Sunday, November 06, 2005
In Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, we learn about a training scenario used by Starfleet Academy to learn more about the character of their cadets. The premise is that a helpless Federation vessel has gotten crippled inside the neutral zone and your ship is the only one capable of rescuing it. To do so, however, involves violating the neutral zone and possibly sparking a war with the Klingons. If the cadet decides to enter the neutral zone, an overwhelming force of enemy ships appears and the cadet's ship is destroyed, along with the Kobayashi Maru. It is a no-win scenario, and the objective is simply to make the best decision possible in a world of bad alternatives.
What would I do in such a scenario? I don't know.
However, I was reminded of that scenario as I was thinking about a lot of the things I've been learning. I've taken two courses in American environmental history, and the main thing I took away from them was the idea that no matter what course of action was pursued, ethical problems were present. Let's use American Indians as an example. They did not overwork the land, and as a result many of them often starved to death over the winter if the year's crop had been especially bad. They thus avoided overpopulation, and likely could have kept farming the same land indefinitely using their methods of agriculture. It is also thought that due to smaller population densities, a lower level of trade, and what James Loewen calls the "decontamination chamber" of passing through the Arctic, American Indians were remarkably healthy due to their lack of major diseases. However, this meant that they were left out of what could be called an arms race between germs and antibodies in Europe, so that when plagues such as smallpox and the Black Death were inadvertantly introduced to the New World, mortality rates as high as 98% nearly annihilated the native populations. When the Pilgrim Separatists arrived in Plymouth, one reason they were able to prosper was that the spot where they built their settlement had been an Indian settlement only a few years before, complete with cleared fields and even buried stores of seeds (Squanto was the sole survivor of this town, called Patuxet, due to his having been kidnapped and sent to Europe prior to the spread of the disease). Similar things have occurred in Africa. With the arrival of European medicine, population rates have surpassed the ability of traditional farming methods to sustain the increased population.
Several problems are posed by this. The first is that of the J-shaped curve, which is what Thomas Malthus feared: that when a population surpasses the ability of the land to sustain it (and that ability can be increased by huge amounts through technology, which Malthus failed to take into account), the result is not a mild correction to just below the carrying capacity, but rather a massive "die-off," with a huge number of deaths. This is essentially what happened to the American Indians and may very soon happen with Africans, with disease resistance instead of food production as the limiting factor. Another problem is that of morality: is it better to allow some to die of preventable causes and preserve resources you or your descendants will need, or to spend whatever is necessary to save as many people today as is possible? In other words, should we sacrifice the future for the present? If there is a middle position, how do we find it?
As a Christian, several things come to mind. In Genesis, God tells Adam that the land will be cursed to him and that he must work the land with sweat to make it bear fruit. I think there are many, many applications of this, but one of them is that we can't "win" using our own means. In I Corinthians 10:13, we are told that there are no temptations which we cannot bear, and that God will always provide a way out. When He is anointed my Mary Magdalene, He says that the poor will always be with us, indicating, again, that we can't solve the world's problems.
Thus, we as Christians have an interesting problem before us. Mark Shea calls the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, the "Stupid Party" and the "Evil Party," largely based on their views on abortion. It's hard to disagree. What I've come to decide is that the Republicans are the "second-best" option for Christians. While the Democrats offer a way of doing things which is more similar to the Christian way, they lack God in their plan and fail to realize that they can't possibly hope to truly effect the changes they seek. The Republicans offer better "results," promoting law n' order, defense, and "family values." The problem is that, once again, God isn't in it, and so there's a strain of Machiavellianism there. It is not the religious right, but the technocrats who control the GOP. Although Fox News is actually populist, rather than conservative, it serves as a good example. Which is more evident: news stories about religion and crucifixes, or red, white, and blue and graphics over almost every inch of the screen? What has happened is that instead of being the Good Samaritan, willing to help a stranger, even an enemy, in need of aid, we prefer to chip in a few bucks to fund a highway patrol tasked with dealing with those in trouble on the road. The Republicans vow to oppose abortion, find ways to reduce taxes so citizens have more to spend on their families, and protect religion (whether or not this is blowing smoke is questionable, but it's at least ostensibly true). Thus, a veneer of Christian sentiment is present. Given that the Democratic candidate often advocates positions openly hostile to our faith, the GOP becomes the default.
Stay tuned for part II...