Locusts


Everyone I know is raving about this short, speculative video about the future of space exploration.

Wanderers – a short film by Erik Wernquist from Erik Wernquist on Vimeo.

I’m not so enthused; I even find the words of Carl Sagan troubling. It’s lovely and all, but…

There’s nothing in those exotic landscapes as lovely and rich as mossy and majestic cedars of the Olympic Peninsula, or the rocky sea stacks of the nearby coast. The northern tundra is more alive than an icy plain on a distant moon; having Saturn’s rings as a backdrop is not as glorious as an earthly sunset. If you want desert, you don’t have to go to Mars, they’re scattered all over our planet, and they have inhabitants…and you don’t need extreme life support to walk about. Everywhere you go on Earth, there is wonder and beauty, we live in it, we breathe it in, and we take it for granted. There is grandeur in your backyard, so why look to Europa for awe?

Don’t get me wrong. I support space exploration, and think it’s good that we send probes out to distant places and try to learn more about this solar system where we live. But portraying these places as vacation spots, or even more unlikely, places to settle and inhabit — that is distressing, when we can’t even keep our relatively paradisial home habitable. We poison our water and air, and we dream of going to airless, waterless planets and extracting fresh air and pure liquid water? That’s madness. We tear up our forests, we plow the dirt and let the rain wash it into our rivers and oceans, the soil eroding away…so we think the solution is to go to a sterile world, grow food crops with hydroponics, and all will be OK? If we can’t keep this rich world productive and healthy, why would anyone have the delusion that they could start fresh on a dead planet and create a living one?

Sagan’s story is that natural selection has shaped humanity, as a survival trait, with a wanderlust that encourages us to seek out new territories, for when the “long summers, mild winters, and rich harvests” end. That is the philosophy of locusts. When the resources here are used up, move on, find another place, consume it, then move on again. Only the here that Sagan is talking about is our entire planet. Rather than learning to sustain and maintain natural cycles, we’ll instead plan on exploiting what we’ve got and leaving it behind for someplace else — without considering that every other place in the solar system is a hellhole compared to our home.

It doesn’t work. There are more than 7 billion people here. How many get to move to the self-contained underground colony on Titan? Who gets to go? I don’t care how many spaceships you launch, only a minuscule minority of the population will be launched outward, and the vast majority will still be living on Earth. The greatest responsibility of humanity must be the people who live right here, not some peculiar minority that is willing to live in tin cans with an artificial environment. Even that minority aren’t going to be living exotic lives of interplanetary romance — they’re going to be ants in a highly structured ant farm, working for disciplined and tightly focused institutions that will be necessary in such hostile environments.

Again, keep exploring, keep learning — I want to know what’s underneath the ice of Europa as much as anyone — and keep advancing space technology. There will come a day when, through no fault of our own, the Earth is swallowed up by the sun, and we’ll have to move outward to survive. But talk to me about colonizing other planets then, not now…it is hopelessly irrelevant now, especially when you consider that that’s so far in the future that our species will almost certainly be extinct.

Distant planets are objects of curiosity, but Earth itself is an object of survival. If natural selection has actually adapted us to the life of locusts, the only way our species can survive in the future is by changing our natures, because we’ve filled up this habitat, and there’s no where else to go. Despite the fantasies of people with nice graphical visualization tools.

Comments

  1. brett says

    There is grandeur in your backyard, so why look to Europa for awe?

    I don’t know about that. It’s not that I’m denying the grandeur of the Earth, but that shot where they’re walking on the ice and Jupiter just looms on the horizon, or that final scene where they’re on a blimp in Saturn’s(?) upper atmosphere . . . good stuff. I’d love to see it, even if I think space colonization is mostly a fantasy based on people mis-reading what drove colonization and expansion in the past.

    Sagan’s story is that natural selection has shaped humanity, as a survival trait, with a wanderlust that encourages us to seek out new territories, for when the “long summers, mild winters, and rich harvests” end. That is the philosophy of locusts.

    I hate it when space enthusiasts draw upon romanticism as a reason for space colonization. It was not romanticism or some mysterious “instinct for exploration” that drew adventurers to settle in new areas (or areas belonging to other people) – it was for wealth and necessary knowledge, or even just to get away from something. Space, at least in our solar system, is a series of hyper-deserts and a lot of open nothing. If it wasn’t so far away and strange, we wouldn’t be talking about putting down a self-sustaining colony there anymore than we would about putting one in the middle of Antarctica.

    I suppose in fairness to Carl Sagan, he would have agreed with you even if he saw more wonder in the broader universe. He did also write this after all:

    The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

    It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

  2. twas brillig (stevem) says

    That sounds more like a negative review of Interstellar, that kinda glosses over the problem of getting the whole population to the new planet vs. letting everybody die here.
    The video under discussion is NOT telling us to migrate to these places, just that there are more places of beauty and adventure than only the Earth. Sagan’s voiceover does give the distorted message of “migration”, but, I gotta admit, my hearing just cherry-picked his speech for the “tourism” alternatives. The final image of that person starting to smile at the view of Saturn was epic.

  3. chigau (違う) says

    What ever happened to Biosphere?
    Is anyone really willing to try that anywhere off-Earth?

  4. says

    That final image, the woman wearing Space Goggle and a fur-rimmed coat…with the fur blowing in the wind?

    That was just plain weird.

  5. dick says

    Damn! So it was wanderlust that brought me back to Canada a couple of years ago, after nearly 30 years in the UK. I’m the wrong side of 70, by the way. And I don’t live near the places where I used to live. But it’s great to be back.

  6. latveriandiplomat says

    One of the reasons for the romanticism is that romanticism is the only way to justify human space exploration. If you care about science, or even just pretty pictures, robotic probes are the way to go. There’s this strange notion that we haven’t really visited a place until some fighter pilot wrapped in a $100 Million plastic suit has stumbled around there for a few hours.

    I don’t think manned exploration will be affordable anytime soon, so we won’t see much more than space camping at the ISS for a long while yet. Give me Cassini, Curiosity, Hubble, etc. and more of them, instead. We should have 10 or 20 rovers on Mars right now.

    Aside from the occasional James Cameron extravaganza, deep ocean oceanography switched to robots a while ago and the science there is better than ever. Designing robots for operation in space is more likely to produce useful spin-off tech than the esoteric inventions needed to keep spam in a can alive in these hostile environments.

  7. consciousness razor says

    That final image, the woman wearing Space Goggle and a fur-rimmed coat…with the fur blowing in the wind?

    That was just plain weird.

    I don’t see the problem. What would be the point of hunting space beavers on your blimp, if you weren’t going to adorn yourself with their pelts and gaze at the sky?

  8. brett says

    @PZ Myers #4

    That final image, the woman wearing Space Goggle and a fur-rimmed coat…with the fur blowing in the wind?

    I thought it was a lovely scene, even if it’s preposterously unrealistic that you would be able to stand out on a blimp in the atmosphere of Saturn – never mind standing out there in something less than a space suit with only a railing to protect you. The wind speeds alone would cause you some serious trouble, along with the intense cold.

    @twas brillig

    That sounds more like a negative review of Interstellar, that kinda glosses over the problem of getting the whole population to the new planet vs. letting everybody die here.

    That felt like a false choice to me in Interstellar. The fact that all they needed to colonize space was the means to get their gigantic space colonies off the ground means they could just as easily build self-contained, self-sustaining habitats on Earth. Even an Earth mostly denuded of life with a not so breathable atmosphere would still be far more habitable and useful to your habitat dwellers than open space.

    @chigau

    What ever happened to Biosphere?
    Is anyone really willing to try that anywhere off-Earth?

    I think they turned it into a residential/business area. Not that it was ever realistic for a space colony – are you really going to build a mega-structure like that in space and let most of it sit there unfilled with anything except air? More realistically, you’d have some parks and open areas, while the rest of your space colony looked like the inside of an office building or ship (or if you want to be generous, the inside of a self-contained mall with “arcades” of residential areas and shops).

  9. dick says

    Chigau, thank you!

    It’s been a balmy 8 C here today, near Perth, ON. Skyped daughter-in-law in Calgary this afternoon – & gloated. ;-)))

  10. brett says

    @latveriandiplomat #8

    Humans still make some degree of sense for space exploration (even if it’s incredibly expensive and difficult to send them there), because we can’t control our robotic explorers in real-time from Earth, and they’re not “smart” enough yet to operate on a mostly autonomous basis. That’s why it took forever for Mars Curiosity to go just a couple of kilometers in distance on Mars. Even just having astronauts in a space ship orbiting above Mars, for example, would be a major boon for ground exploration – they could control rovers on the surface in real-time.

