Bonus points for those of you who read today’s title and said to themselves, quietly, “What? About five feet in front of our face?”
Emily and I spent the day at the newly rebuilt Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. It purports to be the “greenest museum on Earth”. When we first walked in, we were propped in front of a green screen, the backdrop for a photo of our choice upon exit. This has become relatively standard procedure at museums and especially aquariums of late, so we thought little of it. Though I wondered why there was no image of a happy whale shark or cartoon character behind me – just all-green. Maybe this is the new “green” message – just an all-green background is all that counts anymore. No wonder we get along with Libya these days.
So, in we went. Predictably, I was immediately captivated by the fish and pretty much anything that swam, taking my time to marvel at the rays and small sharks and something that we thought was a skate but turned out to be a guitarfish of all things – they’re really cool if you want to check them out.
The penguin show was aimed at especially young ones, with an invitation to same to come up and read short passages about my favorite (sorry emus) flightless birds. There was no shortage of reference to March of the Penguins and Happy Feet and it occurred to me how steeped in the lore of global warming these films are; that penguins themselves have become sort of posterbirds for the growing apocalyptic fever gripping those not concerned with a religious apocalypse. It’s hard to keep up with your apocalypses these days. I might consider the fourth book I write, after the three upcoming in the next 12 months, to be “An Illustrated Guide to Recognizing Your Apocalypses”. And people think I’m depressed.
Next up was an apocalyptic line for the rain forest exhibit, clearly the feature entertainment of the day’s program. Housed in a clear sphere, the forest promised to simulate conditions of actual rain forests, minus the need to wade through piranhas. After a half hour of snaking around the dome in anticipation – wherein Emily and I were confronted by people in line whose motivation for being at a museum of any kind we could not, for the life of us, figure out – we were brought into the closed space between the outside world and the rain forest. Having been to butterfly gardens before, I was prepared for the brief pause between doorways. I was not wholly prepared for what followed.
A man, just barely of age and bearing a strong resemblance to Russell of the recent hit film Up, intoned to us: “Welcome, folks, to the rain forest. Now I’m sure you’ve heard all the rules out there before you can enter the forest, but we have just one more thing to go over. Since we have live butterflies flying around inside, you will be sprayed just a couple seconds with a protective spray. It’s not FDA approved just yet, but it will be and it’s to protect the butterflies and it’ll just take a couple seconds.”
The air died in the room.
He was joking, of course, and cracked a quick smile and let us in directly as most of us were scanning the ceiling for shower jets. Even the lugnuts of flesh who we’d trailed in line – beefy, disinterested couples dredged in from suburbia – seemed disconcerted and one of them muttered “I was gonna say – wait a minute” as we were ushered by Russell’s older brother, probably wondering why his joke wasn’t funny. What we were all wondering, even the suburban chaff, was what we would have done had he not been joking. What could we have done?
Homeland Security has made co-conspirators of us all.
Anyway, the rain forest was gorgeous and just starting to grow – an ominous foretelling of a time when exhibits like these might be the only living examples of their ilk. At each level, from ground floor to understory to canopy on up, we were introduced to the diverse rain forest species of a different world region, brought to an understanding that the Amazon and Madagascar and Borneo might as well be three entirely different ecosystems, though they are all varieties of rain forest. While looking past the fallen butterflies and wondering what their expected lifespan was (it always seems a pressing question in butterfly gardens – how does parading hundreds of humans with attention spans shorter than insects’ through their habitat impact their lifespan?), the exhibit was most impressive. I kept looking down to the fish while most looked up to the birds and I even managed to peel some layers, promising Emily that I would wear shorts all the time if we lived in that dome. That’s some climate change I could go for.
But as we headed for the fish – riding an elevator that can only be taken down – I was still thinking about one of my favorite evolutionary theories. There’s a huge blue whale skeleton hanging outside the dome, perhaps only slightly less daunting than the full blue whale replica that so daunted my entrance to the Monterrey Bay Aquarium 23 years ago. And it reveals my favorite fact about marine mammals – that they have fingers. Now why would an animal that lives only underwater and only has flippers develop fingers? Penguins certainly don’t have fingers hiding within their flippers. Nor do sharks within their fins. So what gives?
And then there are these tiny underdeveloped two little bones hanging toward the back of the enormous spine, dangling just below. What are those about, evolutioneers?
