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