Are we alone? More importantly, are we even awake?
The “man the life boats and head for the stars” answer to our present human dilemmas is simply delusional. We can and should explore space, but if we don’t get our act together here on this planet immediately, we’re dead – extinct: plain and simple.
A recent book seems once again to miss that point entirely, sadly, judging from an interview with the author in The Atlantic, titled, Are We Alone?
A better question might be, Are we awake? Because at present, all indications are that we are sleep-walking into our own self-annihilation, as David Suzuki, Ronald Wright, Jared Diamond and others have said.
The Atlantic asks, “What are the big intellectual questions today?” Well, we can say this much: the big intellectual questions do not include asking how we can build a space ship to fly a handful of the richest people on Earth to some fantasy space colony and leave behind billions of our fellow species and the vast majority of our fellow human beings to slowly drown in the excrement we have left as our legacy.
Even if this were technologically possible within the remaining time-span before our civilization’s infrastructure crumbles under the weight of our own self-created ecological holocaust – which it is not; it would be grossly irresponsible, inhuman, obscenely callous and cold-hearted, and unethical in the extreme.
And by the way, if the scientists who are star-struck and mesmerized by these dreams of escape into space from a world we are actively destroying, think for a moment that their seat on the grand interstellar lifeboat is secure, they had better think again.
Firstly, space colonization is, by all reasonable assessments, 50 years off, if we are wildly optimistic, and more realistically, 100 to 200 years away: but, by World Bank and other estimates, at our present pace of ecological destruction, we will be extinct in 50 years – and our civilizations infrastructure, including our capacity to build or utilize advanced technology, will have collapsed quite some time before that. So it is pure fantasy to begin with.
And second, even if this somehow did magically come to fruition, there would only be a few seats available, in all likelihood – and they would, of course, go to the super-rich who will fund such projects and who can afford the seats. The rest of us may get lip service, but will simply be left to go down with the ship. And the scientists will be shoved out the door when their job is done, have no doubt; and will be left behind like the rest of us – were such fairy tales ever to become reality at all.
But let’s return to the first point: the basic facts as to our present capacity for colonizing space.
Firstly,do we remember the project to build a self-contained and self-sustaining miniature ecosystem on earth? I forget what it was called, but it is forgotten, and not mentioned, and the reason is, that it was a complete failure. We have no idea how to set up a self-sustaining ecosystem that would support even the simplest forms of life, much less human beings.
As geneticist and environmentalist David Suzuki has said, our understanding of life is still very rudimentary. Optimism is great, but if it is not grounded in reality, in an honest assessment of where we presently stand, then it is not optimism at all, but sheer foolishness.
We are far from having the knowledge to create the life-support systems that would replicate another earth. So all such talk is grand speculation, and such feats are at least generations away, even if they are possible or desirable.
Secondly, the study of other earth-like, potentially habitable planets, or exoplanetology, is in its infancy. We are at least decades away, in all likelihood, from even discovering a potential candidate for a new planet to call home – to say nothing of finding the means to get there, and then, to successfully colonize it.
Thirdly, even if we somehow found what appears to be a perfect candidate for a second home on some distant earth-like planet, we are a century or more away, if we are lucky, from developing the means even to travel there, much less to live there.
So we are really talking science fiction here, and would be better off watching Star Trek, and munching on popcorn, than devoting serious time and energy to such things, when we are approaching impact with a civilization-shattering and possibly species terminating ecological cataclysm of our own creation.
At least if we are watching Star Trek, we are not distracting or misguiding anyone with our drivel about how we’re going to save humanity by such ungrounded fantasies of colonizing space before the ship of our civilization is sunk by our own hands.
No, if we are to have lifeboats, as we wisely should, they must be earth-bound. We need contingency plans, fall-back plans, but they will be earth-based, or they will be merely whimsical, and based in sheer self-deceit and illusion.
I would say that we have a better chance of being beamed up and rescued by friendly aliens than we have of building a starship and colonizing space in time, before our civilization collapses and such questions are mute, as the technological capacity for them has been laid to waste, even if the theoretical know-how is achieved.
Dream of the stars, but live on the earth. We will go to the stars one day, most likely, but not in this generation, and not for several generations to come – and no human beings will live to see it unless we get our act together and learn how to live on this planet, and in very short order.
The big questions today do not revolve around grand schemes of techno-fantasy and the colonization of space. They are grounded in the real world, here on planet earth.
The big questions today – aside from the perennial questions, the deeper questions, of who we are, what is real and what is the true nature of our own being – the most pressing of questions today, are these:
1. How do we survive the next 25 to 50 years without going extinct?
2. How do we live in justice, harmony and peace on this small, fragile, beautiful planet we call home?
If we fail to answer these two questions, and answer them in practice, and not just in theory, then we will have failed our children, our grandchildren, and all of our fellow human beings – not to mention the rest of the living beings we share the planet with.
And if we insist upon obsessing about other, ultimately more trivial matters, then we are either sleep-walking toward our collective suicide, or else, we are sociopathic, or simply mad.
First things first. End wars and empire. Restore or create authentic citizen’s democracy, with freedom and human rights for all. End poverty and injustice. (There is more than enough money and resources to accomplish this – it is simply a matter of will, and resource distribution.) And find ways now to live on this earth without destroying the basis of all life on the planet.
By this time, we really would have to be wilfully ignorant, if not simply self-deluding, to believe that there are other, more pressing issues – or any way around these issues, than to confront them directly.
Time to wake up.
We have run out of time for daydreams and technophilic fantasies. We need to learn how to live in peace and ecological balance on this planet, right now.
The writing is clearly on the wall. We have run out of time for obfuscations, reality-avoidance, or waiting to see what happens. It is time for decisive and clear-minded action.
J. Todd Ring,
October 18, 2013