Getting Off the Earth


Here we are, trashing our planet without even a contingency plan. What will happen to us if we render Earth uninhabitable? We’d better start working on an alternative now, so we have someplace to go when we can’t live here any more.
     When I talked to my father about building a world to live on up in space somewhere, he asked “What about all the people left behind?” I’m afraid we’d have to write them off. Only a relative few could go, but at least we’d save mankind, for what it’s worth.

Which is more important, the earth or humankind? A lot of the environmentalists vote for Earth; to them, we’re just one of the animals in the outer, thin layer of life, which looks like a scum on the planet from outer space. They seem to like animals (at least fuzzy, cute ones) more than people, anyway.
     I think I’ll vote for humanity, even though, in my more misanthropic moments, we seem like an awful dopey bunch. If we can keep ourselves alive long enough, we have the potential to transcend the planet on which we were born. We could find or build other places to live.
     By voting for humankind I’m keeping company with opportunists who want to rationalize their indifference to long-term consequences of their greed. “Make money while the sun shines” is their motto, and they justify their trashing of the earth with the careless belief that human ingenuity and industry, aided by laissez-faire economics, will devise solutions for all the problems that now seem so intractable.

What are the chances that our species will be around in 1,000 years? 10,000? 100,000? At first glance, not too bad; we have a pretty good idea what our ancestors were doing that long ago. But there are a lot of new existential risks. For example:
• nuclear weapons
• new viruses
• the declining environment on earth
• meteor collisions with earth

We seem to have relaxed and stopped worrying about nuclear war since the fall of the Soviet Union, but the ascendancy of the U.S. as the sole superpower is a short-term phenomenon. If we’re thinking in terms of a millennium, we can look back that far and see that several Soviet-Union equivalents have risen and fallen. Who’s the next top dog? Maybe China. But the chance of the good ol’ U.S.A. being the dominant power in 1,000 years is nil.
     It’s very likely that, during that period of time, nuclear weapons will be used again. There’s no question that they will proliferate, as scientific and engineering knowledge and equipment become more widespread. Each use degrades the environment, and might render part of our planet uninhabitable for a long period of time. A large-scale nuclear war could make the whole world uninhabitable and end the human race.
     There are other catastrophes that could do this, such as a large meteor strike. Scientists now believe that there have been several mass extinctions caused by meteors. Enough dust is thrown into the air to cause darkness and catastrophic climate change all over the world. The last of these is blamed for the demise of the dinosaurs.
     Shouldn’t we be good contingency planners, so we know how we’ll deal with the destruction of the earth as a human habitat?

In the 1970’s a lively discussion took place in the scientific and engineering communities about the possibility of building cylindrical colonies a few miles long orbiting the earth, each big enough to hold a million people and to grow crops enough to sustain them. Our government should be funding further research on this idea, at a modest level. The biggest problems seem to be biological; we don’t understand what organisms are needed, to sustain human, animal and plant life, in a closed biosphere.

Those who are good with numbers know that the population at large is irrational about risks. We worry about things that are statistically unlikely to happen, such as dying in a plane crash or terrorist attack, and don’t fear the likely risks, such as dying in an automobile crash or having a heart attack.
     In the same way it’s easy to miss (or rationalize away) the fact that, if we make things a little worse each year, it will add up to a lot worse in the long run. We think “we’re just doing a little bit of harm, it doesn’t really matter” when we build a shopping mall in a wetland or pollute a stream. The benefit is usually to an individual or a corporation, the motive is usually greed, the harm is to the planet which is our commons. And some degradations are permanent; if we develop a wilderness, we can’t convert it back. If we kill a species, it’s gone for good. Will we have a livable planet in a thousand years?

We’re living in a house that’s falling into rack and ruin. Why don’t we do some maintenance, so that it gets better every year rather than worse? That should be our goal, especially in a rich country like the U.S. The poorer countries have big problems with poverty and disease, so it’s clear why maintaining the environment isn’t their top priority. But we don’t have that excuse.
     Take petroleum, for example. Why this push to develop new oil wells, in Alaska and other pristine areas? Why not conserve instead? That would cut pollution as well as save money. And reducing our dependence on foreign oil may make tactical sense in the short run, but whatever oil we have will become more valuable the longer we hold onto it. Why not keep it in the ground until foreign oil actually becomes scarce? But we’re not thinking about tomorrow, just about making a profit today.

I like the idea of designing a world to live in. It would feel like living in a house instead of the forest. It would mean that humankind has come of age, able not only to live in the environment that gave it birth, but also able to create its own environment. It would make us self-sufficient, independent of Earth, superior to Earth. Is this hybris?
     Just a few centuries ago we were sitting pretty, at least from the western point of view. We were God’s Chosen People, living on the cosmic prime real estate, the locus the rest of the universe revolved around, the focus of God’s attention, and Satan’s, and of countless of their angels and hangers-on. How we’ve fallen! We’ve become just another animal byproduct of natural processes on this little ball of rock spinning around a third-rate star in the galactic hinterland. Maybe we can restore our position a little by building our own world. But we’d better get crackin’. Time is running out.

written on Earth Day, 2003


Copyright © 2000 - 2007 by Dean Wallraff. All rights reserved.