    Contrast that with deep sea exploration (or even space science missions in Low Earth Orbit), where it’s close enough that you can do that without significant time-lag.

  11. brett says

    Sorry, to add-

    I should clarify that it’s “make sense” from the perspective of maximizing the science you can do. If you’re operating on a much more limited budget and just can’t send people at all, then you do do what you can with robots and try to make better ones over time.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    Your own life or your band’s or even your species’ might be owed to a restless few drawn by a craving they can hardly articulate or understand to undiscovered lands and new worlds.

    Typical Sagan goshgolly horseshit, then. And the music sounds like Blade Runner with the life sucked out of it.

  13. consciousness razor says

    That felt like a false choice to me in Interstellar. The fact that all they needed to colonize space was the means to get their gigantic space colonies off the ground means they could just as easily build self-contained, self-sustaining habitats on Earth.

    Well, it’s hard to tell what they supposedly needed to learn from the black hole, or how to avoid any of the ensuing time-travel paradoxes. Anyway, whatever it might be, if there were anything interesting to transmit back to Earth somehow, it seems really bizarre that it would be any kind of useful answer to “how do we get lots of stuff off the ground?” We already know that, don’t we? Lots and lots of energy. Learning some super-deep stuff about gravity isn’t going to change that.

    They could probably get by just fine in some underground bunkers for a while, as you’re saying, and work on a way to fight the plague while keeping at least some people and food quarantined from it. Frankly, the even more pressing issue seems to be that some jackass decided to make a wormhole, which has been floating right next to Saturn for the past 50-odd years and presumably destabilizing all of the orbits in the solar system if not outright destroying everything in its path. Bunkers aren’t going to fix that.

  14. chigau (違う) says

    We™ cannot do a completely enclosed, self-sustaining … thingy on Earth,
    with Earth gravity and air pressure and availability of water and … whatever.
    The Biosphere escape plan was:
    open the airlock, walk to the road, hitch a ride to the nearest phone
    this won’t work on Europa

  15. latveriandiplomat says

    @Brett:

    It’s often claimed that we need humans to improvise quick solutions in surprise situations, but in fact, if something surprising happens, the smart thing is still for the humans to bail and give mission control figure things out. This happens regularly on the ISS, even though it has humans, and real time communication with Earth.

    Robots are fairly good at failing safe to a recoverable situation. This has been demonstrated time and again. And even when they don’t nobody dies.

    The cost of sending humans anywhere, far outweighs the supposed benefits, IMO. Spending that money on more and better robots would reap huge benefits. Score what human explorers have discovered vs robots, and it’s not even close.

  16. Artor says

    Really PZ? You’re sounding like the people that complain when the US gives foreign aid when we have poor people here, or that it’s silly to talk about women’s rights in the US when there is genital mutilation going on elsewhere. Space exploration is not a zero-sum game either. As we saw from the Moon program, the act of gearing up for such a huge undertaking provides countless unforeseen benefits to practically every field of study. Engineering, medicine, physics, chemistry, ecology, etc. and so on. Even if we find nothing of use out there, (and we know damn well that’s not the case) the act of striving will be a huge benefit. Unless you want all those industries focused on making disposable doodads and weapons here on Earth.

  17. F.O. says

    I am a big fan of Sagan, I find him outright inspiring.
    AFAIK he never advocated leaving Earth because we’re destroying it, but rather, in order to have our eggs in different baskets. This of course, on top of our natural curiosity and wonderlust.

    Look PZ, I’m fine if you feel a bit cranky towards Saga and his fanboys, but this seems to be a bit preposterous.
    Really, this is the Pale Blue Dot guy, the one that took a selfie of “the only home we have ever known so far”; pretending that he didn’t give a shit about the environment or that he had no admiration for our own planet is disingenuous.

  18. brett says

    Did you even read his post beyond the first sentence? He’s not condemning space exploration, Artor.

  19. Usernames! ☞ ♭ says

    open the airlock, walk to the road, hitch a ride to the nearest phone
    this won’t work on Europa

    — chigau (違う) (#18)

    Duh, of course it won’t work: you have to enable Interstellar Roaming on your plan!

  20. Matrim says

    Latveriandiplomat, 8

    One of the reasons for the romanticism is that romanticism is the only way to justify human space exploration.

    I disagree. There is one very practical reason that doesn’t involve beauty or majesty for perusing manned space flight. It forces us to confront problems we otherwise would never have to address. Think of all the work in environmental engineering, electronics, biomedicine, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, psychology, and who knows how many other disciplines that is required to send people to the moons of Saturn. Now think of all the spinoff advancements that would bring. The amount of money made from technologies developed by and for the space race is (no pun intended) astronomical. Sending people places is hard, and the technologies we will develop to do it have equally useful benefits back here on earth.

  21. consciousness razor says

    Now think of all the spinoff advancements that would bring.

    Don’t forget to think of all of those same things we would have, even if they’re not spinoffs as you’re envisioning them. How are we supposed to know which ones those are?

    The amount of money made from technologies developed by and for the space race is (no pun intended) astronomical.

    It’s kind of funny that people talk like this, because there’s no race. Short of something like an alien invasion, we have a few billion years before there would be any need to leave the planet, since the Sun is pretty much the only real countdown clock we have to keep an eye on in the (not very) “near” future. Of course, I use “we” very loosely, considering that “humans” won’t stop evolving for billions of years just because it’s sometimes convenient to talk about “ourselves” that way.

    And the amount of money that might be made? I sincerely do not care. I bet the rich folks vacationing on Saturn probably would, though. But they’re pretty stupid.

    Sending people places is hard, and the technologies we will develop to do it have equally useful benefits back here on earth.

    Well, if you don’t simply assume that it’s bound to happen any day now, I don’t know what this is supposed to be saying. What’s supposed to be stopping us from developing these useful technologies here on Earth? Can these end results not be achieved directly? Is it for some reason more desirable to do this more indirectly, by way of some intermediary space colonization that’s mostly useful just for that purpose? Are they not all that desirable to begin with, but are just a minor bonus for doing the really important work of colonization?

    Besides, there are countless examples of “pure” research, which has had a huge impact and which also wasn’t motivated by this kind of thinking (about how it might be applied one day or how much money it might make, for instance). It turns out, surprisingly enough, that simply learning about the world tends to be useful somehow, and you don’t need to be guided by what you think that use might be before you even start. That’s how it often works in practice, not just in some idealized version of the way science ought to be. So given that, why assume those sorts of external motivations are necessary in this case?

  22. unclefrogy says

    as much as I like space exploration and all that I have to agree here with PZ if anything was learned out of biosphere it was that it was not big enough and the ratio to all the inhabitants was much to small.
    it is in a real sense pie in the sky. The first real test of can we really manage a real space colony that is more or less self sustaining we are failing right now right here on earth with the biggest most fault tolerant one we are ever likely to see. We are turning this one into one that will no longer support us, while life in general is not in that much of a danger of being wiped out. In fact given some time and a little water even a trash littered junk yard full of old cars and crank case oil and fuel spilled all over will fill up with life of all kinds.
    uncle frogy

  23. brett says

    @Matrim

    Now think of all the spinoff advancements that would bring.

    Saying we should do big space expeditions for the spinoffs reeks of desperation. Yes, the Space Race (and space exploration since then) has generated spin-offs, but so does every major cutting-edge technological and scientific project. If we had built the Superconducting Supercollider, it would generate spin-offs. If we funded 100 different fusion pilot projects, it would generate spin-offs. If we tried to build a giant, self-contained habitat like Biosphere Two, it would generate spin-offs. You don’t do mega-science projects for the spin-offs – you do it for the science, and then take any spin-offs that come your way.

    I figured this post from PZ would attract the space cadets.

  24. gijoel says

    That’s the thing about Interstellar that bugged me the most. They all moved off planet, in their big old spaceships. But the blight that was devastating Earth somehow didn’t come with them. I’m skeptical that their bio-security was that good.

  25. René says

    I’m currently 14 hours ahead of PZ, in the tropics. Here (Bali, Indonesia), the video is censored by my host’s Wi-Fi provider (“Internet positif”). What on earth is in the video that offends the Malays? Can somebody please put that into wording? Thank you, fellow freethinkers.

