In the small town of Riverside, Iowa, there is a stone memorial reading “Future birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk: March 22, 2228.” I can’t talk about this inscription (and I talk about it often) without tearing up. We, as humans, have imagined a year when a child is born to become a starship captain. It’s a gesture of faith, implying we’ll live long enough to see it happen.
This is why I love Star Trek — its overpowering belief in our potential as humans, so intense that it borders on innocence. Even better, a group of enterprising Riverside citizens took this sterling impulse and turned it into a tourist attraction. What an utterly human thing to do.
It’s Earth Day 2019, a very Trek-ish holiday, in that it represents a vision of a better future, but also in that its optimism feels slightly embarrassing. Trek is about seeking out new life and new civilizations, but here on Earth we are tripping on the final, brutal step of the Drake Equation: How long can a civilization advanced enough to develop radio astronomy last before destroying itself?
We have 12 years to cut emissions in half before the effects of climate change become both irreversible and catastrophic. What should we do to celebrate? Plant a tree? In the The Next Generation episode “The Inner Light,” the doomed residents of Kataan do just that, tithing each family’s water supply so that their own tree, a symbol of hope, can stay verdant in the face of an ecological disaster that they do not have the power to avert.
Right now, this dorky nineties-throwback Captain Planet tradition feels nearly that futile. It’s easy to forget that the first Earth Day was held in 1970, in the wake of the Santa Barbara oil spill, and that the EPA, the Clean Water, Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Protection Act were all created within a year. But did Earth Day — first imagined as an “environmental teach-in” and now the largest secular holiday in the world — do anything? Or did it just leave us with empty hope?
When I first heard the words “Green New Deal,” I felt that sense of hope return, and it didn’t feel empty at all. The idea of the Green New Deal has been around for a while, but has only recently won national attention in the wake of the 2018 midterm elections, as a set of policies and resolutions now supported by the majority of the 2020 presidential candidates. You can read about it at length, but the spirit is contained in those three titular words. It represents FDR’s legendary public works and jobs program, the New Deal, the massive communal effort that beat the Great Depression, back from the grave with an exciting new environmentally conscious recolor. A lot of people think it’s too pie-in-the-sky, but I think it’s brilliant. It breaks the false dichotomy that pits jobs for humans against environmental concerns, and reminds us that the Earth is not some silly obsession of tree-hugging do-gooders, but the thing we all live on. And despite the Green New Deal’s impossible ambition, its proponents are already scoring significant victories.
A few days ago, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — a fervent champion of the Green New Deal — released a video that borrows the optimism of the entire Star Trek franchise for seven minutes of gorgeous, pure-hearted environmental propaganda. “A Message from the Future” depicts AOC, with a sleek shock of gray at her temples, riding a bullet train from New York to DC while reflecting on how America beat climate change, and arrived at a diverse and prosperous future. ’ It ends with the words “We can be whatever we have the courage to see.” I cried like I was watching Wrath of Khan.
In the current political climate, words of hope wear out quickly; they can feel both corny and patronizing. I don’t know if it’s our continual failure to acknowledge climate change as a nation, or just the unrelenting speed of the meme cycle, but it feels as though the idea of “Earth Day” turned hokey long ago.
“Just words” Kirk tells his son, bashfully, in Khan.
“But good words” his son replies. “That’s where ideas begin.”
Words spread ideas. Ideas lead to actions, and occasionally even to government agencies without which we would be indisputably worse off— bureaucracy and all. When we are re-fighting battles, it’s important to remember that we’re fighting them again because at some point we won. Because the old, tired words that make us feel a little sheepish worked well enough to help us survive.
When I cynically wonder how long the hype behind the Green New Deal will actually last, I think about Star Trek’s best “corny” words. Because, ultimately they were good words: “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one.” “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.” Or, as a literal prophet tells Captain Sisko (in his alternate reality guise as the downtrodden fifties sci-fi writer Benny Russell in “Far Beyond the Stars”), “Hope and despair walk hand in hand.”
This isn’t just the text of Star Trek, it is its dogma- the center of its most beloved episodes. First Contact with the Vulcans happens in the aftermath of the Third World War, and the franchise has always drawn exceptional power from contrasting humanity’s bleakest moments with its amazing, imagined future. In crisis after crisis, stories connect, hope leads the way, and then — to quote “Darmok,” the classic TNG episode about a society that can only communicate by referencing stories from its history and myth — Darmok and Jalad leave on the ocean.
The Green New Deal is a "Darmok"-esque construction, combining powerful memories to hook the heart. Remember the Great Depression, when we were on the verge of despair? When, as Kirk’s 1930s time-travel flame Edith Keeler put it in “City on the Edge of Forever,” every day was just “a struggle to survive?” Remember how we made a huge collective effort, pulled the country out of the dust, then turned around and won World War II? Remember celebrating Earth Day for the first time, when it still felt powerful to plant a tree? America has always been clutch— it’s part of our national identity— and, for better or worse, Starfleet was developed with American ideals. Our ideals and hope that insisted that we, as a nation, could be and do better. That we’re still celebrating Earth Day today is proof of that alone.
The Original Series is a beautiful idea uncut: a world of peace dedicated to discovery. Subsequent series have introduced complications, from morally compromised captains to tacit admissions that the whole thing is just a dream. “You cannot destroy an idea!” Benny Russell screams, defending his Black starship captain against the censorship of his racist society. I’m not sure that Benny is right. You can certainly try. But the complicating of beautiful ideas is part of what helps them survive as the enemy, like a Borg shield, evolves. Hope is our technology, and we must continually improve it.
As it turns out, Riverside is not the only city with a memorial honoring a Starfleet hero. Linlithgow, Scotland has a museum with a wall plaque dedicated to the birth of Montgomery Scott (the town fought with Aberdeen for the privilege). I do not know if there are any other Trek birthplace monuments but I hope there are, or will be, all across this planet. New Orleans, La Barre, Bloomington, Mogadishu— light a candle, etch the words in stone: The future is coming to Killarney, to Pulau Langkawi, to New York City, to Atlanta. Armed with hope and, perhaps, a fully realized Green New Deal, we humans will be here to see it.
Reina Hardy (she/her) is a playwright- her extremely Trek-indebted play "Annie Jump and the Library of Heaven" is currently playing in Washington DC as part of a four-theater rolling world premiere. She also writes for Electric Literature on stories and what they do to us. Follow her @reinahardy.