Occupying Mars is not awesome.
it's awe-ful... a philosophical opening ensues.
I posted this viscerally disturbing image of Elon Musk wearing a provocative T-shirt on Instagram yesterday.
The kitchen sink-wielding Chief Twit recently announced a SpaceEx project that aims to build a haven from existential collapse on Mars by 2029, presumably exclusively for the rich. (Always exclusively for the rich.)
Shall we count the flavours of wrongness going on with this? I suppose an obvious one is the flagrant colonisation vibe. Another is the disposability mindset it pivots from. We’ve raped and pillaged Earth; let’s dump and run to the next planet. And repeat. Good Lord, does patriarchy know no bounds!?
But there’s another disturbing dimension to any mooted move to Mars…
It’s. Just. Not. Awesome.
There are various definitions of awe and awesomeness out there. Loosely and evocatively (for that is the only plane on which awe can be understood), awe is a sense of the magnificent expansiveness of our existence…and simultaneously the awareness of our insignificance within such a grand schema. Awe suspends us in a paradox: the sensation of feeling enriched by way of feeling diminished. Ha!
One of humanities most defining collective moments of awe occurred in 1972 when we first saw the Earth, as captured by Apollo 17 29,000km from the planet’s surface. The moment is said to have kick-started the modern environmental movement.
Awe, en masse, is that powerful. It can humble humanity and get us out of our own way.
I think awe also triggers a very specific cognitive congruence. When we are awed everything seems to fit and make sense. We fit into the paradox! For we are paradoxical at heart! Boom! Being made to feel humble and small is counterintuitively pleasurable, but we also know it to be a truth. And so it makes us smile with the recognition of it all. The writer Shannon Stirone described it as “the simultaneous shrinking and expanding of our hearts.”
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We tend to experience awe in the face of fuck-off nature, in spaces with high ceilings. Awe exists - paradoxically, again - at the juncture of fear and joy. Fear and joy are also a life truth.
And awesomeness? It’s a term granted to anything that taps into, or expresses or connects us to, the above. Someone or something is awesome when they dance bravely in the paradox and highlight the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Let’s not underestimate things here. Awe really is the reason to bother living.
Otherwise the pain, the fear, the paradoxes, the pointlessness makes no sense. Neuroscientists have found that regular doses of awe can boost critical thinking, physical health and emotional well-being. Studies have also shown that it makes us kinder and more empathetic.
And so Musk going to Mars gives us a gross taste in our mouth.
The Occupy Mars concept doesn’t honour all the delicate, beautiful, unfathomable and mysterious intricacies of the human endeavour. Actually, it’s more than that. It negates, cheapens and dismisses all of it. It renders our reason to bother living…void. Empty. And back to “why bother living” we go.
As it happens, I’ve just, as in an hour ago, finished a podcast chat with an expert in “awesome”, philosophy professor Nick Riggle. This episode of Wild will go live in a week or two. But he makes two points that I’ll highlight here.
Nick posits that something or someone is awesome when they express something that boldly, bravely busts out of a norm or routine. Awesomeness is a vibrant and expansive expression of individuality.
The second point:
Nick says that awesome creates a social opening. So it’s not a selfish, exclusive act. Nope, to be awesome the expression has to be an outward one that inspires the same impulse (to bust a norm or routine) in others. It’s a wholly collective offering.
I think the world craves gestures of awesome, perhaps more than ever right now. We are stuck in polarised ruts. We are blinkered by neo-liberal ideology and paralysing debates. We ache to applaud the person who says the nonconventional (but true and beautiful) thing that’s on our mind out loud. We want to be surprised, we want to laugh at kind, connecting audacity. Jim Jeffries is awesome. This guy on Instagram is currently striking me as awesome. So, too, is this little kid I follow. The Kardashians are not awesome.
We are also so cocooned and everything is so micromanaged, that we ache for the experiences that shake us up, that provide the fibrous stories instead of the monotonous bloody banter (I cringe).
When I travel, awesome hits when I’m at my edge; it’s never bought or provided. Lying in a tent in the Sierra Nevada and waking to the crash of an avalanche across the valley is awesome. The people who pick me up when I’m hitchhiking are awesome. Booking in to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre is great (at best) but it’s not awesome.
And so when white rich men like Musk do big shit like set out to colonise another planet - or blow up the currency system or bust the algorithms of the internet - it can be great (at the very best). They might try to tell us they’re contribution is awesome (as the billionaire and space tourism entrepreneur Richard Branson did: “How you feel when you look down on Earth is impossible to put into words. It’s just indescribable beauty.” Profound!). But they’re merely selling us tickets to awesome. The thing is, their product can’t be awesome because it’s simulated, not spontaneous. It’s cheating, not real. It’s individualistic and exclusionary, and not collective and focused on mutual opening. It’s running away and getting away with it, it’s not connecting and owning it. It’s ruining awesome, not inspiring it.
But mostly it’s out of this world, not of this world.
We are part of this Earth and to experience the congruency at the heart of awesomeness (and existential meaning), we have to be connected to it. In the messy paradoxical fray of it. Loving it wildly. Otherwise we do despair viscerally with the pointlessness of it all.
Can someone please take these dudes camping?
Big wild awesome love out there to you,
PS The latest ep of Wild has just been uploaded. It’s a mad chat with philanthropist Holden Karnofsky. He’s famous for making the call that this is the most important century ever and thusly we must fire up fast, which I find inspires a mutually opening awesomeness. Check it out and share it if it strikes you.