  26. petrander says

    But aren’t you being a little narrow-minded here, PZ? I mean, how about we learned more on planetary engineering by trying it out on other planets? And Earth’s demise may not be as late as the sun going red giant. It may happen tomorrow by a meteorite that we didn’t see coming!

  27. Intaglio says

    My long held belief is that if humanity goes outward from this planet to live it will not be to other planets – except by accident. More like the Culture there will be giant habitats with many environments moving slowly between systems gathering only what the ships need to breed. Materials will not be found on planets but rather in the vast deserts of the Oort Clouds. These ships need only supply their own energy for motion and to maintain an internal homoeostasis and ecology. Inhabitants will not just be humans but many other species.

    In their peregrinations Ships may, by chance, detect planets with the potential to support life and try to tip the balance in favour of that anomaly, perhaps sending icy comets to supply water and trace elements. What they will not do is invade the tiny specks that are inhabited planets. There would be no reason for destructive interventions of that nature for such planets would be deep in the gravity wells of their native stars and that would be an environment as hostile to the world ships as the black smokers of the deep ocean are to us. Similar to ourselves they may send drones to investigate but perhaps these would be as ill suited to these gravitic depths as our submersibles are to the deep oceans.

  28. says

    @Matrim #26

    It forces us to confront problems we otherwise would never have to address.

    So does setting my head on fire, but I don’t try to spin that as a good thing.

    Think of all the work in environmental engineering, electronics, biomedicine, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, psychology, and who knows how many other disciplines that is required to send people to the moons of Saturn.

    Think of all the work in biomedicine and psychology and who knows how many other disciplines that is required to let people safely and routinely set their heads on fire.

  29. Antares says

    I’m very much with the few eggs-in-different-baskets proponents here.

    Who says we can’t do both? Do our best to keep our home world inhabitable and at the same time send a few daring explorers out to other worlds, just in case? I’m sure Sagan would have agreed enthusiastically. And NdT as well.

    This is not about “sucking our planet dry and then moving on”.

  30. says

    If I recall correctly, Biosphere 1 is supposed to be the Earth, while Biosphere 2 is the experiment that everybody’s so down on as a failure. It was an experiment, not a blueprint for life off Biosphere 1 — whatever publicists and other media types said at the time — and as a failure it failed in lots of interesting and instructive ways. Which is all you can ask of any experiment, really.

    Meanwhile, while the sun expanding to red giant phase is going to have a catastrophic effect on real estate values on this ball of rock in about five billion years time, it should be remembered that the sun is actually putting on a bit of middle-age spread right now, which means that in only a billion or a half-billion years the Earth is going to be too hot for liquid water, and well before that too hot for any of our possible descendents. So we don’t have as much time as you think. A hundred million years here, a hundred million there, and pretty soon you’ve run out of time.

  31. Holms says

    I see no reason to be negative here. Why does it matter if it did not speculate about future Earth, but chose instead to speculate about the solar system? Looking abroad need not be taken to mean that our home is being neglected.

  32. F.O. says

    @René #33: That’s weird. It’s just a series (very fancy) of sci-fi sceneries, with happy humans in space suits, with Carl Sagan speaking in the background. o_O

  33. laurentweppe says

    But portraying these places as vacation spots, or even more unlikely, places to settle and inhabit — that is distressing, when we can’t even keep our relatively paradisial home habitable

    That’s precisely because we fucked up the cradle that looking for settlements somewhere else has become so critical (although I’m more of a Mc Kendree cylinder myself: self-sustaining fully artificial habitats are the way to go). Besides, I tend to agree with Sagan: agrarian, sedentary societies have their advantages, but they have proven time and again how prone to catastrophic societal and demographic collapse they are, and now that human civilization has become this huge, globalized, interconnected thing which produces less food that it consumes one year out of two the frailty or our current equilibrium makes Sagan’s words more important than ever.

    ***

    That is the philosophy of locusts. When the resources here are used up, move on, find another place, consume it, then move on again

    Better be a locust than an inept landlord fetichizing the soil he trod upon as a child: looking for resources somewhere else means that the pressure we exert here will diminish, allowing the local ecosystem to heal itself. Besides, making the other hellholes inhabitable will require such a level in engineering that by striving to become the civilization which can accomplish such a deal, we’ll also walk toward becoming the civilization which can use its technology to make its presence less damaging on Earth itself.

    ***

    There will come a day when, through no fault of our own, the Earth is swallowed up by the sun, and we’ll have to move outward to survive

    The Sun will heat up and drive the habitable sweet spot beyond Earth’s orbit long before it eat Earth up, which means that complex life will be gone for Earth in half a billion years top. Unless your beloved cephalopods catch up to us and develop their own space program, we’re the only one with a shot of allowing earthling multicellular life to be more than a short blip on a grain of sand by taking as much of it with us as possible: we could become smart bees instead of mindless locusts.

  34. says

    @laurentweppe, #42

    interconnected thing which produces less food that it consumes one year out of two

    And moving ahead to places that makes the most exhausted environments on Earth seem lush will help that how, exactly?

    See, for me it seems like a lot of the talk about the colonization is hiding the head in the sand, pretending it will help to avoid the real challenges and actual problems we’re facing. Like facing the logistical and waste management and overconsumption issues that cause the fact you mentioned to be true.

    Those are not impossible. And requires the rich nations to give up on much less than you’d have to give up to live in a tin can on an orbit reachable only on top of a Saturn V.

  35. laurentweppe says

    And moving ahead to places that makes the most exhausted environments on Earth seem lush will help that how, exactly?

    Because we’ll have to invent sustainable tiny self-contained environments before sending people there: everyone wins: the space explorers get their fancy colonies, the earthlings can scale up the technology developed and use it to fix the homeworld’s ecosystems.

  36. says

    We “only” have a few hundred million years? Okay. I’ll make you a deal. If a civilization survives for even one million years on this lush paradise, they can start looking for other places to live. Hell, I’ll even let them think about it at 100k years. That’s a hell of a lot to longer than the language I’m using to type this.

    Perspective about how long we’ve actually been around, people. Come on!

  37. says

    the earthlings can scale up the technology developed and use it to fix the homeworld’s ecosystems.

    And we can’t focus on improving the technology that’s more relevant here and now without that because? I’d much rather give resources to the “let’s find a better way to manage topsoil” than “let’s colonize Mars hoping that will result in better ways to manage topsoil”.

  38. ethicsgradient says

    Are all the “to infinity and beyond” commenters presuming that cheap fusion power is just around the corner, allowing the manufacture and operation of the huge number of giant rockets needed to set up any kind of experimental colony on another plant or asteroid? That is the breakthrough that would help this planet – with it, we could stop using fossil fuels, use desalination where needed to support agriculture and populations without screwing up the world’s ecosystems, and even start removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to get it back down to 300ppm. The hard slog of incremental improvements to solar systems might get there too. But those are the scientific and technological areas that have the spinoffs that help the world, not people taking vacations on Mons Olympus.

  39. khms says

    I’d much rather give resources to

    You’re all (well, not all, but it seems many) thinking of doing this as a government program. Now, first time getting there might be a useful government program (or not – I’m not certain on this part), but using that to put up a colony might very well be better done by private business … at least while we’re in the developing tech phase. We’ve just started shifting jobs over to businesses like SpaceX, but I expect their part in this is only going to grow for quite a while.

    And in that case, the decisions where to put the resources won’t be the government’s, either. We already have all the people doing business with satellites, I have no doubt people will find a use for more of the space out there (and it may well be something nobody expects today).

    As for the argument about not keeping all eggs in one basket, it seems to me we are still quite a while off from being able to create a colony – anywhere off Earth – that can sustain itself indefinitely, so for the time being, all our eggs will stay in the one basket, if we want that or not. But in the mean time, I see nothing wrong with learning what we’d need to do that. That doesn’t sound like one of the more expensive projects we could tackle. (And how many comparable projects could we pay for if we managed to start fewer wars?)

    As an aside about the food production problem, my impression has always been that we could easily produce enough to eat for everyone – the problem is politics (which I here mean to include business decisions, not just politicians; and on the whole planet, not just in specific regions), not food production technology. If someone had a proposal for a project that stood a reasonable chance of fixing politics, I’d be all for allocating resources to that. Anyone have any pointers?

  40. chimera says

    I think PZ is right to attack this romantic notion that we can use up and abuse the earth just fine because we (or the rich 1% amongst us) are going to get out on a space ship. That and the coming Rapture are right wing fantasy excuses for disregarding climate change and other ecological problems; profits first, life second (or third or fourth or not at all). I remember George Bush mumbling something about his grandkids going to live on a space colony ranch.