Well I’ll tell you – they’re feet. Because marine mammals – or at least cetaceans (lest you think I’m including otters and seals) – came from the land. They used to walk around up here. And dollars to donuts, anything that figured out how to enter the sea and use sonar to communicate was sentient a long time before that. And I don’t mean Ben Brandzel’s weird use of the word that anything seeking to survive is sentient – I mean Sentient. Like we think of ourselves.
Last time they faced an apocalypse, they figured out the only place to go was going to be underwater. Maybe we could learn a thing or two from those guys. I mean, I’m not going to say they built the Pyramids, but I certainly wouldn’t rule it out either. It makes a lot more sense than aliens.
And you thought all those beachings were confusion. Not some sort of protest or suicide because conditions in the ocean had gotten so unlivable. Wait till the blues start beaching.
Anyway, these thoughts were rattling the back of my mind, somehow throwing humanity’s own position into some kind of stark relief. The fascinating fish, the familiar collection, the reef – almost identical to Georgia’s – and the frequently proffered seafood guides, advising which kinds of fish the flesh-hungry audience were permitted to eat and still get to count themselves as “green”.
Which just got me going all over again. I mean, when is a global warming advocate or an animal curator just going to come out and say that the visitors have a moral obligation to become vegetarian or they might as well not show up? I know, I know – it’s offputting, it’s bad press, it’s not what the visitors want with their bread and circus. Any five-year-old sitting in the audience can make the connection between the fluffy penguins in the exhibit and the chicken fingers in the cafeteria; between the beautiful fish in front of them and the dead fish on the plate. So why can’t the twenty-five-year-olds, much less the fifty-five-year-olds? At what point does habit transcend thought? Ten? Eighteen? Twenty-one?
The literature is all about what incredibly damaging effects fishing has on the oceans, how catastrophic it has been. And unlike global warming, the apocalyptic predictions about this one have already come to pass. We’ll all be joint owners of the world’s largest swimming pool pretty soon – no need for chlorine and just dodge the trash and the occasional corpse. I wonder how the marine mammals are going to sort this one out, especially with sonar that the submarines destroyed.
But the aquarium was filled with signs about “if you love seafood…”, making the pitch that you can only continue to love seafood if the oceans survive. Nonsense. You can only have the oceans survive if everyone sacrifices their love of seafood. You’ll never catch anyone saying it, but I would bet a vast portion of the aquarium’s staff don’t eat fish. And probably not much other flesh either.
I wonder how many kids leave places like the Academy of Sciences pledging to become vegetarians. And how many of their families wear them down before the month is out.
But the show was cool, with the live diver taking questions from inside the coral reef tank that had a strange flavor of CNN interviews to them – I think it was more about how contrived CNN has gotten than any particular insincerity in the tank. After all, the Q&A was pretty clearly scripted right up till kids got to ask questions, and that’s probably about the speed CNN’s running on, minus the kids.
By the time we’d waded through all the fish, and up to spy on the albino alligator (crocodile?) resting on the rocks before an enthralled audience, we realized it was time to book it to the planetarium show, “Fragile Planet”. Having already gotten my blood up about the global warming stuff and the contradictions (Why isn’t vegetarianism the very first “action step” you can take to fend off global warming, anyway? Because that would make too much of a difference?), I was certainly leery of the show’s title. But I’m a sucker for a planetarium show, and this one was housed in the ominously opaque dome that served as counterpoint to the rain forest exhibit. Once again, we joined a circumnavigatory line, but this one was really moving. No need to joke about sprays, I guess.
We took our seats, noticed the pleasantly eerie ambiance of the blank dome-screen and the echoey music as everyone leaned back and Emily almost immediately started drifting off. (She didn’t fall asleep till the show actually began.) As we all were seated and the doors closed, one of the ushers began to explain what we were witnessing – the largest digital planetarium screen on the planet, with no giant star projecting unit in the center to obstruct views. Only the invisible digital display units on the rim of the dome, creating a wholly immersive experience. As my mind often wonders at such types of things (or maybe it was the spray joke again), I started to contemplate how much power one could wield with such a realistic and overwhelming display. By the time they were warning about motion sickness, I realized just how much one could terrify or thrill someone with something so captivating as a dome larger than the extent of one’s peripheral vision.
