In the 1951 movie, The Day the Earth Stood Still, an alien named Klaatu lands his spaceship on the National Mall with a giant robot capable of destroying the world. Klaatu walks off the ship and says, more or less, “take me to your leaders.”
But the world’s politicians are too busy jockeying for power to pay any attention — they refuse to all gather in the same place. So Klaatu instead goes to the only world leaders who will all agree to gather together in one place: the scientists.
Klaatu tells them that there is an intergalactic federation of societies working in peace, and they have noticed the planet Earth, with its great new technology, and its terrible wars. Klaatu says to the gathered scientists, “The people of Earth can join us in peace, but should you threaten to extend your violence, this Earth of yours will be reduced to a burned-out cinder. We will be waiting for your answer.” The movie stands today as one of the earliest — and best — cultural arguments for peace in a world with nuclear weapons.
It would be nice to think that 2016 is nothing like 1951. Nuclear warfare doesn’t seem to be an immediate threat, and the Cold War is over. But nationalism and xenophobia is on the rise worldwide. Europe is splintering. The United States just finished the ugliest election in its history, with pretty terrifying results. And climate change is only getting worse.
The threats may be different, but the future in 2016 is just as uncertain as it was in 1951. Once again, we find ourselves needing real world leaders. And it appears Klaatu had it right: the people to talk to are the scientists. And maybe one actual head of state.
This past week, partly in response to the election of science-denier Donald Trump in the United States, and partly in response to the rise of other populist movements around the world, scientists started speaking up.
The most famous of them was Dr. Stephen Hawking, who wrote an article for The Guardian newspaper. He wrote:
“Now, more than at any time in our history, our species needs to work together. We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans.
Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity. We now have the technology to destroy the planet on which we live, but have not yet developed the ability to escape it. Perhaps in a few hundred years, we will have established human colonies amid the stars, but right now we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.
At the same time, 2300 scientists, including 22 Nobel Prize winners, wrote an open letter to President-Elect Trump and the 115th Congress, imploring them to ““adhere to high standards of scientific integrity and independence in responding to current and emerging public health and environmental health threats.” This comes on the heels of an announcement by the Trump transition team that the President-Elect plans to defund the NASA programs that are studying the effects of climate change.
The World Leaders
Perhaps most amazingly is that the strongest global political support for the work of climate scientists is coming from the Pope — the head of an institution that has had a turbulent relationship with science through the centuries.
Pope Francis said, last week, that there has “never been such a clear need for science,” and urged world leaders to keep working together to fight climate change.
“It is worth noting that international politics has reacted weakly — albeit with some praiseworthy exceptions — regarding the concrete will to seek the common good and universal goods, and the ease with which well-founded scientific opinion about the state of our planet is disregarded.”
Both Hawking and the Pope have expressed sympathy with the disaffection and the populism that has led to the rise of Trump and the nationalist right in many other countries. Pope Francis has long spoken out against global inequality and poverty, and Hawking, in his article, wrote, “we are living in a world of widening, not diminishing, financial inequality, in which many people can see not just their standard of living, but their ability to earn a living at all, disappearing. It is no wonder then that they are searching for a new deal, which Trump and Brexit might have appeared to represent.”
The revolt of the common man is justified, and there are real problems with our world. But the future belongs to the people who unite us, who bring us together to solve our common problems. Those leaders, it appears, will not be our politicians, but our scientists and our spiritual leaders.