    Fact is, without the earth’s gravity, astronauts have to devote a number of hours a day to specific exercises just to keep their muscles from atrophying. Going to the toilet without gravity is no small matter either (you must turn on a suction system and aim). It takes thousands of people on the ground to keep one person up in space for a short period of time and the people on the ground have to be alive (i.e. the earth has to remain liveable). Though these specific problems might at some point in the future be mitigated, there are many others and it remains that staying alive during space travel or on extra-planetary colonies would require hours of work to compensate for the missing gravity and atmosphere. This diminishes the time that can be spent on productive activities like building, producing and preparing food, organizing, learning and thinking.

    Somehow, underlying these fantasies of life in space is a denial of our animal, concrete, material and biological being, a denial of the fact that we are part and parcel of this planet and that it is anything more than a backdrop. Likewise it corresponds to an essentialist, spiritualist view of a human being as something other or more than the sum total of a host of biological functions.

  41. says

    at least while we’re in the developing tech phase. We’ve just started shifting jobs over to businesses like SpaceX

    Which is enormously sponsored, either by NASA in case of SpaceX (which uses NASA funding and NASA designs and NASA contracts) or by Putin, in case of ULA engines. If we’re talking about large projects, we’re talking government funding. Promising projects that might drive down at least LEO cost, like the SABRE engines, are funded by ESA and the British Emp^W^WUnited Kingdom.

    In fact, private colonization and manned exploration programs is something best left for dystopian SF. Sure, a private manufacturer may assemble all the stuff together, but it will not happen without state involvement. And if it would, it would mean someone wasn’t taxed enough.

  42. says

    BTW, if anyone actually cares about species survival more than about the humans actually alive: whatever will survive in space or in colonies, is unlikely to be very “human”. Sentient, yes, but hey, if you don’t care about an elephant (on a Mars colony? Haha), why would you care about some heavily modified person with muscles tuned to a lower gravity and skin with a built in SPF-6000 filter.

  43. anym says

    That is the philosophy of locusts. When the resources here are used up, move on, find another place, consume it, then move on again.

    You can tell this is true for humans, because Europe is a desolate lifeless wasteland from which all the wealthy folk fled overseas hundreds of years ago in order to pillage a whole new stock of resources having used up the last lot.

  44. chimera says

    52. Aleksander Modzelewski

    I would be less concerned about survival of the species in its current form than with the survival of our art and poetry.

  45. laurentweppe says

    I’d much rather give resources to the “let’s find a better way to manage topsoil” than “let’s colonize Mars hoping that will result in better ways to manage topsoil”.

    This argument would be valid is

    1. Large amount of money and resources were actually spent building space colonies willy-nilly: which is not the case: the video here is purely speculative (and the space habitats depicted a couple of centuries away at best): there are tons of hypothetical plans for space colonizations in NASA and ESA’s drawers, but so far, they’ve not cost a single taxpayers’ penny

    2. Money and resources taken away from space exploration were actually used in other environmental research. Except that you know as well as everybody here that every single penny taken away from any science related institutions will be either directly or through shaddy “public-private partnerships” converted into yet another handouts to rich kids who don’t give a fuck about the planet’s degradation so long as the civilizational collapse happens after their own death.

  46. chimera says

    53. Anym

    It’s not as silly as you think anym, ever been to Jerusalem and seen the dust? The biological diversity here in France is sort of depressing to tell the truth.

  47. chimera says

    55. Laurentwerpe

    Yep, the argument would be valid if we had real democracy instead of fincancial oligarchy and people were informed enough to vote with discrimination instead of having corporate infotainment in place of news. Then we might be able to have big good accountable government actually investing in solutions to many of the problems of diverse kinds facing us.

  48. laurentweppe says

    The biological diversity here in France is sort of depressing to tell the truth.

    France actually has a decent chunk of its surface converted into nature reserve, and is one of the few countries on the planet where the surface of unused lands left to wildlife is actually increasing. Lots of damage was done, by for now, the efforts done to fix the mess outweight the efforts done to keep the plunder going.

  49. says

    @55

    there are tons of hypothetical plans for space colonizations in NASA and ESA’s drawers, but so far, they’ve not cost a single taxpayers’ penny

    And wait, I’m only allowed to argue it should stay that way once it ceases to be that way?

    Money and resources taken away from space exploration were actually used in other environmental research. Except that you know as well as everybody here that every single penny taken away from any science related institutions will be either directly or through shaddy “public-private partnerships” converted into yet another handouts to rich kids who don’t give a fuck about the planet’s degradation so long as the civilizational collapse happens after their own death.

    See, you have yet another problem to care more about than manned space exploration. Shady government practices, environmental research, logistics, so much to choose from.

    @54

    I would be less concerned about survival of the species in its current form than with the survival of our art and poetry.

    Don’t worry, we broadcasted it into space like a street preacher as many times as we possibly could. We’ll make a great Ozymandias.

  50. chimera says

    58. Laurentweppe

    True. But that doesn’t change the bio-diversity problem. More natural space doesn’t make it more diverse, though it may stop continuing degradation of biodiversity. But there is no comparison between old world and new world bio-diversity. Just going on a hike is an exercise in sadness.

  51. anym says

    #75, chimera

    It’s not as silly as you think anym, ever been to Jerusalem and seen the dust? The biological diversity here in France is sort of depressing to tell the truth.

    And all the rich people have left Israel, yes? And I totally agree with you about France… the place is basically a dustbowl from the channel to the med, filled with nothing but peasants eating sand.

  52. chimera says

    59. A.M.

    I’m not sure what we broadcast is what I’m talking about. I don’t see why other sentient beings would be able to decode all our stuff in any meaningful way anyway, it’s uber-dependant on specific cognitive capacities themselves relative to our bodies and senses that have evolved in a specific environment. Cats, for instance, who share this planet with us have no appreciation of rhythm because it destabilizes their senses. and cats share this world with us. Why would some foreign life form appreciate our productions?

  53. chimera says

    Because you’re being facetious and obviously don’t know what you’re talking about and are here for being confrontational and getting Lolz.

  54. says

    @62, chimera

    See, that’s why I care about the culture even less — it needs someone to appreciate it, and excuse me if I care about that someone more. They probably won’t like my poem anyway.

    But actually figuring out the visual signal by an intelligent species shouldn’t be all that hard. It might not be possible for them to directly perceive, but spot the patterns, and even translate them into something comprehensible? Sure, we process oddball signals all the time too. And, if you subscribe to Peter Watts style of futurism (I do), that might be a very bad thing.

  55. anym says

    Really? I disagreed with one of the opening points, and you came back with some poor counterexamples. There are no ‘lolz’ to be had there, only disappointment and abuse, as it turns out. Feel free to actually make some relevant commentary on my suggestion that people aren’t really very much like locusts at all, or ignore me. Its all good. Your attitude is quite unwarranted.

  56. chimera says

    Then argue with PZ about the relevance of his metaphor not about biodiversity in old versus new world.

  57. chimera says

    66. A.M.

    Yep, needs someone to appreciate it. You’re totally right all down the line. Which is even more reason to want to preserve this earth.

  58. jack lecou says

    When the resources here are used up, move on, find another place, consume it, then move on again. Only the here that Sagan is talking about is our entire planet. Rather than learning to sustain and maintain natural cycles, we’ll instead plan on exploiting what we’ve got and leaving it behind for someplace else — without considering that every other place in the solar system is a hellhole compared to our home.

    I agree with F.O. upthread: This seems like a profoundly uncharitable reading/viewing.

    I mean, for pity’s sake, the narration in the video is Sagan reading from his ‘Pale Blue Dot’ book. A book inspired (in part) by Voyager’s image of a shockingly tiny, fragile earth hanging in the inhospitable void.

    If anyone thinks the underlying message of that book (or the quote in the video) is to exploit that little blue dot for all its worth and then — when it’s dingy and ruined — to move on to the more hospitable climes of Iapetus or wherever…I don’t even know what to say.

    There’s plenty in the video to nitpick for those inclined – like fur coats on Saturn, or Sagan’s probably dubious evo-psych. But to take the latter, a bit of musing about happenstance in our distant past resulting in an atavistic human urge to wander, and read into it some kind of exhortation to deliberately/negligently exploit the planet and move on like locusts now requires careful ignorance of practically every other word ever written or spoken by the man. It’s beyond straw manning – dipping dangerously down into quote mining territory.

