The existential threat to all of us
"In the coming days, the world has the chance to join in the shared objective of creating a safer, stable future for our people and for the planet on which we depend.”
Queen Elizabeth II, opening address to world leaders, COP26 (1926- )
“We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
Native American Proverb
Given a choice, to what major government initiative would you like your hard-earned taxes committed? Driverless cars? Less poverty in the poorest countries? Increased budget for the World Health Organization to tackle the next outbreak of Ebola, flu, or a SARS-type infection? Better, but not more, TV channels? Business ethics training for up and coming captains of industry, especially bankers? Research into the best way to educate kids? For that matter, more investment in children’s first 2,000 days? Larger pensions for those who’ve contributed most to society? The next innovations in smart phones? Higher quality food in OECD countries? Drugs for Alzheimer’s? An even larger, faster, Large Hadron Collider? Peace studies? Faster Internet speeds? More leisure facilities for the ageing population?
The list, of course, is virtually endless. That’s the point I’m making.
But what if none of these is actually the most burning issue? Even those about less poverty, better health care for us all, or more money for your kids’ early development.
As far as we know, humans are the only sentient beings in the Universe. In fact, this pale blue dot, the planet that we call home, is the only haven for life thus far found. We, top-dogs in the planet’s pecking order, became the most powerful species, our know-how the most advanced, of the other primates who could have made it big—such as the Australopithecines, Neanderthals, or Homo floresiensis.
This singular supremacy brings with it enormous responsibilities. Consider the very real possibility (and it’s the only conclusion we can reach until it’s proven otherwise) that we are the sole designers, in possession of the only repository of technological and scientific developments anywhere, not just in this Galaxy, but all of them. It may even be that the scientific knowledge stemming from Homo sapiens, based on our unique skills, brain power and self-awareness, is not only all there is, but all there ever will be across the Universe.
If so, the existential stakes are much higher than we have allowed ourselves to believe. Perhaps we need to take the risks of the current course of human history a little more seriously?
The pre-eminence we have given to economic development, and the environmental consequences of this, have not been balanced. Humans are uber-consumers. There has been a headlong rush for more, more and more. The continued sustainability of the Earth and its resources isn’t just taking the back seat in our journey to the future—it may be that it’s missed the trip altogether.
The whole complex system that we’ve engineered—the one we call modern society—militates against us addressing this situation effectively. In today’s fractured political landscape, politicians like to attack the other side often regardless of the benefit of the common good, or to give out good news not bad to their constituents, and most are interested in little beyond their own re-election. Promoting economic growth now, and the immediate jobs that come with it, has proven to be a winning political strategy. Civil servants, once a trusted source of neutral, balanced, professional advice, are cowed, and forced to bend with the winds of political expediency. Business leaders, even those with a preference for building for the long term, are forced by the relentless investment markets to maximize their quarterly profits. Countries want to increase their GDP, both relative to other countries and in absolute terms. And let’s face it, all 7.8 billion of us want a good life, and financial security for ourselves and our family.
It’s not one particular group’s fault, but short-termism and individual interests appear to be the global paradigm across all of these political, economic, business and societal interests. It’s hard to see how we can arrest the rampant material acquisitiveness.
Notwithstanding this, we do have the know-how to balance our collective greed with a real regard for the planet’s carrying capacity. Yet either purposefully or by not thinking about it sufficiently hard, we have immeasurably altered, and are continuing to wreak havoc over, our physical world. It’s only because of our lush and receptive planet that we exist at all—we’re fortunate enough to be in the just-right habitable zone—yet we are terraforming and extracting the life out of it.
It’s deeply, patently obvious that what we are doing is not always for the better. Despite our capacity to do otherwise, we are creating a sicker planet much faster than we are healing that sickness. The assault on the Amazon is merely one sobering reminder of the madness. Remember the 1989 Exxon Valdese crude oil spill, the 1984 Bhopal gas tragedy, the 2010 Deep Water Horizon oil blowout, the 2018 wildfires in Attica, Greece, catastrophic flooding in Europe in 2021, the 1986 nuclear disaster that was Chernobyl, its 1979 predecessor at Three Mile Island, and its successor in 2011 at Fukushima? What about fracking, burning fossil fuels, exploring for minerals in the until-now pristine Arctic and Antarctic, and the seemingly relentless smog over Chinese cities?
As all of this serves to remind us, an apocalyptic end to our planet is increasingly more likely. Catastrophe, either human-made or natural, could strike at any time, denying us any sort of legacy, and perhaps (this is even harder to keep in mind for any length of time) leaving the Universe unpopulated for eternity. While it’s possible that we could develop strategies to avert an impending natural catastrophe—such as a super volcano eruption, a mega-tsunami, an unexpected plague or virus, a massive earthquake, or a meteor-strike—we’re far more likely to try to concentrate efforts to mitigate after the event. Of all the trillions of dollars of wealth created in the world, only a very small proportion is spent predicting and designing preventive measures against natural disasters. Yet it’s 100% guaranteed they are going to happen: it’s when, not if.
