Mission control during Apollo 13. Public domain photo by NASA; April 15, 1970.

Heroes ‘r’ Us

We don’t need no stinkin’ superheroes; we just need us. All of us.

In movies, it’s a standard theme: the world is in danger, and it’s up to Bruce Willis/The Avengers/Chris Pratt/Whomever to save us. The hero is usually male, some combination of clever and handsome and physically imposing, and the “saving us” part usually involves hitting something or someone very hard. There is always a ticking clock: a bomb is about to go off, the aliens are about to fire a garganzo weapon at the earth, an asteroid is hurtling toward us.

Then there’s the real world. Where there is definitely a ticking climate clock. The world needs saving, desperately, but the heroes this time mostly won’t look like any of the Hemsworths. The heroes this time will, in movie terms, look a lot more like the guys in hornrim glasses and pocket protectors from Apollo 13. The heroes this time will be us.

The broad plotline of Apollo 13 fits our current situation rather well. Some people think they’re on a certain mission, then something goes terribly wrong and they discover they’re on a completely different mission: survival. Each element of this new mission has a ticking clock attached to it, so everyone gets to work. They all bring their special skills, but more importantly their complete dedication to the mission of survival, and despite absurd odds they prevail. Perhaps the most emblematic scene is when scientists on earth need to figure out how to fit a square device into a round hole, using only the materials the astronauts already have with them in the spacecraft. A bunch of geeky guys dump all the available items onto a tabletop, an unpromising bunch of scrap, and they get to work.

That’s where we are. For millennia we have believed we’re on a certain mission: the perfection of the wondrous human species, through spiritual and technological means. But something has gone wrong, and the only question that matters anymore is survival. The ticking clock is a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which tells us that we have only 12 years to avoid crossing a threshold that we do not want to cross. Because once we do cross it, sea levels rise, ecosystems are threatened, extreme weather events become more common, crop yields begin to drop, sea coral dies off and no longer feeds a vast population of marine life, river and coastal flooding become far more common, and so on. Tick tick tick.

One of the heroes of this story is the Scotsman Jim Skea, co-chair of the IPCC’s working group on mitigation (i.e., disaster avoidance), who recently spoke of the “unprecedented shift in energy systems and transport that would be needed to achieve” the level of carbon-emission reductions that is necessary to keep us from crossing the line we don’t want to cross. “We show it can be done within laws of physics and chemistry. Then the final tick box is political will. We [the IPCC] cannot answer that.”

That’s where the everyone-else We come in. We, the heroes of the story. In Apollo 13, early in the film when the astronauts are discussing the near-miracle of the first moon landing, one of the characters says, “It’s not a miracle. We just decided to go.” The secret of any great endeavor is not the doing of a thing, it’s the deciding to do a thing. Everything else is just execution, and we’re good at executing things. (“Just work the problem,” says Ed Harris’s character, Gene Kranz, in Apollo 13, and they do.) But without firmly deciding to do something, without a clear commitment that action must be taken now, then nothing gets executed because everyone is just kinda standing around fiddling with the corners of a problem but not tackling it head-on. Imagine the disaster of Apollo 13 without Flight Director Gene Kranz pushing things forward. Those astronauts would probably still be floating out there in cold, cold space.

Unfortunately, we don’t have a Gene Kranz. So yes, we’re going to have to do this ourselves. There’s no superhero to save us this time, just a bunch of people with a pile of junk on a table and a very ticking clock.

Fortunately, we’re up to the challenge. We always have been. The Greatest Generation of World War II didn’t acquire that title because they were inherently superior to our or any other generation, it’s because the challenge they faced was so enormous. Same thing now. The challenge is massive. But we’re just as clever, just as resourceful, just as willing to work and sacrifice, as the Greatest Generation or the uber-geeks at NASA when something went very very wrong.

Late in the film of Apollo 13, in the script by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert, a director of the agency worries out loud to another character. “This could be the worst disaster NASA’s ever experienced,” he says.

Gene Kranz, as played with steely determination by Ed Harris, overhears this and turns to face the men. “With all due respect, sir, I believe this is gonna be our finest hour.”

NEXT: The C Word, Part One

PREVIOUSLY: Pascal’s [Climate] Wager



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