    The lecture which follows also seems unnecessary in that light. Carl Sagan, of all people, was, I expect, pretty well versed in the bleak inhospitality of the rest of the solar system, the tremendous difficulty of space travel, and the vital importance and fragility of our own little ‘wanderer’. As are many (most?) ‘space enthusiasts’, especially those who’d list Sagan as an inspiration and influence. Which probably includes the maker of this video.

  59. chimera says

    66. A.M. bis

    No, I’m not familiar with Peter Watts but wikied him. Sounds like the right approach to thinking about this problem

    The novel has been described by Charles Stross thus: “Imagine a neurobiology-obsessed version of Greg Egan writing a first contact with aliens story…

    A marine biologist thinking about these things is appropriate.

  60. Rob Grigjanis says

    anym @61:

    And I totally agree with you about France… the place is basically a dustbowl from the channel to the med, filled with nothing but peasants eating sand.

    You seem to be confusing biodiversity and fertility. Totes different. France scores poorly compared to other European countries in biodiversity and critical habitat protection. See here.

  61. ragdish says

    PZ,

    I’m quite surprised at your pessimism over this video. Indeed, if I was to pick anyone who is a clone of Sagan, I would pick you and Neil DeGrasse Tyson. All of you have a passion for both science and social justice. And my take on this video is not that we continue to be locusts but to fundamentally change. I came away with the sense that all 7 billion of us are equals and should aspire to be stewards and caregivers of this world. And then continue along that trajectory as we explore other worlds. Or perhaps is just naive me who felt so warm and fuzzy after watching this short flick.

    Honestly, stop watching Avatar.

  62. anym says

    You seem to be confusing biodiversity and fertility. Totes different. France scores poorly compared to other European countries in biodiversity and critical habitat protection

    You seem to be reading too much into a comment which was, as chimera observed, facetious.

    It also misses my earlier point, which was that the locust metaphor does not seem to fit human history very well. The colonization of the new world was not a large scale migration driven by resource depletion and ecological collapse. Even France remains habitable these days.

  63. John Horstman says

    I hate hate hate the evolutionary subtype of the naturalistic fallacy. It underlies every BS evo psych bad ad hoc hypothesis as well as crap like this. Natural selection works on immediate-term survival – it’s really a rather bad system for long-term adaptation.

    Although! The same people hawking any behavior as “our nature” conveniently forget we (or perhaps only some of us?) were also selected for the ability to model abstractions in our brains, allowing us to predict outcomes using simplified models of reality instead of having to actually perform a given action to see the outcome. This has proved useful enough to allow humans to colonize the entire planet and even leave the planet, if briefly. We can make plans, and better yet, we can make plans that offer us superior outcomes to the results that an immediate-term-focused natural selective process produces. It’s also very much “our nature” to choose more advantageous behaviors than those dictated by simple stimulus-response patterns. Indeed, this ability is so advanced that in the right circumstances people are able to overcome full-on compulsions, including things like physical addictions, or the strong desire for self-preservation most people hold in order to effect specific outcomes they want. The physical can certainly constrain our actions, and I won’t deny that genetics can influence our behaviors, but socialization can override ANY biological ‘imperative’ when it comes to behavior (for example, look at hunger strikes – we have the ability to deny our most basic survival needs for something like an ideology, a purely social construct).

    Our abilities to model abstractions and to exercise conscious agency to act on those abstracted models are some of our most useful abilities; we need to encourage people to use those abilities more (and, perhaps, to value the long-term survival of our species). Any time someone tries to justify ANY action on the basis of “human nature” (or, for that matter, a gendered, racial, national, or any other class-based nature), that person is denying humanity’s greatest strengths and what amount to our defining characteristics (though these faculties are perhaps not exclusive to use). Basically, I assert that any appeal to “human nature” is necessarily a denial of the very same.

  64. mirrorfield says

    @4 PZ: That last shot was probably intended to be Saturn, on deck of a dirigible. At suitable height the temperature is thought to be just around the freezing point of water with human-compatible gravity and atmospheric pressure, though the atmosphere is obviously non-breathable (hence the facemask).

    Should be one hell of a view and more open space than multiple earths. However, it’s a long fall down…

  65. opposablethumbs says

    Even if the intention (of the clip, I mean) is to call for support for scientific advances, the tenor of the clip sure as hell sounds like a bunch of locusts to me.
    People can and do get excited – and make audiences excited – about discovery in the sense of finding out more, of knowing more; this crude Go Rimwards Young Man bollocks (specificity intended, sadly) is a call to conquest, not exploration. Nary a word about gaining understanding; all about implying annexation. The clever* idea of suggesting visual links to historical parallels – the European “discovery” of lands inhabited by non-Europeans – is appalling.
    Sagan has said far, far better, more inspiring and more genuinely challenging things than this.

    * I presume somebody thought it was clever. As consciousness razor noted, all that’s missing is the bit about bagging native game.

  66. says

    ‘Now, let’s start by getting one thing straight. I’m not a do-gooder. If you’re a bum, if you can’t break off of the booze or whatever it is that makes you a bad risk, then get out. Now I don’t pretend to tell you how to find happiness and love when every day is just a struggle to survive, but I do insist that you do survive because the days and the years ahead are worth living for. One day — soon — Man is going to be able to harness incredible energies, maybe even the atom. Energies that could ultimately hurl us to other worlds in some sort of spaceship. And the men that reach out into space will be able to find ways to feed the hungry millions of the world and to cure their diseases. They will be able to find a way to give each man hope and a common future, and those are the days worth living for.’

  67. gussnarp says

    I always find it odd when people suggest Mars colonization as a solution to our destruction of our habitat here on earth. Let’s say the worst possible climate change scenario so far considered happens. It will still be orders of magnitude easier to keep/make Earth livable than to make Mars habitable. This holds for nearly any scenario imaginable and if you factor in travel costs, it holds for every other planet in the Universe. Up until our Sun begins grows so large that it makes life here unsustainable (and Mars would be out then, as well), a time at which our descendants (if any) will have evolved into something we might not even recognize as human, Earth is still going to be the best place for human life.

  68. Anthony K says

    For fuck’s sake, people, stop complaining. There is literally no downside to grifters launching libertarians into the bowels of space. Sure, within years Mars will be covered in McDonald’s wrappers and desiccated Gamergater corpses, but how is that not an entirely net positive?

  69. says

    That felt like a false choice to me in Interstellar. The fact that all they needed to colonize space was the means to get their gigantic space colonies off the ground means they could just as easily build self-contained, self-sustaining habitats on Earth.

    Speaking from an interspecies-security standpoint, it would be fatally stupid to allow humans to become impoverished on our homeworld, and then give us the technical means to become Vikings with interstellar spaceships AND nuclear weapons. A truly sensible advanced species would have given us tips on how to keep our own biosphere alive, so we’d be less needy and greedy when we did start travelling to other planets. That way, when we finally did start colonizing other planets, we’d be doing it with better technology for self-contained habitations using resources more efficiently and cleanly.

  70. says

    Should be one hell of a view and more open space than multiple earths. However, it’s a long fall down…

    …with absolutely no actual surface down there on which you could build homes or grow crops.

  71. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    The problem I have with all these schemes for colonizing the cosmos is that they blithely ignore fundamental laws of physics. They presume we’ll be able to travel faster than light–a necessity of we are to reach anything habitable within a human lifetime or even two. Or if they don’t assume “warp drive,” they ignore the fact that galactic cosmic rays would slice your DNA to ribbons long before you reached your destination–and that goes for any eggs or sperm you brought along to perpetuate the species in transit.

    People just assume we’ll have a space elevator, utterly ignoring that, again, the radiation in Earth’s radiation belts, would necessitate replacement of your 72000 km elevator cable on a yearly basis or so. So, I think the Universe is safe from us.

  72. A momentary lapse... says

    Would have preferred it without the Carl Sagan, I never really warmed to him (maybe he’s more of a US thing?)

    Without the narration, it’s a nice depiction of a fairly “retro” vision of space exploration. It would be basically impossible to send human beings to most of the places: visit Jupiter’s radiation belts and die horribly, etc. etc. Besides, the only time we’ve sent human beings to another celestial body was enabled by political circumstances that have severe downsides to them (yes the one-upmanship contest between superpowers got Neil Armstrong to the Moon, but given the choice I would prefer not having the threat of imminent nuclear annihilation hanging over my head).

