The great Hawking off-planet debate

Crikey. I know Stephen Hawking is a genius and everything, but I’m not sure whether he foresaw this happening. Of course, it’s more than possible he did, and that’s what I like to think is the case. I’m assuming he wanted to throw a banger in the puchbowl, so to speak.
I refer, of course, to the statements he made at a Hong Kong conference this week:

“It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species,” Hawking said. “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.”

Anyone who reads here regularly will probably be aware that I’m a big flag-waver for the ‘get-the-human-race-off-planet-NOW’ idea, and Hawking mentions some of my reasons for believing this in his statement.

But there are a significant number of people in the science world who have been quite seriously riled by his speech. Here, for example, GrrlScientist states her anger with what she sees as a turning-of-the-back to the Earth that gave us life. (Check for my replies in the comments; I didn’t mean to (as I concur with a lot of her points), but I think they riled her even worse.)

Also from the ScienceBlogs stable, PZ Myers has his say, in a fairly similar vein. He also links to this uber-refutation by Chris Clarke at ‘Creek Running North’. I think it’s safe to say that none of them have quite the same view of the future of mankind as myself. That’s a reaction I’m used to, and frankly, from a scientific perspective, they have me beaten hands down.

But it’s good to see some debate happening about something further away than the next set of elections. So much future planning is hampered by the fact that the average politician (and indeed party) sees little gain in planning beyond the end of their term in office (or opposition). There’s no profit in it, basically. But enough of politics, a subject I little understand, and whose focus of study has all the repellant fascination of a daylight mugging-and-rape. This is why I think Hawking was bang on the money, at least partially:

You see, most of the refutations linked above seem to focus on the idea that Hawking says we should abandon Earth. From what I have read in the original articles, he doesn’t say we should abandon it at all (although there may be more in-depth source material that could prove me wrong, and I shall endeavour to find it). Now, I don’t believe in abandoning the planet either; as I stated in my comments at GrrlScientist’s blog (linked above), I’m a treehugger too; I want to save this beautiful ball of mud, before we wreck it so badly that it’s beyond saving.

But I believe the only way we can do that with any effectiveness is for us all to get off of the planet, and fix it from without. All the time we’re grounded here, we will be tied up in something that is already plainly manifest; a great seething resentful argument over who is to blame for the damage, who should clean it up, and who should foot the bill (the answer being, to all three facets, obviously, all of us).

Furthermore, while that debate rages, the population keeps growing. Population growth is the timebomb that never gets mentioned by anyone, because the only answers to it are the sort of thing that get people very riled up and angry indeed – no one likes being told that they shouldn’t be breeding. Human nature means that will be an almost impossible message to promulgate, despite its necessity. There is only so much space on the Earth, and in that finite space a dwindling set of material resources.

Which all means you can add increasing tensions over dimishing resources to the mix. I fully agree that it would be a great and worthy thing to settle down to fixing the planet up properly and clearing up our mess. But in a situation like this, that is unlikely to happen, requiring as it would the cooperation of the entire globe, all pulling together and singing from the same song-sheet. But no one will be thinking ecologically when they’ve not had a decent meal for three days, and when their government tells them it’s someone else’s fault, they will swallow the lies as sustenance. It’ll be easier than shouldering their own fair and equal share of the blame, and the rage will fend of the hunger for an hour or two – at least until the bombs start dropping.

You see where I’m going with this, I assume. I’ll freely admit that my plan involves a couple of serendipities, the obvious one being a cheap non-rocketry route to orbit, such as the space elevator. But the ‘stay here until it’s fixed‘ plan has the inevitable social pressures to contend with, which are an equally tricky obstacle. There are no easy answers to this problem, which is why it is the debate that will seal the fate of our species. All I can do, as a low-readership nobody with a blog and a head full of science fiction dreams, is pitch my vision.

