Some of the stories I have aren’t my own, but stories I’ve incorporated from elsewhere and treat as my own for the purposes of forming “my lessons.” One such happened before I was born, but has more relevance to our future, as I see it, than most of the others. That’s the story of Dunkirk.
Many of you may not know it well, but it is one of the many crucial points in the struggle we call World War II. In the early months of the war, Hitler’s forces were overrunning everyone in Europe, so much so that it will forever be known as the Blitzkrieg.
In late May of 1940, the Germans had routed the allied forces in Europe and had the British trapped near the northern French port city of Dunkirk. For disputed reasons, they halted their advance for a few days just as the British were about to be annihilated. This gave the British enough time to evacuate most of their troops.
During a nine day period a flotilla of almost 900 boats, most of them civilian volunteers sailing from fishing ports across the English Channel, rescued almost 340,000 men from certain death or capture by loading them in small numbers, while under fire, from the beaches and a seawall onto their boats and taking them to safety across the channel.
Without the evacuation at Dunkirk, there is no way Britain would have lasted until the Russians were invaded by Germany over a year later opening the disastrous (for Germany) eastern front, let alone until the Americans joined the war, and you would probably speak German as a native language today, if you don’t already.
How do I think this pertinent to our present situation?
Well, we are clearly losing the battle for the environment. Capitalism and the burgeoning human population is overwhelming the forces of nature. I, for one, see myself first and foremost as part of nature, the side that is losing this fight.
I’m mostly talking to you if you see yourself on the same side.
I am reminded of the British at Dunkirk whenever I think of our current situation. Our backs are to the sea and the enemy is advancing almost unhindered. The main difference is that we humans are the advancing enemy, as well as a crucial part of the defending force. That and the fact that there is no indication of any real halt, even for a bit, in the advance.
Yet there is hope that, because the enemy is made up of our own companions, and because many of them are conscripts against their will, there may still be some pause. But there is no longterm chance that the advance will go into retreat or even stop permanently. There is just too much momentum behind the assault.
I see no solutions of lasting value arising. If we manage to solve the problems of climate change, such as inventing some method for cleansing the air of carbon dioxide before the climate has already been altered too far to avoid irreparable damage being inflicted on the planet, I think humanity will fall back into its continual pattern of runaway excess that will not stop until humanity has been eliminated as a destructive force to the environment.
Our side will only survive if we evacuate. “We’re not going to make it. We’ve got to get off,” rings in my head, and its logic repeatedly overwhelms me.
But evacuating for us is a much more difficult proposition than it was for the British at Dunkirk. The sea at our backs is vast, not a channel to be crossed by a flotilla of small boats. Worse yet, there is no safe homeland to which we can sail. Our situation is truly desperate.
Analysis of our plight offers only two choices, both of which we must desperately pursue, for neither alone stands much of a chance of being the solution: 1) erect a line of defense which will stave off the oncoming juggernaut for as long as possible, and 2) find a way to cross the water (in this case, space) to a safe venue.
The way across the water is already being charted, although continued efforts along these lines are always under assault. The highest point in the space program came in my youth and it has seen steady decline every since. But it, until now, has always been presented as exploration, not escape. Space is our only hope, in the long term, and the sooner we realize it, the sooner the evacuation flotilla can be mobilized.
More problematic is the task of finding a safe haven to which we may flee. There is currently nowhere to go, which automatically rules it out as any kind of short-term response. Many recognize the only short-term solution to our environmentally destructive habits lies in holding the perimeter. We’ve got to stop destroying our home.
They are right, of course, but that solution can never be more than a short-term fix. Some hope, of course, that true sustainability can, and even will, be attained. But, while they strive for that goal, the forces of evolution compel us toward seeing everything from the perspective of what is best for humankind alone, and that is not compatible with “saving the planet.” It will only help us survive if we recognize the urgency of preparing a lifeboat for us to evacuate to, giving ourselves a long-term option, and, of course, if we build it soon enough.
There are scientists whose speciality is precisely this task. They are called planetary engineers, and their skills may also be at the heart of prolonging our perseverance on this planet, but the true value they will have is in building the alternative place for us to go to when the inevitable finally overtakes this planet. Their speciality is called “terraforming another planet,” i.e. making it Earth-like.
The subset of these scientists who study the terraforming of another planet stress the length of time required for the process. Estimates to terraform Mars, for instance, are currently between 300 and 900 years. That’s a long time to hold Earth together and emphasizes how desperate our plight has become.
But the alternatives of 1) holding Earth together forever, or 2) hoping the true driver of environmental destruction, humanity, disappears without killing the entire planet, are both unacceptable choices. The one because it is so unlikely to be realized. The other for two reasons: 1) because there is more than a passing chance that the disappearance of humanity will only come about through fatal consequences to the planet Herself, itself the worst of all unacceptables, and 2) because we cannot align ourselves against ourselves.