    Barring some fantastically unlikely developments in fundamental physics, space travel is sufficiently hard that it would never be a viable “plan B” if we do end up destroying the environment. The lesson of the space age is that space is lethally unpleasant, anywhere beyond Earth we could reasonably get to is also lethally unpleasant. Natural selection has shaped us for a specific set of conditions that occur on one planet during one tiny fraction of its history. We mess with those conditions at our peril.

  73. jack lecou says

    I always find it odd when people suggest Mars colonization as a solution to our destruction of our habitat here on earth.

    Has someone proposed this seriously?

  74. anym says

    The problem I have with all these schemes for colonizing the cosmos is that they blithely ignore fundamental laws of physics. They presume we’ll be able to travel faster than light–a necessity of we are to reach anything habitable within a human lifetime or even two. Or if they don’t assume “warp drive,” they ignore the fact that galactic cosmic rays would slice your DNA to ribbons long before you reached your destination–and that goes for any eggs or sperm you brought along to perpetuate the species in transit.

    You’re describing sci-fi. There have been a few serious studies of interstellar travel, and the ones I’ve come across don’t make any of those mistakes. They’re honest about the enormous magntitude of the problems involved, and the vast, nation-draining cost of such an enterprise.

    People just assume we’ll have a space elevator, utterly ignoring that, again, the radiation in Earth’s radiation belts, would necessitate replacement of your 72000 km elevator cable on a yearly basis or so.

    Huh, I haven’t heard of people discussing structural damage to the cable by the radiation belts… linky? I’ve always heard it was more of a risk to passengers than the infrastructure. As it happens, there’s a proposal to discharge the van allen belts (HiVOLT), though I don’t think anyone has any idea of what sort of knock-on effects that would cause.

    Regardless, there’s a wealth of slightly less implausble megaproject designs out there… lofstrom loops and startram and so on. Space elevators on earth may never be a practicality, but they’re not the be-all and end-all of non-rocket-based launch systems.

  75. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Anym: “Linky”

    That’s just it. They ignore it. Blithely. Repeatedly. Even after it has been pointed out again and again. Anything passing through the proton belts will get hammered. As to discharging the Van Allen Belts… Please. They’d charge up again after a single Solar Max. That is the sort of idiocy that drives me as a space radiation physicist crazy!

  76. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    Anym,
    Also, what makes you think magnetic propulsion has some magic power that chemical propulsion does not?

  77. jack lecou says

    Elon Musk, among others.

    Link? I’ll believe anything, but while my own googling turns up some interviews about his…aggressive views on colonizing mars — in part as a backup in case of cosmic disaster — there doesn’t seem to be anything about packing up and moving to mars as some kind of solution to global warming on earth. The opposite, if anything. Top link on my last search just now included the quote:

    The world could also do with a wake–up call about climate change, he says. “Most people don’t really appreciate the magnitude of the danger. The glacier melts are very stark. As you heat the planet up it’s just like boiling a pot.” The single most important counter-measure is to tax carbon, he says.

    Which isn’t that surprising in retrospect. This is the electric car guy, after all. The other stuff I skimmed seemed similarly sane, if arguably optimistic about the economic and technical hurdles on the Mars thing.

  78. anteprepro says

    jack lecou: Where the fuck did “solution to global warming” come into the equation? The original quote was about destruction of our habitat: the Earth. You mention that it is a backup in case of a disaster. You know, a disaster that might destroy our habitat. But instead you focus on global warming, a subset of habitat destruction, and because that isn’t his one key reason for supporting Mars colonization, that means somehow someone on the thread is wrong or something.

  79. anteprepro says

    consciousness razor:

    What would be the point of hunting space beavers on your blimp, if you weren’t going to adorn yourself with their pelts and gaze at the sky?

    Sounds like Spelljammer.

  80. jack lecou says

    Where the fuck did “solution to global warming” come into the equation?

    Gussnarp at #81, to which I was responding. The reference was to people talking about colonization of mars as a “solution to our destruction of our habitat”, i.e., self inflicted destruction like global warming rather than cosmic disaster.

    (As a a ‘solution’ to the former, colonization is silly of course – however damaged earth is, it’s almost certainly going to be much closer to habitable condition than mars. But as insurance against the latter, colonization makes some sense – albeit only to the limited extent to which earth and mars would not be subject to the same cosmic fate.)

  81. anteprepro says

    Oh, fair enough jack. It wasn’t in your original quote so I didn’t see where that came into play.

  82. a_ray_in_dilbert_space says

    The problem with colonization as an “insurance policy” is that it simply is not going to happen. People really underestimate the difficulties of space travel–and Elon is one of the worst in this regard. Elon has proposed sending “colonists” on a one-way trip to Mars as a way of decreasing the costs of the mission. Mars has as much chance of being colonized as I do of playing center in the NBA.

  83. consciousness razor says

    What would be the point of hunting space beavers on your blimp, if you weren’t going to adorn yourself with their pelts and gaze at the sky?

    Sounds like Spelljammer.

    I think at this point I’m supposed to quote the great prophet: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Therefore, magics exist!

    (As a a ‘solution’ to the former, colonization is silly of course – however damaged earth is, it’s almost certainly going to be much closer to habitable condition than mars. But as insurance against the latter, colonization makes some sense – albeit only to the limited extent to which earth and mars would not be subject to the same cosmic fate.)

    Just so we’re clear, there’s no avoiding heat death. People, or their offspring or their technologies, won’t keep going on forever. So the “limited extent,” if you’re really talking about a cosmic scale instead of our planet or solar system, is a question of exactly how long we’ll keep going, from one planet or solar system to the next, some way or another. The fact remains that at some point in the very distant future, there won’t be anywhere else to go. We’re supposed to care about what “we” might do in some billions of years, apparently because it’s so long that it nearly seems infinite if you don’t think about it very much, somehow enough that our presence is that much more meaningful in the big scheme of things than it already is right now. At the same time, we’re not supposed care about (or not even supposed to imagine) what happens in hundreds of trillions of years or more. That just gets swept under the rug, in all this talk of “perpetuating” the species or our arts or whatever it might be. It’s not going to be perpetual, because there aren’t any perpetual motion machines. It’s a little depressing maybe, but then again I already knew I wasn’t going to be around for very long.

  84. anym says

    #91, a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    Anym: “Linky”

    Well, yes. Do you have one? I seem to be asking the wrong questions of google.

    As to discharging the Van Allen Belts… Please. They’d charge up again after a single Solar Max. That is the sort of idiocy that drives me as a space radiation physicist crazy!

    Sooo… that’s an 11 year charge up period, during which the original apparatus could be left in place? Or are you saying that the hivolt proposal is actually impractical in the first place?

    Also, what makes you think magnetic propulsion has some magic power that chemical propulsion does not?

    Of course it doesn’t. But non-rocket-based, or only partially rocket-based mechanisms of getting stuff into orbit are potentially much cheaper than the current stuff, and vastly easier to construct than a space elevator. I’m simply pointing out that there are possible alternatives to the science fiction tropes that you were dismissing.

  85. says

    Has anyone mentioned babies? No?

    People wanting children just struck me as a possible reason for needing more space (overpopulation and crowding didn’t show up in my word search either). Though there is the possibility that enough people will be satisfied without, or with only having one, etc.

  86. jack lecou says

    Just so we’re clear, there’s no avoiding heat death. People, or their offspring or their technologies, won’t keep going on forever. So the “limited extent,” if you’re really talking about a cosmic scale instead of our planet or solar system, is a question of exactly how long we’ll keep going, from one planet or solar system to the next, some way or another.

    In the long term, yep. I was thinking of more spectacular disasters like nearby supernovae though.

    I’m all for it regardless, but, two planets in neighboring orbits in the same system is actually still pretty un-diversified, cosmically. It gives you reasonably decent insurance against localized stuff like asteroid or comet impacts, sure. And simply having the latent capability to move a viable core population (however small) around from planet to planet, and/or support one in space for a time, might offer at least a bit of hope against something like the gravitational disruptions from a rogue planet passing by.

    But most of the rest I can think… I guess you might have very slightly improved chances in the event of a gamma ray burst or similar – provided you get really lucky and one planet is outside the edge of the beam, or in the shadow of the sun or something, so at least one planet escapes. But I think that, and lots of other stuff — like a nearby nova — would probably just wipe out life in the whole solar system out at once.