We start moving people off-planet; into orbitals, Lunar or Martian colonies, asteroid mines, whatever. Open up a new frontier and the poor, the disenfranchised, the entrepreneurs, ideas-men and dreamers will start moving into it. Dreams need space to grow, just like people. The prospect of an escape from global geopolitics alone will be enough to spur a lot of people to take the ride ‘up the beanstalk’ and grab the opportunities that might await them in a new environment.

Once we have space to grow, the population pressure eases; in fact, it should either level out or start to shrink. But it would be a long time before we gave up our love for the planet that made us. Astronauts have often said that seeing the Earth from space is one of the most transcendent and life-changing experiences that they have ever been exposed to; witness the cultural shift that occurred after the Apollo missions to the Moon. I believe that there would be an urge to fix the mess, to heal the damage we have caused. Hawking’s suggestions of finding new planets to colonise is very much the long game. The short game is getting the species out into a vast resource-loaded space where they have the time to think about things in perspective. Life in space, by necessity, encourages frugality and a respect for the minutiae of ecosystems. It is human nature to want to leave behind a legacy; something to be remembered by. A healed Earth would be just such a legacy; like keeping the cradle your mother rocked you in so you could show it to the grandkids.

In short; yes, we must fix the Earth. We owe it to Her, and to ourselves, and to our future selves. But to do so, we must get to a point where we can see the forest without fighting over the trees. Short of a massive population control program, and/or a sudden sea-change in the way politics and capitalism have a stranglehold on the globe, such a perspective can, in my opinion, only occur in one way. We must get off the planet, so we can fix the planet. The future of our species over the next few hundred years (maximum) is dependent on us leaving the embrace of the gravity well, and entering the next phase of our evolution. Earth-man is the chrysalis; space-man is the butterfly that could emerge, if the circumstances are right.

And I long to see it happen in my lifetime.

4 thoughts on “The great Hawking off-planet debate”

  1. The space elevator will probably be constructed as soon as its apparent that its technologicaly viable. The economic and (unfortunately) military advantages of such a facility will simply prove too irresistible for many nations to resist.

    I think Global Warming is very important as well but I don’t understand why some environmentalists seem to have it in for the space program. There seems to be some kind of fixation that dictates “any talk of the future that isn’t about addressing Global Warming is counterproductive”. To me that’s like aspiring to be like a deer with its eyes caught in the headligthts.

  2. We will do it when it is possible. It is the way life will conquer more territory. The overall human pathos is possible, yet not a mandatory.

    Also, to remember KK argument – life is not likely to be destroyed by any catastrophe whatsoever. The human version is.

  3. As nowhere is here, on earth. As you must pay for products you want to use for some days…as money seems to be the first challenging way to make a model of sharing products…open-source or open-minded peolpe will be the best way to make humanity share their knowledge and also their possibilities (all as believes too).
    Jumping out this earth AND abandon it can NOT be a solution to our societies, political and religious diseases.
    But working to make it more welcome and livable are ethical challenges. Weapons are some destructive old way to make human agree with other, but… Also armies are often procedural administrations which don’t forget their objectives, in years… their asks for collaboration to military “things” improvements often good opening to scientists and futur research…
    May just have military/weapons/believes be replaced by positive, utopical objectives (in a dreamlike sense: to become freer humans). This make me feel that humans have to work on spacial objectives, nor only on maintaining environnement a small industrial priority… Overcrowding is relaty, “just after” the end of industrial big products and materials consuming…their with a middle of last capitalism share will be the question last: now what’s more in the process of humanity growing ?
    Space and out colonization is for real a point for some humans (and next more) to create the humanity expansion and “sun-knowledging”.

  4. Hi,

    For me the need to get off-planet is self-evident. However good we get at recycling and conserving our fuels and materials, the fact remains that we are still going to use them up at some point; they are a finite resource. Therefore it seems obvious that we must obtain more resources somehow. I can’t see what argument there can be against that. Maybe I just don’t have enough qualifications.

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