What we can still learn from “Star Trek”: a saga of harmony in diversity

March 16, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.
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Star Trek: a low budget TV series. Cardboard models of spaceships, few and simple special effects, a small number of actors always engaged in the same mock-up of the command bridge of a starship. And, yet, it influenced a whole generation. 

The death of Leonard Nimoy, the actor who played Mr. Spock in the original TV series  "Star Trek" has ended an age. Star Trek was a true 20th century saga, a way of seeing the world. To some of us, it may look completely obsolete, today, but it must have been telling us something deep; something important, if it was so successful, so followed, so revered by so many. So, what was the secret of the series? It was not technological wizardry; it was the human side of the story. It was a story that told us of how it was possible to have harmony in diversity.

The literary origins of Star Trek go back to Homer’s Odyssey, but its immediate ancestor is "Moby Dick" by Herman Melville. With all the obvious differences, the similarities are many and obvious. One is that the Pequod, the ship of Moby Dick and the Enterprise, the starship of Star Trek, never land anywhere, they just wander over the oceans and in the interstellar space. And, despite all the technological wizardry involved, the command deck of the Enterprise looks very much like that of a 19th century ship.

It has been observed many times that Melville’s microcosm echoes the structure of the American society of his times, a society which needed to integrate and harmonize its different cultural elements. Think of the character of Quequegg, the tattooed islander who appears very early in the novel and, in a sense, characterizes it. But, if the Pequod is America, it is also a society which is already facing its limits in its search for a disappearing resource: whales. This is why I described "Moby Dick" as "The greatest peak oil novel ever written".

With "Star Trek" we have again a microcosm of the American society, although, in this case, it has one galactic. But this future society still faces the problem that the Pequod was facing, a problem that was so deeply felt in the 1960s, when the series was born, that of the limits to human expansion. In Star Trek, humans can travel in the Galaxy but can’t (or won’t) expand in it. The economy of the "United Federation of Planets" seems to be a steady state one; they don’t seem to be obsessed with economic growth, actually they may not even use money! In Star Trek we see no economic growth, no population increase, no industrial production, no attempt of humans to exterminate alien races in order to colonize other planets. The Enterprise hops from one planet to another without ever stopping anywhere, without ever leaving a long lasting trace of its passage. It is like the wake left by the Pequod on the sea, which disappears leaving no trace.

So, with Star Trek, if the problem is the limits, and if you can’t go on exterminating aliens in order to steal their planets, then the solution is harmony in diversity, the same as one of the main themes of "Moby Dick" with the multiracial crew of the Pequod. The central point of "Star Trek" is not technology, it is not the future, it is people; and one character in particular: first officer Spock, the equivalent of Quequegg in Moby Dick; the alien to be integrated and, at the same time, respected. Note how the relation of Captain Kirk and Spock mirrors that of Quequegg and Ishmael of Moby Dick. In both cases, they recognize their respective cultural difference and they respect each other. As on board of the Pequod, the deck of the Enterprise is a place where individual differences are neither ignored nor rejected, they are accepted and valued. Star Trek lacks the negative character of Captain Ahab of Moby Dick, and hence emphasizes even more the positive results of collaboration of different individuals. This is the "secret" of Star Trek: harmony in diversity.

In a sense, the message of Star Trek echoes that of "The Limits to Growth", the 1972 study that first quantified the physical limits to human growth on the surface of the earth. The study was the result of the intuition of a man, Aurelio Peccei, who had asked the question of how human beings could live in justice and prosperity on a limited planet. The answer that he obtained from the scientists was a statement of the obvious: humankind cannot grow forever on a finite planet. Little was said in the "Limits" study about the destiny of humankind beyond cold graphics and tables, and that was one of the reasons of its downfall in the decades after its release. But Peccei had not really asked for graphics. He had asked a question that computers could not answer at that time and cannot answer today. The real answer was that we don’t need to grow forever to live in harmony without losing our diversity.

It is an answer that Peccei had surely in mind, but that was shadowed, and eventually lost, by the great noise created by the debate on the Limits to Growth. But, perhaps, we can find again and one of the places where we can find it is in Spock’s words "Live Long and Prosper." So simple as that: we could live long and prosper if we wanted, but we haven’t learned how to do that. Probably we never will and the command deck of spaceship Earth remains manned by homicidal psychopaths. 

h/t to Alexander Stefes for the discussion that led me to write to this post 

Ugo Bardi

Ugo Bardi teaches physical chemistry at the University of Florence, in Italy. He is interested in resource depletion, system dynamics modeling, climate science and renewable energy. He is member of the scientific committee of ASPO (Association for the study of peak oil) and regular contributor of "The Oil Drum" and "Resilience.org". His blog in English is called "Cassandra's legacy". His most recent book in English Extracted: How the Quest for Global Mining Wealth is Plundering the Planet (Chelsea Green”, 2014. He is also the author of The Limits to Growth Revisited (Springer 2011).

Tags: #carfree, Diversity, Society, Star Trek