Our Little Solar System: Living Together in a World of Spaces

By John Lussier

The year is 2312. Humanity has colonized much of the solar system. We have not reached the stars, yet, but we are going to try. The earth has been heavily polluted, and fights between corporations, city-states, and nations over limited resources are constant.

The rest of the solar system is fairing only slightly better. Mars was the first to be terraformed, with Mercury, Venus, and the moons of Saturn following close behind. Thousands of asteroids have been transformed into smaller city-states, independent of one another and the planets that drive their movement. While forced to cooperate through a computerized economic system, but currency is a fragile unity when the distances and differences are so vast.

Earth and space have become balkanized. The communities have fragmented and divided so many times there is little communication, knowledge, and reciprocity with one another. The solar system is no longer a system, but separations.

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I love the way science fiction can picture a potential future, and therefore part of our present. Science fiction often answers questions that start out “What if  _______ continued?” Where will we be in 100 years if we continue to consume the earth and its limited resources like we do today? What if smartphones continue to consume our attention? What if the problems of gentrification continue and move on to increasingly smaller cities?

Kim Stanley Robinson’s sci-fi novel 2312 presents answers to the above questions (and more, it’s an expansive tome). His account of the balkanization of our communities is especially poignant today. Our communities, city, nation, and the world at large seem to be separating into smaller and smaller groups everyday.

In high school we used to call these groups cliques. Now in adulthood I’d call them churches. Or neighborhoods, workplaces, political parties, social media networks, etc. While these groups had little material effect in high school -- it didn’t much matter that I fell in with the AV kids; I could have just as easily been part of literature club, or one of the music nerds and been fine --  they have huge material ramifications now.

The community we’re a part of changes how we live.

Many Americans get to choose where they live, study, work, play, and worship. They can self-select what communities they are a part of.

If you live at the right income level and have the skills to do so, you can live in a gated community, commute to work in your own car, enter a secure workplace with its own lounge, coffee-shop, cafeteria, and recreation areas. From there you can travel home or engage in any number of leisure activities. In real life you can choose who you spend time with. On social media you can decide who to friend, who to hide/unfollow, and what you get to hear about. It’s all up to you! And not only do you get to choose all of this, but what you choose identifies (and really becomes) part of who you are.

Your choices are your identity. You are what you love.

According to Joshua Greene, author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them , we evolved for this kind of group-ish choos-yness (those ineloquent words are all mine, not his!) It’s advantageous to us as individuals and for those we choose to live in community with, so the brain has evolved a number of capacities and tendencies that reinforce it.

Don’t get me wrong: these capacities and tendencies aren’t bad things by themselves. Our empathetic nature (with those like us) prompts us to help others. The universal concern for reciprocity in relationships ensures that we care about the welfare of others and ourselves. A commitment to promises is a good thing. If we didn’t have the ability to categorize, we’d be lost in a world of specifics never knowing exactly what to do or say.

Our brains help us form committed relationships to one another and our place in the world.

But not everyone has the ability to select their place. Often that ability to choose is founded on someone else’s inability to choose. That house that opened up in an up-and-coming neighborhood near the inner city? Someone lived there before. And they probably didn’t choose to leave. That freeway that helps us to travel quickly from our neighborhood through the city to our work place? It cut right through someone else’s neighborhood, dividing a community and bringing unwanted noise and pollution.

The community we choose to live in is supported by other communities we know nothing about. And don’t have to know if we don’t want to.

Technological developments and economic changes increasingly lead to the separation of people into separate communities, more and more alike with each other. Some people are able to choose this separation (usually for good-hearted reasons) while others can’t or won’t. This group-ish choosy-ness has made us fragmented, divisive, and ignorant of people unlike us.

During the initial protests shouting “Black Lives Matter” I can remember many of my white friends expressing that they didn’t understand the animosity to the police. “I’ve never been pulled over like that.” “Just do the right thing during an encounter with the police and everything is going to be alright.” Bring these thoughts up to an black man that’s lived in the US for any period of time and you’ll realize how ignorant they are. White people, on the whole, just don’t know what we’re talking about when it comes to the experiences of minorities in America.

There is an epistemic divide between communities, because we no longer live together.

I’m not above this ignorance. This political season (which seems to last longer and longer every cycle) I’ve noted over and over again my own lack of knowledge when it comes to those on the political right. Especially Trump supporters. Considering my audience, I would wager you’ve felt this ignorance as well. “Who are these people that are supporting Donald Trump?” “Do you know anyone that is supporting him? I don’t!” Think about that for a second. Many of us are living in a world where we know zero people supporting the (at least at this point) most likely Republican nominee for the US presidency.

It’s like we’re living on different planets or something.

[Photo Credit: Hubble ESA]

[The above is part of a series on sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and the nature of the mind by Master of Divinity student, John Lussier.  In this series he will be asking some pretty big questions: How might biology inform our sense of the moral? Where do emotions and reason come in? Who are we and what were we made for?  Definitive answers are often hard to come by, but sometimes becoming informed is just as much about learning to ask the right questions.  We hope you will come alongside him--and us--on this intellectual journey! ]