This IS the Kobayashi Maru
David R. Weiss – May 10, 2023
It’s true, there are days that the company I keep wears me down. I’ve made the abyss of ecological overshoot my conversation partner. The banter is not cheery.
Overshoot, in a nutshell, refers to the reckless plunder of the planet in the present, borrowing heavily against the wellbeing of the planet in the future. It is living in excess … until the biosphere—and the “sociosphere”—collapse in exhaustion. And it has become so normal as to be almost boring.
Did you notice, back on March 13, when the United States went into overshoot? I didn’t. But that was the day—just 72 days into the year—by which the average U.S. consumer had consumed their entire year’s worth of goods. From the Ides of March onward, we are borrowing from (well, stealing, since there is no plan and no way to pay it back) the wellbeing of tomorrow. We are plundering the planet. The mantra of our lifestyles having become, “To hell with those who come after us! Born too late; it’s just their fate: they’re screwed!”
It is not a mantra to be morally proud of. But it is the mantra of consumer capitalism (and its close kin: misogyny, white supremacy, homophobia, anthropocentrism). It is the mantra SUNG by the socio-economic structures of our lives. It is the mantra in which we are entangled. And, even if we are “lucky” enough to die before the debt comes due, it is the mantra that will exact repayment—in the form of catastrophic system-wide ecological-economic-social collapse in the lives of those who come after us. Some of whom we have birthed and named and raised with love ourselves.
Except for the super-wealthy, that mantra is indiscriminate. As our life choices carry its chant, we may assume that those damned to hell by the illicit leisure of our lives are surely ones unknown to us. Those born in distant lands or those whose humanity is hued different than our own. But unless the balance of (stolen!) “wealth” in your bank account is measured by multi-millions or more, your hope to buffer those of your choosing from calamity will be next to nil.
Which brings us to the Kobayashi Maru.
The Kobayashi Maru is an imaginary civilian spaceship in a training exercise of the same name in the Star Trek universe. In the exercise, Starfleet cadets encounter the Kobayashi Maru, disabled in hostile space and facing certain disaster. Their training has formed them to seek to rescue the ship, even if it means endangering their own crew and vessel. But the exercise was set up—designed—to be impossible. Every attempt at rescue would result in the loss of both vessels and all lives.
The point was to force a cadet-in-training to encounter a no-win situation. Because at some point, as a starship captain, they might well face a no-win situation out in the field. In the simulation, the rational response—to ignore the moral claim of the imperiled lives and focus on protecting their own crew and vessel—is immoral. While the moral response—to risk (and inevitably lose) one’s crew and vessel in a failed rescue attempt—is irrational.
Were it left there, Star Trek would’ve had its own mythic motif of existential tragedy. But this is Star Trek, and Captain James T. Kirk is not the author of Ecclesiastes. Instead, according to Kirk’s own admission, he was the only Star Fleet cadet to ever “beat” the Kobayashi Maru test—because he cheated. After losing twice, he managed to reprogram the simulation to make winning a possibility.
Today, in a world too far into overshoot to simply ease back, we face the Kobayashi Maru dilemma. It would be immoral—on the scale of global ecocide—to make no attempt to alter the trajectory of overshoot, which imperils countless Earth ecosystems and individual species—including humanity. And yet, if catastrophic system-wide ecological-economic-social collapse is now inevitable, are we not faced with a truly no-win scenario, where even doing the right thing “too late” is no more than noble failure?
Yes and no.
Unlike the Star Trek simulation, our present dilemma wasn’t exactly “designed” to be no-win. Perhaps a hundred years ago (maybe as few as seventy-five years ago) there were still different choices available to us, with different outcomes possible. “Winning”—achieving sustainable balance on a small planet—was theoretically possible, with the right mix of wisdom, reverence, humility, restraint. But since the Great Acceleration (dating roughly to 1950), Western “civilization”—which can only honestly be described as the deliberate desire to plunder the planet by any means necessary, hence the quote marks—has pretty much nailed the gas pedal to the floor of the car, making even the desperate desire to slow down beyond difficult. So, by now, “design” is a moot point. We can argue about who did the nailing, and the list of villains would be legion, but most of us (in the “developed”—that is, the plundering—world) have been complicit. We are in a no-win scenario.
Still, while I am loathe to lionize Captain Kirk, there is a glimmer of subversive grit in his willingness to cheat the system in order to save the innocent.
Now, before you get too excited, let’s get realistic. Collapse is coming. It will be catastrophic. And there is no “win” that avoids this. At this stage of overshoot, there is no amount of green technology, no sudden onset of political will power, no miraculous new course set by corporations that can make this anything other than a no-win scenario. All hopes of “reprogramming” our dilemma in a way that preserves the reigning values that created it are OFF THE TABLE.
That is, the only way to re-program the Kobayashi Maru dilemma that we face, is to change the very scripts that guide the program while also recognizing that even if we succeed, at its best, “success” will look like a slightly cushioned collapse and will result in (perhaps, and if we are truly fortunate) some smattering of human communities able to regroup and persist on the far side of collapse. This is thin success by any measure.
Except by the measure of imagining any other way “forward.” Because every other imagining is death. By that standard, changing the scripts for even thin success … is a win. It is the only heroic aspiration on the table. And an aspiration only effectively exercised … collectively. (I cringe to say it, but we must decide to channel James T. Kirk together. I’m sorry.)
Still to come: reflections on the damning scripts that got us here (the core assumptions—the “code”—that creates the systems that frame the range of possible outcomes). And then reflections on the subversive scripts that might let us “rescue,” even if only as a badly battered vessel, the Kobayashi Maru … and the innocent lives on board that imaginary spaceship called Tomorrow.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.