  87. Electric Shaman says

    Sagan’s story is that natural selection has shaped humanity, as a survival trait, with a wanderlust that encourages us to seek out new territories, for when the “long summers, mild winters, and rich harvests” end. That is the philosophy of locusts. When the resources here are used up, move on, find another place, consume it, then move on again.

    I think one could certainly make the argument that curiosity and a desire to explore are innate and inheritable human qualities. But I think the “Philosophy of the Locust” as PZ puts it is more a cultural trait rather than any strictly biologically derived one. There have certainly been and most likely continue to be cultures, particularly those of non-European origin, that have valued and practiced sustainability of their environment as a means of their survival.

  88. anteprepro says

    Ultimately, it would require a fuckton of money, manpower, resources and technological ingenuity to transfer the population of just, say, the U.S. to say Australia. Sending that same size population or larger into fucking space and using additional resources to make sure they get a liveable habitat on an otherwise unliveable world? Jesus Christ. I mean, it may be possible some day but that day ain’t in the foreseeable future. Even then, it would require that a fucking apocalypse be on the horizon to really invest in such a thing to the extent that is necessary. The only other option is just seeding Mars with a select elite few. Which, honestly, might be do-able, but as of right now we have a ways to go until people undergoing such a trip aren’t essentially volunteering for the likely outcome of being human sacrifices to the futurist gods.

  89. says

    I don’t think there is much chance of the scenes from Wanderers happening before we tackle (and hopefully solve) the environmental issues here on Earth. Manned spaceflight has gone exactly nowhere in over 40 years, and there isn’t much chance of that changing within the next 20, at least. Even the Moon is on the back burner for now.

    If the scenes depicted in the film come true, it will be because we have overcome many of the problems were facing here on Earth. It’s a hopeful vision of the future, not a dystopian one.

  90. jack lecou says

    The only other option is just seeding Mars with a select elite few. Which, honestly, might be do-able, but as of right now we have a ways to go until people undergoing such a trip aren’t essentially volunteering for the likely outcome of being human sacrifices to the futurist gods.

    Have you ever seen Things to Come?

    There’s a story in the movie which suddenly seems apropos. It’s in the last act, in the somewhat distant future, a world where war and suffering have been vanquished permanently. A harmonious technocratic utopia has reigned for generations, and when we enter the scene, a huge space launch apparatus has been completed. A pair of young explorers are set to launch themselves into space, and into uncertain dangers and adventures therein.

    So far so good. Not so plausible, of course, what with the utopia and all. But believe it or not, it’s what happens next that I always found really unbelievable.

    See, there’s some kind of talk radio demagogue. On the eve of the launch, he latches onto the story. But it’s not the cost of the project. Nor a religious antipathy toward science. Nor any of the other objections I might have imagined. No, what he objects to is the realization that two people are leaving the comfort of their perfect society and possibly putting themselves in danger. See, discovery, adventure, exploration are clearly just not worth leaving your couch and carefully climate conditioned house for. He and his followers believe this so strongly, they take up pitchforks and torches and stream out from the city to riot at the base of the launcher, attempting to sabotage it. IIRC, some die in the process. The launch goes forward anyway, thankfully.

    The thing is, I never found that talk show guy or his followers to be a believable antagonist in those scenes. Who would actually gainsay or stand in the way of brave explorers – of sound mind and body – who wanted to take their chances on a glorious trip into the unknown?

    The economic expense? Ok, sure. We can argue about that, but reasonable people can certainly disagree on the worth of this or that project. Debate the technical challenges and unknowns? Absolutely. Formidable obstacles remain, perhaps insurmountable ones for certain conceivable ventures.

    But I could just never give any credence to the idea that anyone could actually be such a…I think busybody is the only word I have… to object to the very idea of people risking a piece of themselves for something they believed in. No way, I thought. More wildly implausible than the technocratic utopia or the space cannon, I thought.

    At least until now.

  91. jack lecou says

    Ultimately, it would require a fuckton of money, manpower, resources and technological ingenuity to transfer the population of just, say, the U.S. to say Australia. Sending that same size population or larger into fucking space and using additional resources to make sure they get a liveable habitat on an otherwise unliveable world?

    To avoid introducing too much straw into the conversation, I wonder if it might help to distinguish colonisation from the above, which is really better characterized as ‘mass relocation’ or something. I can’t speak for everyone, but I don’t think that bears much resemblance to the sorts of scenarios people are taking about when they refer to ‘colonisation’ or to things like “putting some eggs in another basket” or “establishing a permanent human presence elsewhere in the solar system.”

    In general we’re talking about tens of thousands – or whatever a reasonable minimum for genetic sustainability might be – not hundreds of millions.

  92. brett says

    @mirrorfield #78

    @4 PZ: That last shot was probably intended to be Saturn, on deck of a dirigible.

    The wind would still be a problem, though. Winds on Saturn can reach up to 1800 km/hr, so it’d be very unwise to be out there without some kind of safety harness. :D And it would be a long way down. I’m not sure what would kill you first, the pressure or the heat.

    @gussnarp

    Let’s say the worst possible climate change scenario so far considered happens. It will still be orders of magnitude easier to keep/make Earth livable than to make Mars habitable.

    Agreed. It’s the same type of problem that plagues Space Solar Power proposals – for X cost of building a solar power station in space, you can build a whole ton of ground-based solar power plants for X/100 that will provide you with more power on net and have much easier maintenance and construction times.

    @a_ray_in_dilbert_space

    That’s just it. They ignore it. Blithely. Repeatedly. Even after it has been pointed out again and again. Anything passing through the proton belts will get hammered. As to discharging the Van Allen Belts… Please.

    The possibility of radiation damage to the Space Elevator likely gets little attention because of the other problems that block creating them – like getting some type of material that has the tensile strength, shear strength, and general durability to survive what Earth’s atmosphere will throw at it. Elevators on the Moon and Mars don’t have that problem, or the problem with Van Allen belts.

    @Jack Lecou

    In general we’re talking about tens of thousands – or whatever a reasonable minimum for genetic sustainability might be – not hundreds of millions.

    I don’t think it’s out of the question, either, in the next two centuries or so. Especially with advances in robotics and telepresence – you might be able to build a space colony in Earth orbit entirely with robots remotely controlled from Earth’s surface and using components (partially) fabricated from raw materials launched up into space, populate it with people over a period of time, and then slowly have it move to a higher orbit or even somewhere else in the solar system using a combination of ion drives and the Interplanetary Transport Network.

    I’m pretty skeptical we’ll see that before the very late 21st century at the earliest, and it might not come at all if people don’t really want to mobilize the resources for it. Certainly it would be hard to rationalize it other than simply, “I want to live there, and have the money to spend to build it”. But it could happen, and it strikes me as far more realistic than off-world colonies on the surface of Mars/the Moon/outer solar system. Why settle down on a lifeless rock with uncontrollable gravity, when you can live in a space colony with controllable internal conditions and gravity and gradually go anywhere in the solar system?

  93. saganite says

    Sagan didn’t just talk about moving on, he talked about placing our eggs in more than one basket. This planet is doomed, as are all planets, to suffer a life-destroying catastrophe again eventually, whether that be man-made or natural, whether stemming from our own backyard or from outer space like massive, civilization-ending asteroids. And those catastrophes may occur long before the planet itself is destroyed by our expanding sun! I’d rather see humanity spread far and wide if it is to survive in any sort of long-term. No, don’t ignore the problems on Earth, but work on going beyond it and fast.

  94. lpetrich says

    I wouldn’t dismiss Saturn’s rings so quickly.

    But I checked on WANDERERS – Short Film and I got most of the places right.

    Mars is pretty much right. An orangish rocky, dusty desert.

    Jupiter? That spacewalker near the planet would die of radiation poisoning pretty quickly. That’s from Jupiter’s magnetosphere. The moon with an icy surface and Jupiter and Io in the distance is Europa. Its radiation dose is not nearly as high as near Jupiter, but it is still likely too high for us.

    The moon with geysers is Saturn’s moon Enceladus. The ring scenes are at Saturn. I’m rather skeptical about observing Saturn’s rings from its clouds, because it’s awfully hard to return. You’d need to get to 25 km/s to go into orbit near its visible “surface”, and 35 km/s to escape.

    There’s also a Titan scene, though Titan’s daylight would be much fainter and the Sun would not be very prominent — and would look reddish. But with its thick atmosphere and low gravity, it may be relatively easy to fly there.

