How Did You Do It?

I just read a great article in The Guardian about how scientists sometime use science fiction to help them find direction in their research. It also talked about how some of the best science fiction writers were in fact scientists, like Isaac Asimov.

This got me thinking about one of my favorite movies of all time, which is “Contact.” Jodie Foster played the main character and it is based on a book by Carl Sagan. I’m old enough to remember seeing Carl Sagan on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show and talking about the “billions and billions” of stars. Johnny then mocked him about that line for weeks afterwards, in a fun kind of way.

I took my two daughters (then aged 13 and 11) to see Contact because Jodie Foster plays such a strong role as a scientist determined to make contact with life on other planets. The three of us thought it was so great we dragged Michelle to it a few nights later. I don’t think I’ve ever paid to see a movie in a theatre twice, other than “Contact.”

Michelle recently began using our daughter’s old iPhone and one morning she showed me some video she had just shot and posted on Instagram just panning around the house. The sound of the birds was outstanding. The quality of the video was amazing. All from a box in the palm of her hand that I’m sure has significantly more processing power than NASA had to put a person on the moon. And I thought about that big honking video camera I used to lug around when our daughters were small children that made me feel like I was a news cameraperson because it was so big. Now when we watch those videos we cringe at the poor quality… especially compared to what an iPhone produces.

As I read The Guardian and other publications and see what incredible technological feats humans are up to, I am constantly reminded of a comment by Jodie Foster’s character, Ellie Arroway, in the movie. A news reporter asks her what she would ask an extraterrestrial, if she met one and could only ask one question. She replies, “Well, I suppose it would be, how did you do it? How did you evolve, how did you survive this technological adolescence without destroying yourself?”

It is a profound concept, written by one of those great minds like Aldous Huxley or George Orwell, who really nailed how the future would play out.

We have these marvelous machines, this amazing technology, we’ve mapped the human genome, somehow we’ve been able to feed 7 billion people, we have backup cameras on our cars and smart phones we can talk to, and video conference with our loved ones on the other side of the world, but still, somehow, we seem to be on a collision course with our mortality by ignoring what the scientists who invented all this cool stuff we use everyday are telling us about climate change.

I don’t believe there is a technological fix to the mess we’re making of our atmosphere. I don’t believe we’ll figure out a way to remove all the extra CO2 that we’ve pumped out, and I don’t believe we can geo-engineer ourselves out of this mess.

I just don’t understand how a species that is so darn smart can be so darn stupid.

I think those of us in the developed world simply need to live with less. Less energy. Less travel. Less stuff. And with all the money we save from this, we need to make ourselves energy independent using renewables and stop giving our money to companies that use fossil fuels to make our heat and power. Michelle and I have done it and it’s pretty awesome.

But then again, maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe they’ll be a last minute “Hail Mary” fix and everything will be all right. I have to admit in the last month there has been a huge change in the amount of press climate change has been getting in the media. As I go through the day-old and week-old papers I get from town for free there is a huge amount of coverage on how putting a price on carbon in Canada is a given. It’s just a question of when and how. Angela Merkel at the G7 pushed to have western economies de-carbonized by 2050 but certain countries got scared and pushed it back to 2100. And then there was Pope Francis’s long-awaited encyclical on the environment, in which he warned of ‘serious consequences’ if the world does not act on climate change. So that’s a great thing. I mean, he’s the Pope!

Regardless, Carl Sagan knew the right question to ask that other civilization from another planet. “How Did You Do It?” And best of all, he left the response ambiguous. It’s never really answered.

This always reminds me of a great quote from Gilda Radner one of the original Saturday Night Live cast members, whose character Rosanne Rosanadana always ended one of her rants with “It’s always something.” (I provide this for our younger readers since SNL started 40 years ago and I watched it from the first show … I’m so old!)

Gilda Radner said, “I wanted a perfect ending. Now I’ve learned, the hard way, that some poems don’t rhyme, and some stories don’t have a clear beginning, middle, and end. Life is about not knowing, having to change, taking the moment and making the best of it, without knowing what’s going to happen next. Delicious Ambiguity.”

10 Responses to “How Did You Do It?”

  • Well I highly recommend it. Thanks

  • Wow Susan! That is very exciting!!!! You’ll have to let us know how it goes. I have suggested to Cam that when our 11 year old Civic needs replacing we will look at an electric! There are so many more to choose from than when we bought our Civic!

  • Climate change has definitely been on my mind a lot lately with the higher than normal temperatures we are experiencing here in the Pacific Northwest. I think people choose to ignore what they are doing because it is simply “inconvenient” to change their life styles and ultimately they are too lazy to do it. They don’t want to ride thier bikes to work, or grow ANY part of their own food, or even recycle. It is someone else’s problem not theirs and why do anything when it wont do any good because no one else it doing it. I hate that attitude.

    Last Saturday we took the plunge and bought a pre-owned Chevy Volt electric car. 2012 and 2013 lease vehicle’s which were once $45,000 are now selling as pre-owned for $15,000-$25,000. The Volt is capable of running on electric only and regenerating power with the braking system but has a backup gas generator that comes on and generates electricity when the battery gets too low. That keeps you from getting stuck on the freeway without a way to get off. I used it to drive to and from my sisters house on Monday and used only 1.7 gallons of gas to go 120 miles. My husband is driving it to work everyday and uses 0 gas instead of a tank a week. What a difference and it is a dream to drive besides. However I have read that some of these cars are being used as gas powered (to electric) when used as fleet vehicles. The people driving them don’t get paid for charging them at home but do get paid for gas. Go figure. As a result you can buy one of these cars and by looking at the lifetime on board computer you can tell how many miles was driven on gas. They tend to be higher mileage cars.(read cheaper) Mine wasn’t and had only 20,000 miles on it and a hefty 3 more years left on the warranty. It may be inconvenient to make that car payment but we are doing it. And it is rewarding. The gas savings makes up for a large portion of the payment.

    When helping our environment becomes more convenient is when there will be change. Unfortunately it will probably be too late and there is no place to hide.

  • Brian:

    As soon as somebody figures out how to get rich saving the planet, we’ll be fine. Well, they will at least.

  • Gerrit:

    I think that it is sadly too late for the human and most other species. Nature bats last, as Guy McPherson says on his blog, where he collects climate news. Looking forward to being wrong though 🙂

  • I think that’s a great question! How do we live with all this technology without destroying ourselves…. the other frustrating thing are the millions of people who do not even realize how important that question is. Or those who would scoff and dismiss it. The media keeps us in the dark, but I am thankful for the internet or I’d know absolutely nothing about anything that’s REALLY happening. I’d like to think the internet (with all it’s ‘technology’:}}) is a big factor in that change. We’ll see I guess…and I can only hope it doesn’t get so bad that life becomes miserable, because I really love it here.

  • Thanks John! This is actually a movie that we own on DVD and have watched a few times and have lent it to friends and family too!

  • Nice post Cam. Maybe our grandkids will see how it plays out. For me, I’m trying to reduce my impact, as are you. Good on ya, Mate!

  • John:

    Given your appreciation of the movie, it occurred to me to tell you that the full movie is apparently available on-line (no charge) at in case you would choose to watch it again.

  • Neil B. (Orleans):

    Thank you for the great quote!

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About Cam
Cam Mather and his wife Michelle live independently off the electricity grid using the sun and wind to power their home and their CSA. Cam is working towards the goal of making his home “zero-carbon” and with his extensive garden he aims to grow as much of his own food as possible. He is available to speak at conferences and other events and has motivated many people to integrate renewable energy into their lives, reduce their footprint on the planet and get started on the path to personal food, fuel and financial independence.
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