to enjoy."

Pragmatists, however, eschew environmental concerns and consider moons, planets, asteroids, and comets resources to meet the needs and demands of the accelerating Earth population. Lawyers and scholars,

Dominic Basulto, for instance, writing in the Washington Post proposed, “If America doesn’t go back to the moon and eventually establish a permanent lunar base there, someone else will. And whichever country is most active in moon exploration will have the biggest say in the moon’s future development.”

And free-market organizations such as the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) look with disdain at those who consider environmental values for outer space. In a comprehensive 2007 article in the Memphis Law Review, Walter Block, a former intern at FEE, and Jacob Huebert, professor of economics at Loyola University in New Orleans, wrote that industrial use, mining, and even disposal of Earth’s nuclear waste trump preservation. They disregard intrinsic value of space, and assume that a “rational” majority are “anthropocentrists or at least moderate ecocentrists who do not favor the human race's demise over and above any disturbance of the rocks of the solar system.”

In discussing the future of space exploration, these authors write that environmental issues need only be considered in relationship to property rights and health and safety of humans. Other than those concerns, planets should be carved up for consumption or for colonies, and problems such as air or water pollution matters of property rights and not environmental protection—because fouling someone’s air supply would be considered invasion. In these scholars’ minds, the inhospitable nature of extraterrestrial landscapes and the toxic or nonexistent atmospheres preclude planets, moon, and asteroids from any sort of protection. They sum this up succinctly, “The reality is that virtually nothing human beings could do to the solar system could likely make it less livable or less useful than it is now.”

And there are those argue that exploiting the bounty of the universe might improve life here on Earth. Science fiction is rife with stories of off-world manufacturing and mining, leaving Earth to be restored to Eden. And Block and Huebert believe this possibility should be a reason for environmentalists to celebrate.

But what about the life on other planets? Even microscopic lifeforms? Consider extremophiles here on Earth. Such lifeforms have been discovered in the most unlikely locations: hot hydrothermal vents where bacteria can survive at temperatures in excess of 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) under the right conditions; bacterial spores can be hardened to radiation; even the cold, dark lakes under Antarctica support life.

So, can space be considered an ecological system even if we have yet to discover life there? Ernst Haeckel described ecology as the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments. And while scholars such at E. P. Odum, T. F. H. Allen, and T. W. Hoekstra have varying definitions for ecosystems, the common thread is relationships of biotic and abiotic elements and flow of energy. Without discovery of lifeforms, outer space environmentalists may be hard pressed to argue for conservation beyond aesthetics and geological history.

While we have not littered deep space to any great degree considering its infinite vastness, NASA estimates that there are 500,000 pieces of space junk orbiting the Earth—20,000 of them the size of baseballs. And like the plastics bits teaming in Earth’s oceans (recently estimated at more than 5 trillion), there are the millions of tiny particles, such as paint flecks suspended in near orbit around our planet.

Human beings have a largely precarious relationship with nature—first fearing and fighting it, then conquering and mastering it, and finally exploiting and polluting it. Only lately have we come to realize that centuries of unfortunate exploitations have had devastating consequences for nature—some irreversible and some dangerous to humans as well. We still lack the will, and in some cases the ability, to curtail pollution and clean up what damage we have done, yet we are boldly flying off into new environments with the hubris of Old World explorers as they plundered previously unknown nations and ecosystems. We are taking our bad habits, where no Earthling has gone before.

While this bothers some people, discussion about the governance of outer space mainly concerns the value of the space commons, legal claims of the exploring nations, property rights, economic equality, and warfare. Basically, how to best divvy up the spoils: mining rights to asteroids rich in minerals or ownership of land for habitat-building rights on far-flung planets and moons. Some consideration has been given to if and how poorer nations might benefit from the universe’s bounty.

Like the deep seabed and Antarctica, space is part of the global commons and is the subject of a body of law covering terra nullius—land belonging to no one. Treaties are devised to preclude conflicts of ownership and to determine how such lands are best utilized for the good of all. But Bo Min Kim, writing for the Korean Institute for International Economic Policy, noted that as of 2014 only 16 nations, none of which have significant space travel capabilities, had ratified the 1979 Moon Treaty. The United States is not one of them. Regardless, this treaty, like its predecessor the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, does not approach environmental protection for the cosmos.

