In an upcoming BBC documentary called Expedition New Earth, Stephen Hawking, the famous theoretical physicist, offers the dire prediction that humanity has less than 1000 years left on the planet, and we need to have functional space colonies within the next 100 years in order to avoid extinction as a species.
The Earth is very likely to be uninhabitable in the next 1000 years, according to Hawking. Climate change, pollution, pandemic disease, nuclear war, asteroid collision, each of these threats contribute their own individual level of risk, but their cumulative threat makes our extinction a “near certainty.” Unless we become a multi-planetary species, that is. By spreading the human seed to other planets, we can help ensure the continued existence of our species even after the Earth has become an uninhabitable cesspool, a toxic viral wasteland, or a lifeless rock. But we need to get cracking soon!
There are so many things wrong with this thought-form that I literally don’t know where to begin.
Let me start with asking “Who the fuck is Stephen Hawking?” Seriously, he’s a mathematician, not an expert in space colonization—nor a psychic, for that matter. OK, granted he is a really smart guy who has thought about this stuff a lot; and I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt here and take his prognostications at face value. But perhaps we should take a closer look at some of the orthodoxies and assumptions that his ideas rest upon.
At the most basic level, space colonization is just a modern expression of the nineteenth century US expansionist doctrine of manifest destiny. There is a powerful sense of inevitability being expressed here, as if civilization is an unstoppable natural phenomenon that is built into our species’ design, rather than a historical artifact. Let’s be clear, Western civilization emerged from historical circumstance, not from our DNA. This sense of inevitability, however, is not entirely without merit. Western civilization is a very finely tuned colonizing machine. But it is a machine without an off switch, and there is very little on Earth left to colonize. So it appears that we have only two options: we can let it run idle until its land-devouring gears eventually grind themselves up from the inside, or we can unleash it on extraterrestrial targets.
A more subtle feature of the space-invader thought-form is that it is constructed around a conceptual abstraction. There really is no “humanity” that must be preserved. There is no humanity, there are only humans. And the idea of a “human species” is a fuzzy and somewhat arbitrary categorical distinction—“species” is a useful fiction. The human animal, as a biological entity, is continuous with all other living entities. And we are, all of us, of the Earth. This Earth.
Philosophical and taxonomic considerations aside, and on a more practical level, if we have the technological savvy to colonize other planets, why don’t we fix things here? Seriously, we already have all of the tools and knowledge that we need to ameliorate—perhaps even prevent—many of the risks Hawking cites. If we are smart enough to colonize Mars, then surely we are smart enough to reverse the industrial accumulation of atmospheric carbon on Earth; surely we are smart enough to reduce the human population to something below carrying capacity (over time and without killing a single person now alive). And, frankly, the population problem is the only real problem. It is the source of all of our other major problems. Climate change would never have occurred if the global human population remained in the millions; pandemic disease emerges with population density; and the risk of war is an inverse function of resource availability.
This relates to another feature of the space-invader thought-form, one that for some reason bothers me more than the others. Take a close look at what civilization has done to this planet, take a close look at the horrors it has brought to other people and other creatures, and take a close look at the massive despoilment of the biosphere and of the Earth’s natural geologic features. Take a close look, and then ask yourself “Why would we wish the horrors of civilization upon another world?” Why would anyone want to export death and despoilment? If there are other intelligent, technologically “advanced” societies out there, it is surely in their best interests to obliterate us the moment we stick our nose off-planet, just as a matter of their own self-preservation.
And, finally, at the very most fundamental level lurks an unquestionable, yet, ultimately unsupportable, presumption: that the human species needs to continue into the future. Why? Why does it matter whether the distant future is inhabited by our progeny? It makes no difference to anyone alive at this moment if every human on the planet disappears two hundred years from now. Our lives will be as rich and full and complete (or not) regardless of the future of the species (or lack thereof).
It turns out that psychology has a pretty good explanation for the “humans must persevere” orthodoxy, something called terror management theory, for those interested in further pursuing this particular belief’s psychological underpinnings.