The show’s visual power lived up to my fantasizing – it was wholly overwhelming. Nothing scary about it (though for some reason I kept thinking they were going to plunge us from the Earth’s surface into the depths of an ocean, which would certainly have given me a start) as they whisked us from the interior of the very museum we were in, zooming out to the planetary level, observing the planet, and then out to the stars.
The film’s content was intriguing – it was a basic study of the components for life and what makes Earth so special. The discovery of water(-like-stuff) on Mars has done wonders for the scientific community having to backtrack from Earth being unique in the universe. Already this show was ready to say that not only could there be remnants of life under Mars’ surface, but also on a moon of Jupiter and another moon of Saturn. This despite Earth seeming to be at the ideal epicenter of the so-called “habitable zone”, neatly illustrated in green. Leaving this paradox unresolved is a big step forward from the days of science books declaring that Earth held the only life in the universe and that we were so desperately alone. I was truly heartened.
The problem was that the movie had a larger paradox to wrestle with – it wanted to both deeply explore the real possibilities (I’d call them realities) of life on other planets and simultaneously tow the party line about Earth being the only known locale of life and thus being so desperately important to preserve. I understand the need to beat the drum of global warming and desperation (though not actual desperation that would compel someone to stop eating meat or anything drastic to stave off apocalypse), but I still think you have a compelling message to Earthbound humans that their planet is important without making it the last hope of life in the universe. Is microbial life on Mars really solace to this species if it gets wiped out? I mean, it is to me, but I was never all that big on my species. I think the suburban lugnuts disagree.
Regardless of which, we started zooming beyond Saturn’s moons and into nearby solar systems, exploring a case study of another planet the size of Jupiter that seems to ellipse through an equally magical “habitable zone” around its sun. Exciting stuff, truly. The number of qualifiers and equivocation used seemed wholly unnecessary, but the message was still clear, if filtered: we ain’t alone, kids. Not that anyone brought up the sentience question, but … baby steps.
And then, as though there were any question about the odds, we zoomed out of the Milky Way and started counting galaxies and the numbers started to swim and dance like Ben Bernanke conducting an auction. As though to leave behind any doubt whatsoever that the universe is positively teeming with life, life to fill a billion science fiction novels of all shapes and sizes.
Though there was the cautionary note about light-years and distance and how even the idea of traveling at lightspeed (fully accepted in the Ender’s books I’m reading right now, by the way) is still mega-theoretical and would still take pretty much forever. And then it was back to Earth and how we might (really?) be alone and so we’d best not destroy ourselves, The End.
As we rubbed our eyes and I woke Emily up and we stumbled out into the gallery filled with beautiful posters of these infinitely distant galaxies, it occurred to me (again again again) to wonder why no one stops to think whether light-year distances were put there as deliberate boundaries on travel. And then of course the recollection that the idea of purpose (beyond the evolutionary deity of SURVIVAL AT ALL COSTS) is forbidden from scientific study. That presuming things are the way they are for a reason that isn’t chaotic, while implicitly assumed every day, can never go to a place where it is spoken or understood. Because that would bring God into science and then 1 would equal 2 and all hell would break loose. Or something.
Also, why can no one reconcile that evolution’s progeny worshipping only survival seems somehow at odds with an intelligent species hellbent on self-destruction? Doesn’t something have to give there?
But seriously, kids… there’s a reason everything is so flipping far away and it seems totally incomprehensible to travel there, no matter how cool science someday gets. Because we’re not supposed to go there! BUT (and this is big) we are supposed to know that it’s there. And be amazed by just how much life is out there.
And then (THEN!) we can think about what all that life would be doing, what it would mean, and why it would be very important that we don’t interact with it. And then we might be getting somewhere.
Out onto the roof, to contemplate the “living roof” – a rooftop garden concept run totally amok and made wild instead of edible. Emily informs me about all these sustainable things they’re doing with the roof and it hits me how quickly and overwhelmingly an idea can catch on if enough people think it’s important. This is somehow very reassuring, though I can’t help but be nagged by how few seem to be asking the right questions. But it’ll pass, it’ll pass.
Then down to the final unseen exhibit, the one I’ve been putting off, the Global Warming Propaganda Special. To my pleasant surprise, they do have an exhibit about food and your diet’s large impact on your carbon footprint, though the meat doesn’t seem to carry as high a penalty as it should and this seems like another tool of watering everyone down into thinking it’s all about trade-offs and as long as you recycle two out of three times, you’ll probably stave off TOTAL APOCALYPSE.
