Stephen Hawking, the world renowned physicist, created a bit of stir this past week when he suggested, in effect, that humankind’s only hope is to abandon Earth. He fears, as many do, that we are wrecking our planet so swiftly that unless we begin colonizing other planets with 100 or 200 years, humankind will be on the path to rapid extinction.
Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries the selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.
With large swaths of Russia in flames, major flooding in Asia, and giant icebergs breaking off of Greenland, this is no time to lose focus on planet Earth. With all due respect to Hawking, outer space is not an option. It’s been more than three decades since humans last walked on the moon, and the prospect of humans setting foot on Mars keeps on receding. Before we head to the interplanetary lifeboats, we had better refocus our attention on saving the mother ship.
In the cosmic scale of things, the investments required to save planet Earth are not large. If we can just set aside the equivalent of what we spend on beer every year (about $300 billion) for things that might actually save the planet–like family planning, child nutrition, re-forestation, energy conservation, and renewable energy–we would have a fighting chance. Spending another$3-4 billion a year on international family planning assistance, alone, would make a world of difference, but Congress has yet to act on the mere $67 million increase requested by the President for next year.
Reducing carbon emissions will not be easy, but it need not be terribly costly. The proceeds from a stiff carbon tax could be rebated to taxpayers by a cut in payroll taxes, holding consumers largely harmless, but Congress this year refused to nibble on a far less ambitious cap-and-trade proposal. So climate change legislation is dead, even though the deleterious effects of climate change are becoming all too real.
If Congress is concerned about the fate of the planet, it’s not evident. Maybe members of Congress think, like Hawking, that we can all book a seat on the first flight to Alpha Centauri. But with nearly 7 billion humans on the planet, most of us will have to stay home and make do with the mess that we are creating.
Dimitar Sasselov, a top-ranking astronomer, recently announced that the Kepler Telescope, launched last year by NASA, has so far detected 150 Earth-sized planets, and that there may be 100 million Earth-like planets in our galaxy. If there’s intelligent life out there, let’s hope that it exhibits more intelligence than we do.
Posted by Robert J. Walker, Executive Vice President