Two events this week, thousands of miles apart, demonstrated vastly different visions for America and the world. While the Heartland Institute’s climate change denial conference disintegrated into an embarrassing, stinking mess, SpaceX partnered with the Obama administration to strike new ground for the human race -- the first commercial space flight in history.
Don’t let anyone tell you there’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats -- the gulf between Heartland and SpaceX perfectly illustrates the two visions between which we must choose. One side seeks to guide us smoothly into the 21st century. The other seeks to pull us back into the Middle Ages.
America itself was launched by major figures of the Enlightenment, leaders like Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson who not only believed in science but practiced it. It is no coincidence that the US has won nearly half of all science and economics Nobel Prizes, or that our nation has a long history of innovations and inventions from the cotton gin to the Internet. It is part of America’s DNA -- to be American is to believe in science and the power of human ingenuity to help us tackle our greatest challenges. Of course we have many other aspects to our history and character, both good and bad -- but our scientific achievements are America at her best.
Yet every time that humanity has tried to take small steps or giant leaps forward, someone somewhere has fought that progress and tried to hold us back. The same country that created the Declaration of Independence also produced the Salem Witch Trials. The USA of Martin Luther King was also the USA of Joe McCarthy. The "land of the free and home of the brave" is also the land of the ignorant and home of the reactionary. Progress is never a straight path forward -- it is a zig zag as we fight the forces of the status quo protecting every plantation and oil refinery, every misbegotten privilege and civil wrong, in the name of conservatism and tradition.
And so today we have the choice between those who would harness science and reason for the public good -- and those who would defund and deny science at the most basic level. At the forefront of today's Republican party are science deniers -- hence, even as self-respecting corporations were pulling their funding from the Heartland Institute, its conference was being addressed by Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who regaled them with such brilliant insights as:
CO2 is a natural gas. Does this mean that all of us need to put catalytic converters on all our noses? The fact that people think CO2 is a pollutant … basically goes into propaganda.That the Republican Vice Chair of the House Committee on Space, Science and Technology won't even bother to spend 10 minutes on Google to find out under what conditions carbon dioxide is harmful or helpful tells you how close we are coming to an era of Lysenkoism if we let the Republicans take full control in November.
But we have a clear alternative -- and it is most definitely not "socialism." To the contrary, the Obama administration just demonstrated one of the most visionary and thoughtful examples of the government turning over to the private sector a project that the market may indeed be able to do better: space flight. The government has an essential role in planting seeds through early research, development and support for advances toward which industry cannot or will not venture by itself. But once the government has proven the potential and built the infrastructure for a new field, in many cases it makes sense for government to then step back and encourage others to take the lead -- with appropriate regulation and monitoring, of course. Industry probably never would've gotten to outer space without NASA's leadership. Yet now, once again, government has moved us forward, and the marketplace is free to gain the ample benefits of following.
What an elegant vision -- government not as some evil, alien force scooping up our tax dollars and squandering them with no benefit to the citizens, but as an innovator, partner and yes, regulator for progress.
We take for granted the incredible scientific and technological feats that allow a rocket to launch into space -- and permit the satellites that guide our GPS systems, give us up to the minute weather forecasts and beam stupid, meaningless TV shows to us. But none of this is coincidental, easy or guaranteed. It depends on having leaders who believe in and support science -- and not just with lip service, but with funding and solid, consistent support.
It's been a while since we've seen such a remarkable event as the SpaceX launch and docking at the International Space Station to make us feel good about our scientific and technical capabilities. It's a fine reminder about what it means, and should continue to mean, to be an American. But it's our choice whether we create a future that looks like this -- or we allow Republicans to turn our country into a backwards laughing stock, a forgotten nation like Belarus, where government supports not science and progress, but security and tradition. The choice between the paths of Heartland and SpaceX is a stark one -- to boldly go where no man has gone before, or to go back where we've sadly been stuck so many times in history. But if we don't fight for the right choice, here and now, the wrong one will unquestionably be forced upon us.