How Humans Can Survive. (Should We?)
Newsweek leads off this week with an article about the future of humankind.
It opens with how the bees are dying off and the enormous toll this is going to take on our food supply. (Note to author: It will also take quite a toll on the bees.)
It proceeds with a description of what it means to be in the early stages of a mass extinction. And it concludes with the exhortation that “we must take control of the Earth.”
We must do it in the most responsible and cautious way possible, but we cannot shy away from the task if we are to survive.
Eventually, however, the day will come when we will have to move beyond patrolling our planetary backyard and start laying the foundations for a true interplanetary civilization.
Taking control of the Earth, we learn, will largely be about “geoengineering” the planet. This includes such things as:
- how we can “duplicate the effects of a volcano” to block out enough sunlight to cool the planet a bit;
- “fertilizing patches of the Southern Sea” to pull carbon out of the atmosphere;
- “geoengineering an ocean with lower acid levels” to save much of what lives in the ocean from dying, and
- capturing more carbon through “enhanced weathering”.
Having done all of that, we must proceed to the next stage of saving ourselves by heading out into space, just like our ancestors headed out across the oceans.
We need to scatter to outposts and cities on new worlds so that we’re not entirely dependent on earth for our survival—especially when life here is so precarious.
This is going to involve projects like building a 62-mile-high “space elevator” instead of using rockets.
The article, by Annalee Newitz, excerpted from her forthcoming book Scatter, Adapt and Remember, concludes with the warning that there are so many disasters in the offing that we have no good options but to:
… build cities on Mars, Titan, Europa, the moon, asteroids, and any other uninhabited chunk of matter we can find. The more we explore, the more likely it is that our species will make it.
It’s certainly true that the Earth faces threats from asteroids, volcanoes, gamma rays (which would wipe us out wherever we are in this region of the galaxy). But, as Newitz acknowledges, the Sixth Great Extinction is being brought on by none of the above, but rather by us humans. We’re the local version of a gamma ray that’s doing in an estimated 37,000 species each year right now. And when it comes to “saving ourselves” the main thing we’d need to save ourselves from is ourselves. The big problem facing Planet Earth is not asteroids, but humanoids.
The virus is the human condition – a toxic combination of anxiety, depression, myopic vision, arrogance, a destructive nature and the terror of our own mortality.
Still, there’s a theoretical case to be made for getting humans off the planet as quickly as possible. And it’s not so much to do with saving the humans from the planet but saving the planet from the humans.
Of course, that would take a lot more space elevators than we can build before it’s already far too late. And even if we were to make it to Mars, we’d still be carrying our “gamma-ray” virus with us. That virus, very simply, is the human condition – a toxic combination of anxiety, depression, myopic vision, arrogance, destructive nature and terror of our own mortality. And geoengineering and space elevators are no solution to that.
Once again, in this article, we have the skewed thinking of a human who thinks it’s all about us … that saving ourselves is what matters … that we have a future among the stars … that we’re the be-all and end-all of evolution, “boldly going”, etc., and colonizing the universe with the greatest thing that’s happened to it since the invention of sliced bread.
Very simply, we’re not the solution to the problem. We are the problem. And there’s no evidence that we have what it would take to solve the problem.
Kudos to the author, however, for at least acknowledging that there is a problem. You only have to look at the list of comments from her readers to see that the great majority of them are laughing at her for even suggesting that anything might be wrong. (Did I mention myopic vision?)
Still, the planet will survive, as it already has through five known previous great extinctions.
And if we care at all about other life forms, we can at least find some relief in knowing that nature has a way of redressing the balance and resolving evolutionary problems and dead-end, destructive species in its own inexorable pursuit of life.