In early 2014, Frank Rose, the deputy assistance secretary of the arms control division of the U.S. State Department told his audience at the Manila Observatory in the Philippines about the importance of governing the space commons, with emphasis on safety and security but nary a word about the environment. Although, Rose talked about the astounding debris problem documented by NASA, it was only in terms of potential damage to spacecraft or human life.

NASA actually has an Office of Planetary Protection, the stated mission of which is “to promote the responsible exploration of the solar system by implementing and developing efforts that protect the science, explored environments, and Earth.” Little, however, has been written about the ecological value of outer space or about protection of an ecosystem that human beings would be hard pressed to restore if we inadvertently (or intentionally) destroy or degrade parts of it.

In a 2010 blog Ray Villard wrote about outcry after the crash landing of a rocket booster into the Moon’s south pole. This experiment was supposed to reveal if there were any ice crystals, part of the constant search for water in outer space, a necessary component for colonization. Villard paraphrased the public sentiment this way: “a direct attack from Earth” and a “despoiling of the pristine lunar environment.”

But this is certainly not the first time we have sent stuff to moon and not cleaned up after ourselves. The Union of Concerned Scientists reports 97 Earth objects residing on the lunar surface and 169 probes on other moons and planets in the solar system. We have lots of other satellites floating around the vastness of space; for instance more than 200 objects orbiting sun, 6 orbiting Venus, and 14 orbiting Mars. And we have, so far, sent 8 objects outside the solar system.

So far we know about life on one planet: Earth. No other planet supports life within a reasonable distance from this one—at least not without extreme terraforming and supply lines with extraordinarily long delivery times. Yet, we continue to pollute and exploit our home, and possibly change the chemistry so drastically with greenhouse gases that our future here could be uncertain.

If humans must consider the universe an enormous storehouse of mineral wealth and raw materials, we should at least do it with conscience and foresight. We might listen to scholars who suggest that our exploration be predicated on better ethical values than we have historically demonstrated on our own planet. Just as Christopher Stone contemplated the rights of trees and mountains, we must now consider the rights of an infinite universe and decide with what justification we crash land our technology on pristine landscapes.

One of our deep space probes has already crossed into the frontier outside the sun’s gravitational influence, where it might encounter life in the great expanse of space. We might discover that we are playing in someone else’s backyard and that they have environmental rules. In the meantime, the Philae lander can be thought of as an artifact of a maturing society with a passion for exploration, or as a piece of trash wedged into a crevice on a cosmic boulder.

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The Homeless Rose

We were sitting outside drinking beer at a moderately clean, somewhat uncomfortable micro-brewery in downtown Gainesville. The air was dry and cool. It had not rained for a month and probably wouldn’t for several more. We were saying good-bye to a friend—ten or so of us gathered around a table with only four chairs. Some us leaned on the wrought iron rail; others propped their elbows on a round bar table; a couple of people shared the chairs.

Suddenly a man appeared on the sidewalk and bent over the rail ever so slightly. He held an assortment of roses, various sizes and colors, as if they had been just recently plucked from someone’s backyard.

“Hey, man? A nickel? Just a nickel,” came a deeply resonant and pleasant voice. An educated voice. I looked up. I began to smile. A woman always smiles when she is offered a rose. I think this reaction is as old as myth and may seem sexist to the modern woman, but I think an honest soul search will produce agreement. I would have given him a dollar. But his eyes were focused on the male members of our group. I imagine he thought a gentleman would certainly buy a lady a rose. I glanced across the table. My friends turned stoic. No one spoke. And so our interloper babbled on with his monologue. I felt uneasy. I wanted to reach in my purse and give him money.

He left the rose. “Aw. I don’t need a nickel. You can have it!” And then he turned his attention toward working the crowd at the other end of the sidewalk patio.

Without moving or lowering his voice, one of our group said, “The roses are from the city park, and he gestured toward the east. “They’re from the park.”

Soon the peddler came back with a few dollars in his hand but no roses. He muttered and recaptured the flower he had left on our table.

“I think you should have it,” I said. Not really knowing what else to say. He mumbled and walked away, holding his last rose like a cherished prize in his hand.

So the roses were from the park. The man had stolen them. Stolen public roses and wandered around downtown selling them for a dollar or less. It seemed like simple commerce and trade to me: the foundation of this country.

