Changing Planet

Spock’s Enduring Legacy for Earth Governance

As the world mourns the passing of Leonard Nimoy, the role he most memorably represented and the marvelous mythology he helped to create will remain timeless. As an environmental planner interested in better ways of governing natural resources, Star Trek‘s fabled future and specially Spock’s role provides me surprising inspiration.

The creator of  Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry,  suggested that in the distant future humanity will be able to have adequate governance structures that transcend financial and political constraints. A Star Trek future for Earth would be essentially devoid of scarcity, and our most prized medium of exchange, money, would be entirely absent from planetary life.[i] The only fictional civilization to use money in Star Trek are the primitive Ferengis who are universally despised for their lack of material ethics. Whether or not such a universe will remain a figment of fiction remains to be seen in the very distant future. However, what we clearly need to do in this moment in our temporal continuum is to seek paths of channelizing our quest for material gain more constructively and find better ways of sharing our collective treasures.

In this regard, the model of planetary governance that was envisaged by Roddenberry where no countries existed could only be realized when there was a perceived external planetary threat. The unification of Planet Earth in Star Trek occurred when Spock’s paternal civilization, the Vulcans, had First Contact with humanity following a Third World War. The Vulcans made humanity realize that they were only part of a much larger story of existence, replete with many friends and foes, and therefore planetary unity was in their best interest. This was presented in the Next Generation of Star Trek in the film Star Trek: First Contact. The specter of borderless governance of the Earth seems so remote in our current world of terrorism-defined border security and visas. Yet, the possibility of an external threat, whether an asteroid impact or contact with extraterrestrial life, or some other broader planetary challenge that is beyond our individual national controls, has the potential to lead to some modicum of cooperation.

Spock’s hybrid persona as half-Vulcan / half-human, also immortalized the tension between logical reasoning and emotional response. Our current global challenge of absolutist ideologies battling against rational adaptive discourse, often framed as a struggle between science and religion, could perhaps learn from how Spock negotiated such matters with his comrades aboard the Enterprise. In Spock’s own words uttered during Star Trek VI: “Logic is the beginning of wisdom; not the end.”

The world on April 5, 2063 – when First Contact between Vulcans and Humans occurs in the Star Trek mythology — might be closer to the fictional representation in Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner , or maybe even reminiscent of Disney’s Wall-E. Regardless of the trajectory, the quest for planetary unity that Star Trek presented, and which Leonard Nimoy represented with such poise in his life, must endure.


[i] For an engaging account of the philosophical aspects of the Star Trek universe see Judith Barad and Ed Robertson,  The Ethics of Star Trek (New York: Harper Perennial, 2001). On the scientific validity of some Star Trek narratives and the rejection of others see Lawrence Krauss The Physics of Star Trek (New York: Basic Books, 2007).

Saleem H. Ali is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware (USA) and a Professorial Research Fellow at the University of Queensland, Australia. He is also a Senior Fellow at Columbia University's Center on Sustainable Enterprise. Dr. Ali is a National Geographic Emerging Explorer for 2010 and World Economic Forum "Young Global Leader" (2011). His books include "Environmental Diplomacy" (with Lawrence Susskind, Oxford Univ. Press) and "Treasures of the Earth: Need, Greed and a Sustainable Future" (Yale University Press). He can be followed on Twitter @saleem_ali.
  • Steve Wallis

    i, for one, believe that it is possible to reach a Star Trek version of the future instead of some dystopian alternative. To do so, however, will require conscious and careful effort. A peaceful and productive society will not emerge by accident. Just as transporter technology must be purposefully invented – it won’t beam in by itself.

    Two heterodox efforts are underway that seem to hold promise. One is to measure the level of logic existing within laws and policies. And, of course, to encourage the development of laws and policies that are more logical;

    The other effort is aimed at encouraging a scientific approach to making laws.

    These organizations are dedicated to developing specific tools, methods, and practices for improving governance on our planet. Here, we go beyond complaining about the present system and beyond wishful thinking. Now that we have the tools, lets get to work and create the future.



  • Jim Cornell

    I appreciate Saleem Ali’s fascination with Star Trek’s vision for our future Earth; but I disagree that Earth’s shift to planetary governance will be triggered (if ever) by the type of Star Trek event he singled out:

    Mr. Ali states that global governance only becomes possible/desirable if the planet is faced with an ‘external threat’. He cites “Star Trek: First Contact”, in which Mr. Spok’s Vulcan ancestors first visited Earth following Zefram Cochrane’s invention and initial testing of Earth’s first Warp Drive.

    But the Vulcans did NOT* threaten Earth! In fact, “Star Trek: Enterprise”, the TV prequel to Star Trek, regularly references the 100 years the Vulcans spent after that First Contact, helping Earthlings perfect Warp Drive so they could pursue interstellar travel safely and with greater speed.

    “Star Trek: First Contact” did indeed document an external threat to Earth: The Borg had travelled from a more distant future (pursued by Jean-Luc Picard’s future Enterprise) back to exactly Zefram Cohrane’s time, in order thwart the Vulcans’ First Contact, sabotage Earth’s future space exploration and cripple Earth’s future economy – But no one on Earth was aware of this threat except for Jean-Luc’s team – and that Enterprise crew went ‘back to the future’ at the end of the movie, after defeating the Borg, without telling anyone from Cochrane’s era about the Borg threat.

    In fact, “Star Trek: Enterprise” documents a RECOGNIZED* threat: The Zindi tested a space weapon on Earth shortly after the launch of the first Enterprise starship, incinerating an 1,800-mile-long, half-mile-wide swath from central Florida to South America (and killing millions of Earthlings along the way). That DEFINITELY* got Earth’s attention!

    But the Zindi fired their weapon more than 100 years after the Vulcans’ First Contact! I don’t think the “Star Trek: Enterprise” series makes it clear whether Earth opted for a planetary government as a RESULT* of the Zindi threat or had already ‘gone global’.

    So unless I missed an episode or two (quite possible, over the decades), the jury is still out on what will induce Earth to shift to planetary governance.

    Best Regards,

    Jim Cornell
    *[Sorry for the use of ALL-CAPS. Your “Comment” Section does not permit the use of underscoring – I would have underscored if I could]

  • Sara McCarthy

    Thank you Leonard Nimoy a.k.a. Mr. Spock

  • @Jim Cornell – I simplified the narrative for the article and have made a few edits accordingly. The First Contact with Vulcans in the broader star trek narrative made humans realize their place in the universe and larger threats were noted such as the darker civilizational cousins of the Vulcans — the Romulans. In the latest timeline presented in the 2009 film, Vulcan is destroyed in 2258 by the deranged Romulan Nero – adding to the threat imperative.

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