Wednesday, July 26, 2006

A Nation of Cowards

A nation of cowards. That's us -- Americans.

The more I think about it, the more I see it's true, and the more it burns me up. Though it simmers in the back of my mind, this particular rant was touched off by a conversation on George Ou's ZDNet blog. It wasn't anything George said... as a matter of fact, he's completely right on this topic, which happens to be on energy. George wrote:
Even more importantly, our country as a whole needs to rethink its energy policy and look at the energy debate with an open mind. Patrick Moore (the founder of Green Peace) along with a few other courageous environmentalists has eloquently stated his position on clean, safe, and abundant energy.
Here George is talking about nuclear power. And as usual whenever the subject of nuclear power comes up, somebody's going to complain. I won't go over the myths and the answers because they're more than adequately addressed by Patrick Moore. And -- please -- look over the Wikipedia article on pebble-bed reactors before you offer a knee-jerk argument on the subject based on obsolete technology from 30 years ago.

But the nuclear power debate is only what set me off. It's symptomatic of something larger. We've turned into a nation of irrational alarmists, fear-mongers, and superstitious cowards. And when I say irrational, I mean it. I was among the last of the Baby Boomers. When I was growing up, not just anything was possible... everything was possible. In those days people didn't just dream of things, they did them. Jack Kennedy said, "Go to the moon!" and you didn't hear a bunch of whiners wondering if it was safe enough. Instead you saw a bunch of men with the "right stuff" go to the moon!

We threw money into the sky because it was exciting and it was bold. That money fell back to Earth as advances in food preparation and storage, medicine, communications and GPS satellites, weather prediction, orbital surveys, computers, farming... the rewards for bold action are myriad.

We dreamed of space exploration and universal cooperation. The world would be like Star Trek. IDIC. I went to work in technology before it was sexy. Back then you had to be a first-class nerd. But I chose computers because I have a built-in desire to make those dreams come true. Here is a field where -- at least in my general vicinity -- I can make things better. I can help make that world happen.

And this is what bugs me: nearly everything we dreamed of, we can do, if we want to. But everytime something comes close to fruition, people get scared. They back off. They kvetch and they moan and they complain about the things they thought were really, really cool back when the work started.
  • Nuclear power, we've talked about. Clean, dirt cheap energy that leaves the environment better than you found it. Reliance on nuclear power is the single best way to slow global warming. Yet you can't say the words "nuclear power" over the sound of knocking knees. Irrational.
  • Whenever we invest in space it rains technological benefits. Space is a dangerous place: it's not really for tourists. It's the most extreme thing you can do, ever. Yet we expect a trip to Earth orbit to be safer than a ride at the county fair. Irrational.
  • On the Starship Enterprise you could just ask the computer, "Where's the captain?" and darned if the computer didn't know. That's good security; that's good safety; that's convenience by the bucketload. Wouldn't it be great if we could do the same with our kids? The technology exists. We could use it if it weren't blocked by people who think that the privacy of little children trumps their parents' and guardians' concerns for their safety. The same people who give more weight to their fear of the evil uses some third party might put it to than the good uses they themselves can certainly put it to. Irrational.
  • Genetically engineered crops and beasties could feed millions. We've been actively engineering genes since before recorded history, but we've called it "breeding" up until now. Do you think those huge ears of maize or the fluffy coats on sheep are natural? Wrong. People made them. Do you think clones are new? Wrong. All identical twins throughout history have been clones, and we've always known to treat them as individuals. Yet there are people that want to mull over the "ramifications" of this technology. Irrational.
This goes on ad infinitum. Christians who have an irrational fear of science. Athiests who have an irrational fear of true religious freedoms. New Agers who have an irrational fear of rationality! And everywhere, people who are irrationally obsessed with safety. Today, nothing is "safe enough" to satisfy alarmists. George W. Bush said, "Go to the moon!" and this time there immediately came the chorus of, "what for?" and "we've done that!" and "it's too dangerous!" Just today I watched an interview with Buzz Aldrin, who noted that the Moon landing in 1969 would have been impossible if they had the attitude prevalent today. We have no concept of acceptable risk. When they built the Space Shuttle they overbuilt due to the interference of... well... everybody. Now the pendulum is swinging predictably to an absurd extreme. The next generation of NASA spacecraft will quite likely be a re-tread of the 1970s Apollo technology. Sigh. You can bet it'll be "safer" though.

What do people dream of today? Grunge, cell phone ringtones, MySpace, and video games? They want to be non-conformists, just like all their friends. They risk their lives in extreme sports because they're not allowed to risk their lives for the growth of humanity. Today's movies are full of cynical anti-heroes. What interest could I have in anti-heroes when I've met real ones?

Yet there are a handful of people out there who still have the right stuff. When SpaceShipOne won the Ansari X-prize and Richard Branson immediately announced Virgin Galactic, that was lump-in-the-throat time. Not because of the achievement. Remember, anything is possible to those who want to achieve. Not because Burt Rutan and Paul Allen trumped NASA. It was because that flight was proof that there are a few people left who understand what it is to make big dreams happen. People who aren't afraid.

Rant's over. Go dream something.