    The moon with Saturn in the distance is Iapetus, Saturn’s two-toned moon. Saturn is rather appropriately tilted. All the moons closer to Saturn are at most a degree or two from Saturn’s equator and ring plane, so Saturn’s rings are all edge-on from them. But Saturn’s rings are 4.4d across from Iapetus and 1.2d across from Phoebe, which has even greater orbital inclination to Saturn’s equator, so they won’t fill up much of the sky.

    There is also a scene of an asteroid with a space colony inside. One would hollow out its interior to make room for the colony.

  95. says

    Khms @ 49:

    It took Big Government to give us the internet and space exploration. If we’d had to depend on The Invisible Hand of Capitalism we wouldn’t be chatting here right now.

  96. gussnarp says

    @jack lecou (#88):

    Has someone posed this seriously?

    Seriously? I don’t know how we’re defining seriously. But I’m mostly referring to casual conversation, and I find no shortage of people posing it that way, including saganite at #111 above.

    But even setting aside whether my comment implied global warming (it did, but no exclusively), I still don’t know that there’s any kind of cataclysm beyond a significant change in the sun that makes another place more habitable than Earth. Even an asteroid impact, though it would certainly be nice to be off world at the moment of impact and the immediate aftermath.

  97. says

    we should gather all this space lovers and put them on a space craft and let them pursue his dreams, and dont let them get BACK EVER AGAIN, since they are ignorant of the greater treasure our planet is.

    BTW they dont even know that human reproduction is not posible outside earth, of course that info has been carefully hidden by space agencies to justify its existence.

  98. jack lecou says

    Seriously? I don’t know how we’re defining seriously.

    Well, there’s a couple of axes probably. Call them ‘knowledge’ and ‘detail’.

    On the detail spectrum, you’ve got tossed off one sentence proposals through, say, detailed research road maps and technical plans.

    On the knowledge spectrum, one end has folks who have watched a couple episodes of Star Trek TNG but don’t really realize that, e.g., evacuating billions of people from one planet to another, would be a…really big deal, to understate slightly. On the other end, you might have a mission planner at JPL or somewhere, with a real degree and a sagging shelf full of binders with old manned space program roadmaps. Between those, there might be people who at least know that transporters aren’t real things, or a few tidbits from reality, like that space is really deadly, or the order of magnitude for the cost of rocket launches or time of travel to Mars.

    Mostly you probably get both axes moving together: In one corner, naive suggestions, cursory in the extreme, and clearly not thought through. Like terraforming mars to escape global warming. Or evacuating earth. Those are unserious. Up in the corner, detailed, well-grounded technical plans from people and organizations whose job it is to come up with them. Those are serious.

    Sometimes you might have something from the side corners: a crank with a meticulously detailed plan for the construction of warp drives and transporter beams, say; or, conversely, a tossed off comment from a world class expert. Those are probably worth calling serious as well.

    It’s obviously up to you what level of seriousness to take the time to call out.

    Right now, I’m reserving my annoyance mostly for otherwise serious people who are spending all their time pretending the naive, non-serious, science fiction-y stuff down in the bottom corner represents actual proposals for space missions or something, while disingenuously ignoring — or impugning by association — the at least serious-er stuff in the other corner. (PZ spilt several paragraphs of pixels up there on the foolishness of mass evacuating earth to the outer planets to escape environmental destruction – a foolish idea, to be sure. But he apparently couldn’t find anyone notable to call out who’d actually made that suggestion — all the science-splaining was instead directed at Carl Sagan, that monster, and a guy who proposed no such thing. but did make a fanciful and inspirational video about mildly plausible distant future space colonies.)

    But I’m mostly referring to casual conversation, and I find no shortage of people posing it that way, including saganite at #111 above.

    Granted.

    I don’t find saganite’s suggestion too objectionable though. It’s not suggesting that there’s a specific, current self-inflicted catastrophe that we should leave behind rather than fix. It’s just saying an insurance policy is a good idea in the unfortunate event that we initiate some unspecified future catastrophe that can’t be fixed. Out-of-control global warming might be one possibility (remote as the chance might be that this would be worse than living on another planet), but there’re others: global nuclear war, grey goo, some black swan event we can’t imagine. Yes, we shouldn’t do that stuff to ourselves, but I guess it’d be nice to make it potentially survivable if we ever did.

    But even setting aside whether my comment implied global warming (it did, but no exclusively), I still don’t know that there’s any kind of cataclysm beyond a significant change in the sun that makes another place more habitable than Earth. Even an asteroid impact, though it would certainly be nice to be off world at the moment of impact and the immediate aftermath.

    I don’t find the insurance-policy angle especially convincing myself. It’s a nice side benefit, I reckon, but as I said above, a lot of the really scary stuff would probably wipe us out system-wide anyway. (And if you’ve got the capability to ship millions of tons of people and gear from planet to planet, you can probably figure out how to spot and redirect a rock on collision course too. What’s that leave, aside from the self-inflicted? Super-volcanoes maybe?)

  99. springa73 says

    I’m a little late in commenting, but I just read this. I agree with most of what the original post is saying – it won’t be practical to move large numbers of people off of the earth in the foreseeable future, and it shouldn’t be done if humanity is going to act like locusts and simply consume all of the resources in each place and move on. However, I didn’t interpret either the video or Sagan’s words in the same way.

    When Sagan says that good conditions don’t last forever, I don’t think that he is suggesting that humanity exploit and abuse the Earth until it is unlivable and then move on. He’s saying that some times even the most hospitable places (i.e., Earth) can become inhospitable in spite of what people do. If that happens, it may be necessary for the success or even survival of the species to have people living in other places, or at least prepared to move. The urge to explore may not be hardwired into us by natural selection – I find that idea speculative and dubious – but it probably is a good idea in the long term.

    As for the video, regardless of its plausibility or lack thereof, I think that it speaks to an important psychological fact – people tend to be much more interested in a distant place if it is actually possible for people to go there and live there. All of the fascinating discoveries in our solar system and beyond made by robotic probes are much less interesting to most people than they would be if human explorers and travelers had made them. It’s probably unfortunate, but I think that it’s true.

  100. brett says

    @Ippetrich

    There is also a scene of an asteroid with a space colony inside. One would hollow out its interior to make room for the colony.

    That’s one of those proposals I’ve never really felt strongly for. Even aside from the difficulties of hollowing out an asteroid, most asteroids aren’t giant rocks – they’re piles of rubble held together by very weak gravity IIRC. If you’re hollowing it out anyways, you’d be better off extracting valuable materials from the asteroid and using them to simply build a space colony outright as a standalone structure.

    @gussnarp

    But even setting aside whether my comment implied global warming (it did, but no exclusively), I still don’t know that there’s any kind of cataclysm beyond a significant change in the sun that makes another place more habitable than Earth.

    You’d need a really big impact, the likes of which hasn’t hit the Earth since the Hadean Period nearly 4 billion years ago. It would have to be something more akin to a minor planet or a really big asteroid, something that would liquefy the entire surface and thus destroy virtually any refuges on Earth.

    Needless to say, that’s extremely unlikely as far as we know.

  101. Amphiox says

    When it comes to colonizing other worlds (or building our own other habitats in space), for the short to medium term it isn’t about living some place other than earth. I think it is about living in other places in addition to earth.

    It’s about diversity and resiliency.

    No matter how careful one might be, how conscientious, how foresightful, one cannot expect to be perfect. Mistakes will be made. Some of those mistakes might have catastrophic consequences. And some disasters may not be foreseeable.

    But the more outposts we have, the lower the likelihood that catastrophic mistakes will happen everywhere simultaneously, or a disaster would affect everywhere at once. Colonies elsewhere are insurance. Unaffected islands of humanity that can aid the affected ones in times of crisis, or, in the worse case scenarios, a “seed-base” for repopulation.

    And of course, the more disparate environments we live in, the more we will learn about living sustainably to begin with, and the more opportunities we will have to learn. And what is learned can be applied everywhere, including back on earth.

  102. Amphiox says

    So it is not about being “locusts”. Of consuming all resources in an area, rendering it uninhabitable for one’s kind, and then moving on. (One thing to remember about locust swarms is that inevitably they all end in mass death and cannabilism, and the species endures only by seeding the ground with eggs for a new generation).

    Its about spreading to other areas was also continuing to live in the original area.

  103. says

    Ultimately, it would require a fuckton of money, manpower, resources and technological ingenuity to transfer a population of 300 million from Europe and Africa to, say, North America.