Human-induced catastrophes—nuclear fallout, war, industrial pollution, and climate change—are a different matter. It’s our responsibility, and well within our means, to reduce their risk. The possibility of accelerating, even runaway anthropogenic climate change is increasingly inevitable. Our relative inaction over the quarter of a century that the scientific case has been firmly established means that we are already too late to arrest its progress entirely.
If we balanced economic progress with real action to reduce emissions we might make a difference. But forget those who argue that time may be running out. It already has. Downstream from here, we can see an increasing of the effects from the Earth’s warming.
Many predicted changes have already begun: don’t let politicians’ soothing words lull you, we’re on track for 2⁰C warming. Already we’re experiencing substantially altered weather patterns, rising seas, retreating glaciers, dying species, oceans under stress. Despite all this, we haven’t yet managed to agree on a plan, prompting commentators like David Roberts to predict that if we don’t immediately begin a concerted, aggressive campaign, “the brutal logic of climate change” will place our civilization in dire peril. The United Nations-hosted COP 26 Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland is that important. It’s been described as the last roll of the dice for world agreement.
Let’s get back to basics. There’s us, and the Universe. That much is hard to refute.
Religions say God made both. That’s why it’s all going to be fine for some—there might be problems in the world, but God will look after us. Never mind the tortuous logic whereby God seems to say that he will only deliver the chosen ones, the believers of that particular religion. According to most faiths, (or the interpretation humans place on their sacred texts), God has put us in charge, and given us dominion over the Earth to do as we will. And naturally, with a higher being in control, all will be okay in the end.
Science says the laws of the Universe offer better guidance for us. These laws are so right that even the most miniscule past deviation would have precluded our existence. In Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe, Martin Rees writes about the way the parameters for phenomena like the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force, define us: the most infinitesimal changes would render carbon, hydrogen, stars, us—the entire Universe as currently configured—null. And void.
So is the Universe there for us? Are we are somehow expected by it? A simple but somewhat paradoxical answer is provided by the anthropic principle: we can see the Universe because its characteristics are compatible with a life that can observe it. The Universe is structured—finely tuned—such that intelligent observers, us, have evolved and we can discuss, analyze, and to the extent we can, understand the Universe that hosts us.
If you believe the science of physics and chemistry, then it’s clear that there’s not much room for relying on God to save us, no matter how fervently people believe. Cosmology tells us we are on the only planet we know that has demonstrated it can sustain life, and we represent the only life form known to have reached consciousness and created a scientifically-based technology in the Universe. We have reached a pinnacle, such that we can solve the very problems we ourselves have created.
Yet we blithely continue to poison, perhaps even destroy, the planet that gave us the opportunity.
As the only known inhabitants of the Universe, it’s impossible to argue against our responsibility to preserve the Earth rather than hastening its destruction. It’s also hard to argue against the increasingly pressing need to begin exploring beyond our planet, seeking out other worlds, perhaps even colonizing them: the Universe really does beckon.
This idea, so beloved of sci-fi writers (and more recently Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk), is the only other strategy at our disposal to secure our continued existence. If our civilization, our species, is at such risk, then reaching for the stars, settling the rest of the Universe, becomes vital. But tackling climate change must come first, and concertedly. First, secure the species. Then, mobilize beyond Earth.
We may be the custodians of life and civilization for everything technological that has been invented by conscious beings since the Big Bang, and if we are life’s only experiment of its kind, we are rolling the dice on the biggest bet of all time. There’s no less than everything at stake, then.
So what would you choose to invest in? If we are as cosmically important as this logic suggests, for my money there are really only two big initiatives worth pursuing with all our efforts, and both are utterly existential.
We need to really get to work urgently and collaboratively to combat climate change. Not by posturing, grandstanding, greenwashing and politicizing, but actually doing the real work and making the real investments. If ordinary people need to engage in civil disobedience after Glasgow to force the hand of tardy, wishy-washy Governments, so be it.
And we need to deploy our ingenuity to the challenge of space travel. Not just to satisfy the occasional billionaires’ ego projects.
It’s time to write the next chapter of Earth, and humanity’s history; and time to write the first pages of the history of the Universe. Driverless cars, better food in OECD countries, next generation smart phones or even peace studies? Of course they are important. But they are not the most important.
The reasoning is inescapable. We have to guarantee our future on this planet and learn to reach for the exoplanets. Otherwise, one way or the other, it’s the end.
Rees, Martin (2000). Just Six Numbers: The Deep Forces That Shape the Universe. New York: Basic Books
Roberts, David (2015). The awful truth about climate change that no one wants to admit. Vox. May 15. http://www.vox.com/2015/5/15/8612113/truth-climate-change
Slezak, Michael (2015). The human universe: was the cosmos made for us? New Scientist 3019; April 30: 32.