So, let us proceed on the assumption that, if we continue on the current path, we will kill every living thing on this planet. No life forms of any sort. No mollusks, no microbes, no bears or tigers, oh my!
Given that assumption, or even its possibility, I maintain that the entire question of what space exploration is, or ought to be, takes on an entirely different light.
When I first approached the Mars Society by hosting a section held at their annual convention in 2006 on the future of the space program, I expected an overwhelming level of support. The advantages of viewing the space program as a source of solutions to the environmental problems readily evident even then seemed obvious. The lack of support space programs were getting from Congress had long been a problem. But, although enthusiastically embraced by many of the Society’s rank and file, the Society’s president, Robert Zubrin, was outspokenly against any mention of climate change in the context of the Society’s goal of exploring Mars.
I’ve tried, since then, to make some sense of how adamantly he was opposed. It really made no sense to me. At first I was so struck by how he used his absolute power over the organization to cut me and my message off that I was literally stunned into submission. I had run for the steering committee at the first opportunity after the presentation in 2006. I was elected. The installment was to take place at the convention in 2007 at Los Angeles.
Now, the organization was Zubrin’s. He had started it following the publication of his book, The Case for Mars, which contained a vision of how to go to Mars and support a presence there with return to Earth at the following launch window from Mars. While the first crew was on Mars, they would use Martian regolith to make fuel for the return flight to Earth. Or maybe that fuel would be made by robots during the preliminary mission, I have such a bitter taste around the entire incident that I have no inclination to research it now. The dates may even be wrong. Who knows? What happened at the installation was really clear, though. Zubrin chose to negate the election altogether and stop the installation before it happened.
In retrospect I thought his reaction may have stemmed from financial interest. The society was organized as a promotion instrument for his version of how to do the job of establishing a human presence on Mars. There was potentially some big money awaiting him if that dream were to be realized. Perhaps he just didn’t see how my Vision fit into his. Recently, it has occurred to me he may simply be a climate denier. That would explain so much. It doesn’t fit with his general role as a scientist, though.
Anyway, I am, needless to say, disillusioned with the Mars Society. It has even rubbed off a bit on other Mars interest groups. As a consequence, I know little about other Mars advocacy groups, such as the Mars One group. As a base assumption, though, the idea of a one way mission sounds solid to me.
At any rate, if climate change is real, which it is, and if the original investigators were honest scientists, which they were, then the run away effect may be much more of a factor than it is currently credited with. In other words, this planet conceivably could become uninhabitable. Uninhabitable.That does not mean “uninhabitable to mankind.” it means “uninhabitable.”
In many ways this is not so surprising. In the final analysis, it seems much more likely than the former interpretation. Humanity’s ability to adapt is so great that we routinely make the assumption that we can survive without other life forms around us, such as on the Enterprise, the star ship of Star Trek fame. Of course, the bridge crew of the Enterprise included regulars, like Spock and Warf, who were aliens, but as humanoids, they hardly are counterexamples. At any rate, in real life,it is actually much easier to envision scenarios in which a planet is deprived of air, liquid water, or an appropriate ambient temperature for any life at all, than it is to image conditions which would make that planet uninhabitable to as clever a species as is humanity without making it uninhabitable to all life. Venus and Mars may even be examples in our realm of influence of planets where we can see evidence that movement from habitability to un-inhabitability has occurred.
So, bottom line is that we would do well to view the threat that comes with climate change as a threat to habitability on this planet by anything. The first reaction most people have to the scope of this idea is to recoil, “Mankind is not so powerful” is our gut reaction. I totally agree that we could never pull such a feat off on purpose. (Nor would we ever want to.) But that we may not be pulling it off by accident seems far less obvious to me. In fact, the evidence that we are seems to be rather depressing to me.
First of all, let’s acknowledge that what the scientific community has been telling us since 1950 is not a figment of their imagination. The burning of fossil fuels is about to bite us in the ass through the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is not a transient problem. Carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for at least hundreds of years, and, perhaps in excess of a millennium. All that time we can expect the ambient temperature to be forced higher and higher. At the very least, we should expect humans will either cease to exist or geo-engineering will become one of our main activities. If the former, the problem of climate change will not be solved by our absence. The longevity of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will see to that.
If the latter, then mankind will find itself in what will likely be a losing battle trying to stay ahead of the un-inhabitability that accompanies global warming. You will recall, I hope, that geo-engineering is any technique which changes the global environment to a more life-friendly environment than it is otherwise. It is, essentially, the same as terraforming Earth so it does not become un-terraformed.
Interventions such as sun screens are the most likely method. Unexpected consequences are likely to include a loss of anything resembling a blue sky. “No big loss,” you might say–in fact many will say–but this will only be the least of it.
I have no direct insight into details of the future, but it seems to me reasonable to expect the outlook on somewhere other than this planet to call our home will be very different under those circumstances than it is today. Mars will be regarded at that moment as a potential target for survival, not as a scientifically interesting place to be studied until we can no longer study anything.
The only way Mars can be seen as a home for humankind is if we terraform it.There are virtually, if not literally, no schemes for terraforming Mars that do not assume the use of plants in the process. While there are many ways one could argue for intermediate steps as goals worthy of independent support, I prefer the simple argument that saving some life from this planet, whether humans make it off or not, is enough said. Those who think the planet would be better off without humans, and there are any in this camp, are just wishing it would be possible to make the Earth be as it would have been had we never evolved. That is simply impossible.
What is equally impossible, though, is the thought that humanity might make an effort to get evolution started again without a hope that humanity would be included in the reboot. The idea that a meteor might restart the whole process is both absurd because of the minimalistic chance of its happening, and irrelevant because of humanity not being involved at all. The whole idea, for some of us, is that we might take action largely because we have a moral imperative to do so. (Now I have to admit to being far beyond any ground on which I feel secure in standing.)