The Social Vision of Deep Impact
Michael Gerrard, 14 May 1998, CC Digest
All the main characters in Deep Impact proved themselves to be altruistic, wise, or both. Mimi Leder is to be congratulated for bringing such an uplifting vision to the screen. However, an only slightly darker vision yields a more downbeat image of how society would react to a year's warning of a catastrophic impact.
If one million of the 275 million Americans are to be saved by the federal government, the remaining 274 million surely will include more than a few who will not accept certain death for themselves and their families with quiet resignation. The very rich will decide to build their own shelters, and since other construction projects are likely to stop anyway (who wants to execute or finance a building that may be swept away before it's finished?), the nation's construction industry will quickly be diverted to building private shelters for those who can afford space -- and for the construction workers and their families, who will rightly demand berths in what they have built. Some or all states may also build their own shelters. (The State of Missouri may have particular objections to hosting a national Ark to which very few of its citizens are admitted.)
Because far more than one million people are likely to find shelter under this scenario, it will be important to begin, immediately upon warning, to shift as much of the nation's agricultural and food processing capability as possible to foods that can be grown quickly and that can be preserved for the long underground siege (powdered milk, canned or dried fruits and vegetables, etc.). Because of the long lead time involved in this, it would be irresponsible (as well as impossible) to delay very long the announcement of confirmation of likely impact.
The nature of wealth will also be tested. Many of the richest people have their money in stocks and in real estate - two items whose value will plummet. Those with construction equipment and materials; fuel; and agricultural production capabilities will have the upper hand; a billion dollars in computer stock won't go very far.
The Deep Impact scenario raises a host of other philosophical, ethical and practical issues:
- How many people should be sacrificed to accommodate two years' food supply for mating pairs of all of the world's elephant species?
- Will a religious group view the comet as the will of God, so that efforts to intercept it must be stopped? What are the military consequences if members of this religion control a country?
- For those who win admission to the shelters, for themselves and their families, what is the definition of a "family"? What about unmarried, or same sex, or very underaged (and very newly married) couples? What about second cousins?
- At what point in the course of events do we unlock the doors to all prisons in coastal states, to give the inmates at least a chance of a way to safety?
- Will the population admitted to the shelters resemble the ethnic diversity of the population as a whole? If not, will there be attempts under the equal protection and civil rights laws to redress the imbalance? As an attorney who has studied the legal issues in NEO defense, I can say it's not at all clear that imposition of martial law suspends indefinitely all constititutional rights of civilians. Moreover, there is no predicting what ruling might be issued by a judge who himself or herself was not among those admitted to a shelter - or how that judge would enforce his or her ruling.
- Even before the place of impact is known, it will be apparent that the greatest risks are to those along coastlines. Thus there is likely to be a massive migration inland. How will the inland states cope with this huge flux of refugees? Will some of them try to erect barriers?
- If the surviving population of the U.S. is now mostly west of the Mississippi, does it make sense to rebuild Washington as the nation's capital? More fundamentally - who would decide? Would totally drowned states still each have two Senators?
These are all U.S.-centered thoughts, but comparable questions will arise in other countries. Obviously no two-hour entertainment film can deal with these issues, some large and some small, but I am grateful to Deep Impact for provoking these thoughts.