Wednesday, June 11, 2008


The science section of the New York Times—paper of record, printer of all that is fit—is, as I’ve claimed before, essentially a P.R. wing of the aerospace industry. Proofs come so thick and fast that I can’t keep up with them; here is a particularly choice one. The arrangement of graphics and text in today’s online Science Times (June 11, 2008) is exquisite:

Let’s take it from the top:

(1) Today’s subject is “Science.”

(2) This thing called “Science” is brought to you, in part (note banner ad), by a greenwashing campaign by ExxonMobil, the company responsible for about 5% of all carbon emissions from 1882 to 2002—that’s
total global emissions—according to a new study by Friends of the Earth.

(3) The top “Science” news item of the day, heralded in extra-big print, is “Google Co-Founder Books a Space Flight.” Yes! Ultra-rich co-founder of the company that voluntarily
helps China censor the Internet is to pay somewhere between $20 million and $40 million for a trip to the International Space Station (I.S.S.) on a Russian rocket. New Orleans is rotting, Africa starving, China reeling, the Arctic melting, species vanishing—but Sergey Brin and one other ultra-wealthy space tourist, as yet unnamed, are scheduled to Ooh and Aah their way around and around the suffering Earth for several days in 2011. I am reminded of Gil Scott Heron’s bitter post-Apollo rap, “Whitey on the Moon” (1970):

. . . Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck, 

The price of food is goin’ up, 

An’ as if all that shit wuzn’t enough: 

A rat done bit my sister Nell. 

(with Whitey on the moon) 

Her face an’ arm began to swell. 

(but Whitey’s on the moon) 

Was all that money I made las’ year 

(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here? 

(Hmm! Whitey’s on the moon) 

Y’know I jus’ ’bout had my fill 

(of Whitey on the moon) 

I think I'll sen’ these doctor bills, 

Airmail special to Whitey on the Moon.

And carbon copy, please, to Sergey in orbit.

The president of the Russian spacecraft company Energia grumps about the deal: “We have built the I.S.S. not for space tourists but for serving the needs of the people of Earth.” I sympathize, but he’s wrong.
All the astronauts who jaunt aboard the I.S.S. are space tourists, only most are more dignified than Sergey. The space station, which will have cost a respectable fraction of the Iraq War by 2017—on the order of $158 billion—has produced approximately nothing to serve the “needs of the people of Earth.” One can find some muttering on the Web about glorious benefits to result from I.S.S. studies of fluid microphysics and zero-G combustion—studies yet to be conducted, apparently, 10 years after the commencement of I.S.S. construction—but nobody that I know of even bothers to argue that such experiments could not have been conducted aboard robotic satellites or vomit-comet parabolic jet flights at a microscopic fraction of the I.S.S.’s cosmic cost. The space station’s main scientific product has been, and will remain, “space medicine”—studies of how people thrive or fail to thrive when living in space for long periods, conducted so that a few more people can, well, live in space some more, later on, in orbit or elsewhere. But don’t expect any benefits for “the people of Earth” from space medicine. Even its advocates don’t have the chutzpah to pretend that Africa needs insight into bone wasting of calcium in microgravity more than it needs corn, rain, peace, and debt relief. They don’t argue that Africa needs space medicine at all; they simply avoid the subject of Africa. They make fizzing noises about the “people of Earth” (already, I note, adopting the diction of Martian ambassadors addressing the terrestrial press corps) but wisely remain silent about the details. Spinoffs, my boy, spinoffs.

And now for Item Number Two in the
Times’s “Science” news for this week:

(4) “Strong Action Urged to Curb Global Warming.” The scientific academies of Brazil, Britain, Canada, China, France, Germany, India, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Africa, and the United States have banded together to urge governments to
do something:

To mitigate and adapt to climate change, nations must begin a transition to being “low-carbon societies,” a shift that will require energy-saving changes in all sectors—from housing to transportation to industry—and the development of a range of clean energy sources.

Translation: everything we do, all of how we live, must change radically and must change starting now, and the scientists of the world are scared about what will happen if it doesn’t. What a snore! Dock it just below a piece of
cool news, like “Google Co-Founder Books a Space Flight.”

The grotesquerie is not complete until one has noted that Sergey’s trip to space must set some sort of record for personal energy consumption in pursuit of selfish whimsicality—a sky-scraping monument to exactly the wrong thing, the precise opposite of what the massed scientific opinion of the globe (not to mention common sense) says we must be doing. Sergey, glorified by the
Times, merely takes the Hummer (or allegedly indispensable but equally low-mileage family van), the second home, and the globe-trotting jet vacation to a new level of extravagance.

In the fine print, we should all be changing how we live. In the big print, we romanticize conspicuous consumption. That’s today’s news. Literally.

Brought to you by ExxonMobil.

P.S. In the afternoon, the
Times expanded its already embarrassingly fannish coverage of Sergey’s impending trip by adding a file picture of a Soyuz craft approaching the awesome I.S.S. itself, further dwarfing its coverage of the need for total transformation of our lifestyle:

No comments:

Post a Comment