Arthur C. Clarke’s famous short-story The Sentinel (the seed from which 2001: A Space Odyssey sprang) is about a monolith discovered ‘high on the ridge of a great promontory…’ of Moon by an individual in a team of Lunar explorers. The object is too smooth to be natural and had been leveled to support a glittering, roughly pyramidal structure set in the rock like a gigantic many-faceted jewel.
The discoverer is not able to make sense of that object. Looking at it, he is convinced there had once been a lunar-civilization. His first guess after that is that it might be a building or shrine. After that, he wonders if it might be a temple. A closer examination makes him realize that a lot of hard work has been done by the builders to place it there. He guesses Egyptians. His pride doesn’t allow him to admit that the work might have been created by a civilization more advanced than humans!
After throwing a small pebble at the object, he knows he was looking at something that could not have been matched in the antiquity of his own race. He guesses it might be a machine, protecting itself with forces that challenged Eternity.
Later, he realizes that the object is as alien to the moon as himself. The age of the monolith is then measured and it is revealed that the object was set there before life existed on earth. But, by whom?
Long long ago there must have been very advanced races that must have scaled and passed the heights of present-humans. But they must have been lonely in a young universe. This may have eventually prompted them to search star clusters for intelligence. But all they must have found was emptiness or mindless things. The Earth must also have been the same. The wanderers, looking at the Earth, must have guessed that a the distant future, there would be intelligence there. They must have left the monolith as a beacon that signalled the presence of other civilizations. But they placed it on the moon and not on the Earth, because-
Its builders were not concerned with races still struggling up from savagery. They would be interested in our civilization only if we proved our fitness to survive- by crossing space and so escaping from the Earth, our cradle. That is the challenge that all intelligent races must meet, sooner or later…it depends in turn upon the conquest of atomic energy and the last choice between life and death.
Clarke wrote this story in 1948. WW2 was just over and humanity was still amazed, shocked and terrified at its new-found-tool, The Atomic Bomb.
Humans were just beginning to get out of the Earth. It was only 8 years later that humans saw the first rocket to enter the Exosphere.
Clarke simply tries to send a message – Such weapons have the capacity to exterminate humanity. A massive world exists outside of us. We are nothing yet. We have seen nothing yet. So, we better behave!
73 years have passed since this story. Humans have survived the threat. Humans have reached further, deeper and seen clearer.
But what did humans do after reaching space conveniently?
We waged a cold-war where the outer space was merely a playground of strategic purposes! The same story continues today…
A monolith hasn’t yet been discovered. Nor has there been any concrete sign of other civilizations. There has been a constant though- Threats still exist.
Therefore, a question remains relevant:
Are we humans safe from ourselves?
Let us define Civilization as the stage of a creature where it can satisfy both the conditions:
a. build great things and
b. doesn’t have a threat from itself.
Similarly, let us define Savagery as:
The stage where a creature has internal conflicts of such magnitude that it has a threat from itself (irrespective of what it builds).
With these definitions, a weird thing appears:
Animals and creature which we call ‘lower’ and ‘unintelligent’ seem to be in the same stage of civilization as us!
Yes, they do not build rockets and computers, but they do not destroy themselves and their environment either.
So, what is stopping us?
What is responsible for our savagery? For our non-civilization?
In 1950, only the US and the USSR had nuclear weapons. Today, 9 nations possess them. While no one would be stupid enough to use them, they have become a crucial strategic tool. But that doesn’t mean, the dangers have been swept aside:
The greatest nuclear dangers reside in the increase in dangerous military practices between the United States and China, Russia and the United States, India and China, and Pakistan and India.
This goes to show that Clarke’s designation of savagery yet persists. In other words, we are still savages and are not yet civilized as we still have threats from ourselves, no matter what we have built.
The present Climate Crisis and the complications it has brought also proves the same.
Yes, for Clarke back then, the parameter of non-savagery was the ability to reach the vast expanse above. And man has reached there. But man hasn’t been able to disengage from the catastrophic threats imposed on itself, by itself. Outer Space is yet another battlefield!
As to the answer to the questions of what is stopping us; what is responsible for our savagery; for our non-civilization,
This kind of threat exists today for: International-Politics.
The same organizational-structural-system that almost ended it all!
What amazes me when I hear about the past is that we haven’t been able to find an alternative political system or be harmonious with the present one- although we have managed to peek into our cells, brains and wherenot!
Nor have we been able to be brave enough to modify this obsolete system even when we have located alternatives.
What I mean by ‘obsolete system’ is that which is at constant war with itself and has the following characteristics:
- Centralized Power
- Identity Politics
In simple terms- National Systems.
Isn’t it time we moved on from nations and nationalities? Or at least establish a mechanism that will not allow us to destroy us for petty things? They were created by kings and princes with swords. For themselves! There are none left now and swords are already obsoletely obsolete things for museums.
We may have left the Earth, but we are still stuck in our own heads.
This proves that humans are still immature. Perhaps Clarke should have placed the monolith at Alpha Centauri.
From this viewpoint, it seems we humans are not civilized as long as we have the prevalent National Systems…or at least until we modify them!