By the time you read this, Skylab may already have tumbled out of orbit and crashed back to Earth.
I wish something else would tumble: the kind of mentality that put Skylab up there in the first place, with so little regard for the future. To me, that kind of careless curiosity isn’t science: it’s the drunken enthusiasm of someone tossing a beer bottle out of the window of a speeding car — or an airplane.
The game that NASA and the press are playing with statistics reflects that carelessness. I keep reading that the odds against any particular individual being struck by Skylab’s debris are several billion to one, about as likely as drawing a royal flush in poker. The other statistic, less publicized, is that the likelihood of someone being squashed is only 150 to 1. That means no one in particular, just . . . a person.
If we lived in a village of 150 people directly in Skylab’s path, that statistic would have enormous relevance. But we live in a “global village” of several billion people who are no more real to us than the flickering images on the television screen, in the same way that we aren’t real to the people who launch satellites and build nuclear reactors. It’s not because the world is too “big” that this is so; it’s because of how we understand the world, slicing up life into events and turning people into objects. I say “we,” although I know everyone doesn’t do this. But institutionally we do. The Red Cross can count out blankets for earthquake victims without sewing name tags on them, but when we consent to become nameless and faceless because of some “greater good” — Science, or the Church, or the State — we’ve traded life for abstractions, and that’s a bad trade.
But what is there to do? Shake a fist at the sky? Or at those “in power”? Getting angry doesn’t get us anywhere (although anger can be useful). In my anger, I’m always imprecise — my line about “the people who launch satellites and build nuclear reactors” doesn’t stand up to close inspection. “Them” is “us.” If we forget that, we’re playing the same con game “they” are. So much evil is done in the name of good. Paul Trumm, editor of a little magazine called Wolf Howls, puts it succinctly in a recent issue:
People who are doing good are not usually doing it for others. They do it because they want others to see they are a good guy, so others will admire them, so they can make it to heaven, so they can control others, or so they can meet other people who are doing the same things. . . . The ego can grab on to any seemingly good intention and twist it to its own means. This is selfishness. The most unselfish thing to do is to work on your own mind and act on things in accordance with your inner self so that your intentions and motivations are pure and free of ego taint. When one has brought about the change in oneself first, then one is capable of bringing it about in others.
It’s hard to see beyond the roles we all play, in our personal relationships as well as in society: victim, oppressor, rescuer. The role of the rescuer, of the revolutionary, is appealing, it’s heroic, but it can be self-defeating for, as William Irwin Thompson writes, “If we center in our egos and scream, in the words of the chorus in Marat/Sade, ‘We want a revolution NOW,’ we become like infants screaming for a bottle, or crying for Christmas to come early.”
I used to listen to that song often after I got out of school. I was frustrated with my job as a newspaper reporter, because I wanted to change society and society was slow to change. One day, I was sent back to the college I’d attended to cover a student demonstration. One of the leaders, who I’d known, had just finished speaking. Another student got up to challenge him, and my friend started booing and trying to drown him out.
“What are you doing?” I asked. “What about free speech?”
“Free speech?” he snickered. “Not for him.”
I have as little faith in architects of a new world or a new age or a new anything as I do in the scientists who put Skylab in orbit. We need to look out for ourselves, and the world, the way we look out for falling debris: keeping our eyes open, taking nothing on hearsay, remembering there’s no safety, in rooms or in rooms of the mind, because the danger is as much in our minds as it is out there. If we’re working on ourselves, we’re working on the world, because the effect we have on other people is immediate and real; we’re not just trading abstractions.
Years ago, I became friends with a man whose diet, at the time, was much different from mine and I teased him about being so concerned about his health, suggesting none of this would matter if he got hit by a car. “I won’t get hit by a car,” he said. I thought he was being arrogant, but I knew he was saying something else, and since then I’ve come to understand: we create our world, and accidents don’t just happen, no more than Skylab is just happening to be breaking up and returning home.