This is funny (to me, at least) because it’s totally how these things are marketed. I mean, I don’t believe in global warming (clearly), but if I did, I’d have enough sense to realize that me doing the green things or not (most of which, by the way, consist of buying some new consumer item to replace an old consumer item, which seems remarkably unsustainable in practice) would not make the difference on the unimaginable upward spike that the graph of carbon has allegedly taken. I mean, really. Do you know what’s really creating that, kids? It’s called Capitalism. You can chart the spread of the concept against the carbon graph and find a perfect fit. With the consumer reality and disposable culture have come an unending rise in demand. We demand stuff. We demand the ability to create trash. We demand an unending stream of stuff that we can have only to trash it.
And now, hurrah! Capitalism is available in almost every country in the world! No wonder all those countries are ripping down their rainforests to build stripmalls or materials for someone else’s stripmall. They have to be just like us (US!).
But does the Global Warming Propaganda Machine tell me that we need immediate eco-socialist revolution? Or just to do everything possible to make sure this recession becomes the depression that permanently defeats capitalism and everything that even rhymes with a “consumer”? No. It says to buy a tote bag.
Do you know how many tote bags we have? It’s getting to the point where there are almost as many tote bags as paper bags. Because we have a new marketable brand – green. And we just need to produce the everliving stuffing out of this new brand. When is someone going to realize that if you produce as many reusable items as one-use items, there’s no point? When is someone going to understand that being truly green means not buying anything ever again, especially anything new?
But our exit brought the piece de la resistance, a moment so colossally insane as to undo much of the joy (yes, I had thoroughly enjoyed the experience despite some misgivings) of the visit to the Academy in the first place. Remember that photo taken so many hours before, upon our heady entrance to the greenest museum in the world? Well it was ready for us! I supplied my little card to the guy standing under three big digital screens advertising the photos and waited for our image to pop up on one of them. I could even see that there were different backgrounds being advertised and this was the clear reason for the green screen – choice! We could pick whatever our favorite part of the visit was and this would increase our likelihood of plunking down an insane amount of money for a picture we could have gotten a nice family to take of us on our own digital camera for free.
But the screen didn’t change. Where was the guy with our ticket? Oh, it couldn’t be! But it was… he was bringing us set of fully developed photos – glossy printing, glossy paper, all irreparably used – that had been waiting for us since we entered.
My mind boggled.
Every entrant, every ticket – thousands of people crossing through the doors every day, and every single one of them was having full-color digital glossy printouts of their photos being prepared for them in the hopes that they would buy it at the end.
It was more than I could bear. The guilt tugged on the heartstrings, my mind full of all the wasteful propaganda of my carbon footprint. And then a second welling of rage came up – this was deliberate. Insidious. They didn’t create the waste out of thoughtless irony, but out of a planned assault on the wallet. They were hitting people below the belt with a newly informed important decision – do you want to force us to create waste? As though the decision were somehow yours instead of the people who had already destroyed the paper and ink, below three perfectly good digital screens.
The $20 was laughable, but I think I would have refused to take the picture off their hands had it been flawless and available for 50 cents. I was so incensed. I burn thinking about it. Thinking about how many people they’ve coerced into buying an exorbitant picture they don’t want and can’t afford out of a new leaden guilt they carry about every scrap of paper they waste. And what blatant waste the Academy creates in a Machiavellian sacrifice for their bottom line.
Just thinking about it, hours later, makes me seethe. I can’t stand it. And I know, as I just articulated a few paragraphs ago, that each individual piece of paper is nothing in the scheme of it. But the whole philosophy of the propaganda is that every bit counts. And the reason it’s hard for me to get into it (even if I believed) is that I know how much institutional waste and greed and power dwarfs that of the individual. And here’s the institution, the very institution trying to make me a believer, demonstrating the very scale of waste that I couldn’t hope to compete with if I wanted to. In the name of green.
It’s green, all right. But not the green you may be thinking. There’s a war on, kids, and it’s not the one you think or the sides you believe you’re choosing. It’s between the greenback dollar and the real green left on the earth, that grows from the ground. When they say green, they mean the former, no matter what it sounds like. When there’s none of the former left, none of it at all, that’s the only true hope for the latter.