So famous physicist Stephen Hawking is in the news these days advocating more shooting of humans into space:
“Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of.”
said Hawking in Hong Kong this week in a notable passive construction;
“It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species.”
OK, let alone for the moment the sheer hubris-laden assumption that within twenty years we’ll be able to build artificial ecosystems, sustainable over the very long term, that can support human life at population levels necessary to preserve a worthwhile percentage of human genetic, intellectual, and cultural diversity. Seems to me we tried doing that a few years back on Earth, where we had an entire planet full of tools at our disposal, and it worked rather more poorly than its planners expected. A description of the failure of the “self-sufficient ecosystem” Biosphere experiment, from that last link:
Throughout the experiment, oxygen levels steadily dropped, until the members barely were able to maintain consciousness. The rules of self-sufficiency were changed yet again as oxygen was pumped in to prevent brain damage. In the meantime, all the pollinators died, so that none of the plants could reproduce. Finally, all the birds and animals brought in for food also died.
For the humans, Biosphere quickly became a desperate exercise in fighting off starvation. The eight members, split into two factions of four — which to this day do not talk to each other — were reduced to hording [sic] and counting peanuts. Biosphere ended as an almost comical failure.
And that was on this planet, where the designers could just have a thousand yards of specialized concrete and a million square feet of tempered glass driven up to the site on flatbed trucks. I suspect an attempt to replicate the Biosphere experiment in the Valle Marineris would be a bit more difficult. The construction crew here could actually breathe without tanks, for one thing, and what happens when the New Martians realize they have the wrong gauge turnbuckles for the shadecloth awning, and all the lettuce plants get UV poisoning? We’re talking about an agency that forgot to do a English-Metric conversion for an unmanned Mars probe here. Would you really trust them to buy compatible plumbing fixtures from 400 million miles away?
But forget that for now. And forget that Hawking is saying this in a year in which NASA is re-emphasizing humans in space and — for consequent budgetary reasons — pulling the plug on unmanned missions to monitor, and perhaps thus help mitigate, the dangers he cites.
What pisses me off is this. I’m looking at the list of dangers Hawking cites: genetic engineering turning the biosphere into gray goo, climate change from burning of fossil fuels, nuclear war… and a certain commonality among them strikes me. I mean, we’re not talking the sun going nova, which is far enough in the future that a dollar a year budget devoted to extrasolar mass migration research would likely be more than adequate to get us there. And we’re not talking comet impact or flood basalt here. Every threat, every looming disaster Hawking’s talking about here is human generated.
There are two reasons why Hawking’s brainstorm is thus just utterly, unbelievably stupid.
First: these problems are mitigatable, if not in fact reversible or (in the case of nuclear war) even preventable if, and only if, addressing them is made a priority. which means not cutting funding to satellite-based climate monitoring programs for some masturbatory, LaRoucheian Robert Zubrin fantasy. (Have I mentioned that I know Zubrin from when he used to sell LaRouche’s paper New Solidarity, in Buffalo in the 1970s? A story for another time.)
The other reason?
Let’s say you had a horrible cockroach infestation, and the bugs were trashing your house, spreading filth and eating the bindings of your irreplaceable antique books and breeding profligately and an electrician came to you one day and told you that they were eating your circuit breaker insulation, and you needed to do something about it or your house would burn down.
I don’t know about you, but my first reaction would not be to put a bunch of roaches in a Tupperware container and then release them into a neighbor’s house so that the species would live on.
We are the problem here. We’ve only got one planet right now and we’re messing it up. What happens when we’re spread out on a bunch of planets? The pressure’s off, and we have one less reason not to piss in our drinking water. If we blanket Mars with radioisotopes and fast-food wrappers? Well hell, Titan’s right there. And we can always mine Jupiter for hydrogen.
Hawking’s future of humanity resembles nothing so much as those aliens from Independence Day, the ones that travel from planet to planet laying waste the resources and moving on, pausing only to strangle Brent Spiner. OK, so every disaster has an upside. My point is that our planet deserves better than to be a mere discarded larval skin for a species that goes on to eat the galaxy, implacable and soulless and vulnerable to computer viruses written in haste by a drunkard, on a Macintosh.
I like this planet just fine, Professor Hawking, and I’d much rather we spend our creative energies learning how to live here without fucking it up. And you want to distract us by promising a future that fewer than one in ten million of us here will ever see, based on a techno-wankoff that some of your most respected colleagues have dismissed as utterly useless?
Yeah, right. Great idea, Einstein.