In my kitchen hanging above the counter there are six rows of three wine glasses. My wife, who is much less bothered by lack of symmetry and such than I, often lets some of the eighteen wine glasses stand dirty on the counter until they become intrusive to its use. I am forbidden from washing them on account of my unfortunate tendency toward breakage. In addition, when I do violate the prohibition, their gleaming resplendence hanging upside down above the counter is often blemished by lack of gleam.
This morning I noticed that, by moving just four glasses, symmetry could be reestablished to the total display, which was decidedly out of symmetry and particularly disturbing to my ordered, mathematically inclined, mind.
Then I noticed that by moving four other glasses I could reorganize them in a different way that also reestablished the symmetry of the group. Immediately questions–such as whether looking at subsets whose movement could produce symmetry would yield a useful structure–came to mind.
It is just this way of thinking that distinguishes mathematicians, and others of a scientific bent, from the rest of the world, although many who relate to it would never regard themselves as members of those groups.
Why do I bring this up?
Probably because it reminds me of a point I’ve been trying to make lately, without much success. Some time ago I realized that most of the failure in soliciting appropriate response from the general public to the dangers of climate change and other environmental problems can be traced to exactly one problem: the general public does not take the warnings seriously.
Why not? Because the scientists who make the predictions seem sure of their ability to deal with the problems, assuming appropriate response from the general public–which is not forthcoming.
You see the circular cause and effect here, I hope.
To be believed in the scientific community, the warnings must address the true consequences of the current course of society. But not to be dismissed as alarmist in the general public, the scientist must find hope in his/her predictions. Without hope, there will be no publisher. Societal demands make it impossible–or at least very hard–for a scientist to do his/her job. Before issuing warnings one has to find solutions.
But that is not how it works. The natural consequences of all the dire predictions of scientists everywhere stand alone. But the solutions have no stamina without the general public’s enthusiastic support. That is, and looks to remain, lacking.
As it stands now, even the most realistic of scientists run the risk of professional ostracism when they speak of geo-engineering as a potential solution to environmental crises. That is, putting solar blocking agents into space, iron shavings into the oceans, and/or some other means of altering Earth’s global environment intentionally.
As soon as geo-engineering deprives us of a blue sky, or dulls splendid sunsets to listless memories of bygone days, or makes a dip in the sea feel like a baking soda bath, all bets are off. But it will be too late to go back then. Almost everyone in the scientific community sees geo-engineering as fraught with unprecedented danger and offering only stopgap solutions anyway.
The public may be convinced to by-into geo-engineering, but probably not so much with scientists. Yet there may be a potential solution both society and the scientific community can agree to be practical: terraforming another body in the solar system, probably Mars.
Return for a moment to the wine glasses. At first I only saw the movement of the four glasses as a solution and casually thought it probably unique. But when I looked for other solutions I began to realize there must be many, of which I had only seen one at first. From there came the motivation to find an organizing principle.
I do not really like the idea of terraforming Mars as a solution to our current environmental problems here on Earth. The new planet would have none of the uniquely wonderful features of home. Too few of Us (Capital letter) would be able to survive. Too few of us (small letter), if any (totally unsatisfactory), would be able to survive. The population on Mars, even if humans were able to make the transition, would be so small we’d essentially have to start over technologically. Terraforming Mars demands too much time.
As a solution, terraforming Mars sucks, excepting only in its being within the range of current societal acceptance. Like it or not, most people seem to believe in terraforming’s eventual inevitability, if we just survive here on Earth long enough. Our survival is usually subconsciously assumed. One can argue this point, which I, of course, would love to do, but the general acceptance of this position makes the solution more palatable to most people than it would otherwise be.
The rub comes forth in the length of time terraforming is apt to take. There are lower estimates if you focus less on terraforming to the extent of making the target venue hospitable to human beings, but for the gold standard of making the target truly friendly to us, terraforming Mars would require a substantial number of centuries. To shoot for less than human survivability has the negative potential of garnering less enthusiasm, and diminishes the likelihood of what support you do get lasting long enough to achieve even the reduced goal of securing a beachhead for Earth-based life on another planet.
The only real good news comes in the fact that realizing terraforming another planet was even being considered might jar people into acknowledging how close to the edge we have strayed. There is another optimistic outlook, of less well known potential. That is the possibility of a solution other than terraforming arising once we really begin to consider it as a cure for our environmental problems. Without a realization of this magnitude, though, I fear the general public may not get just how serious the environmental crisis really is–until it is too late to do anything about it.