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David Bouchier: The Last Frontier

Architect of the Capitol

Christopher Columbus was fortunate to live in what we now call “The Age of Discovery,” when there was still plenty to be discovered — by European explorers, at least. Five hundred years later, what we see on the world map is what we get, now and forever. Modern explorers are left with nothing to explore except a few muddy ocean depths and the remotest corners of the remotest forests.

Even when Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 he didn’t expect to find any unknown lands. His map showed the great ocean to the west of Europe with a few islands scattered in the middle of it, and China the East Indies on the other side. These were believed to be places of fabulous wealth, a profitable earthly paradise where Columbus expected to land. Instead he bumped into San Salvador.

Columbus, like most migrants, hoped for fame and fortune, but was disappointed. Returning from his first voyage he vastly exaggerated the wealth and desirability of the places he had found — an early example of fake news — in order to raise money for his next voyages. He was appointed Governor General of the newly discovered Caribbean territories. But he behaved with such brutality there that he was recalled to Spain in disgrace, where he eventually died in poverty and obscurity. If I hadn’t failed Latin at school I would be tempted to remark sic transit Gloria mundi, but I won’t.

What Columbus did achieve, entirely by accident, was to open up a vast new western land frontier for European exploitation — 17 million square miles of prime real estate, completely empty except for the people who happened to be living there. This enormous territory was explored, mapped, tamed, bought, sold, suburbanized, and politicized over the next 500 years. In the glory days of the frontier millions of immigrants spread westwards over the Alleghenies and into the great plains, looking for land, freedom, and a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Some made it all the way to California, hoping that the far west must be an earthly paradise, just as Columbus believed it was. They arrived at the Pacific, and that was the end of the frontier and the dreams that went with it. It’s no accident that Hollywood is the place of dreams. It is located exactly at the point where dreams have to give way to creative script writing and special effects.

A frontier, even an imaginary one, is a safety valve and a challenge. There was always a new frontier open until suddenly there wasn’t. The inescapable question was, and is, what next, where next? The least promising answer seems to be outer space. Billions are being poured into Mars exploration vehicles — three were launched this year — and Elon Musk has a plan to put a colony on Mars by 2050. He can count me out. Mars, even at the equator, is colder than an English seaside resort, and has virtually no modern amenities. And if we ever did get to Mars we would take our troubles with us, just as Columbus and the westward migrants did — our diseases, our flawed governments, our irrational prejudices, and our wars. Mars doesn’t need this.

If we can’t find a new planet or a new frontier on this one, we have a few things to work on right here: toxic politics, inequality, the environment, and much more. With all that frustrated frontier energy, we could make this old Earth great again.

Copyright: David Bouchier

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.