How is this any different from the first settlers who came here, stole property from Native Americans and sold it to other settlers? Or any different from men who stole other men and women and sold them to the highest bidder?

These were roses. Roses from the park. Free roses. Roses that grow on public land. Roses that are a renewable resource. Roses that thrive the more they are picked. Roses that offer pleasure.

But this man was disdained for picking them. For violating some law that says you cannot take roses from public land.

And from whom, I wondered, was that public land stolen?

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Creativity, Expression, and Other Gifts from the Earth

When I worked in the Arts in Medicine program at Shands in Gainesville, Florida, I collected so many wonderful and inspiring stories from patients. They shared wishes, dreams, real-life, and more. I learned so much from each encounter and these stories stay with me. They are keepers.

In 1997, I worked for many months with a girl, a young woman really as she was quite mature for her fourteen years. At one point she had to spend time in in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit, and I had permission to work with her there. The following entry is from the reflections that I wrote after the encounter in PICU.

Bearing gifts of origami birds and crayon-colored butterflies, I cautiously enter the PICU. I watch as a young woman, hooked up to more than a dozen IV lines and monitoring attachments, spits up blood while her mother, not more than twenty-eight herself, holds the girl's hand and wipes her mouth with a wet washcloth. I watch as the mother anticipates her daughter's expectoration and swiftly removes her oxygen mask to hold the hospital-issue plastic tray under her chin. I see the catheter line perched beneath the sterile white sheets and the standard light yellow hospital blankets.

I think about my meager offerings. Pieces of paper folded into birds and frogs. Poems and and stories and mythical animals made out of Fimo clay. And of course, genuinely kind words about the girl’s insightful writing. Her mother is proud.

As an Artist in Residence with the Shands Arts in Medicine program at the University of Florida I try to bring the healing gifts of creative expression to patients. I try to help them reach deep within and find a part of them that has not been torn apart their disease and by the attempt at cures. By her chronological age, this patient is considered a child, but she is fact a wise young woman, poised and deep, despite (or perhaps because of) her illness

Past the medical gadgetry and life-support systems, I see something else. I see life and I think about Theodore Roszak, a journalist and author who in The Voice of the Earth wrote that we as a society must begin: “…to see the needs of the planet and the person as a continuum.”

I had just read those words, and somehow looking at all the chemicals being pumped into the young healthy-looking body (yes, the paradox: some seem to arrive healthy and leave decimated) makes me realize that we are criminally ignorant about the source of our healing and the source of our illness.

We ignore the earth as the foundation for our well-being, and we replace it’s regenerative powers with horrors that may someday be labeled worse than medieval. We are incapable of connecting with the rhythm of life (and death) of this planet. We fancy ourselves better than it, and we devise ways to overcome its threat, its strength, and its superiority. I have no illusion that we tame it. I have only to watch the ravaged little bodies on the pediatric units to know that the paltry attempts at "fixing" nature amount to a painful insanity that denies the truth about us and the earth.

We have forgotten, as Roszak writes, that “all medicine was in times past understood to be ‘holistic’ — a healing of body. mind, and soul …”

While the holistic approach to healthcare is making strides into mainstream medicine, I see another avenue that is perhaps swifter and less threatening: the creative arts. Helping people express themselves through art — visual, performing, literary — offers a connection to our nature, our nature that springs from the womb of the earth, where I believe we will ultimately find a healing power greater than the alchemy dreamed up in scientific laboratories. The act of expression is an act of creation, and every act of creation is healing.

I leave the hospital. I walk out into the cool night air and look back at the concrete structure. I see the cement and the asphalt and the futuristic ventilation system —  and the windows that do not open. I see how we seal ourselves from the life that surrounds us, the life that struggles to survive against our efforts to subdue its chaotic lust for expression.

I cry about the young woman I have just visited. I wish for her to dance in the moonlight and touch the flowers that grow within her heart. I wish for the doctors and the nurses and researchers to reach within their souls and find the earth-centered creative spirit that nurtures life. I wish them to dance down the halls, draw pictures on their patients charts, and sit with the sick and dying telling stories and listening: listening to the cycle of life and death. It's not about living: it's about being and being there for each other. It's about expressing the deep life within us, even if that expression only lasts a moment in time.

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