Our ship is sinking
Most of us recognize this now. So what’s the correct course of action? Head straight for the lifeboats, of course. Isn’t that what sailors have always done?
Absolutely not. The first thing you do is try to fix the leak. This may not be possible if it’s a catastrophic breech, or your ship is made of metal and can’t be patched. But wooden ships always carried a hold full of lumber so they could make repairs at sea. You worked to plug the hole until all hope was gone.
Building rafts was the last thing you did, because abandoning ship was the last resort.
‘The Last Resort’ is an apt phrase. It’s the name of the Don Henley song that Bill Maher evoked on Real Time on 21 April 2017 to remind us that we have a planet here worth saving, and it’s not sunk yet.
He’s right. Earth hasn’t yet suffered a catastrophic breech. We’ve got the money and the ability to reverse global warming and step back on our big box pollution, which includes such crazy schemes as reinvigorating the coal industry.
What we shouldn’t be doing, according to Maher, is squandering the money and the time on the idea that we can give up on our own world and go colonize Mars. To extend my analogy, that’s like thinking we can heave off on our rafts for that barren, lifeless rock on the far horizon.
“This is a dangerous idea,” Maher said, that “we can keep on trashing Earth, because we’ve got Mars.”
No, we haven’t got Mars. And again, Maher is right to call foul on the mentality that thinks we have.
Regardless of what all those SF movies have led us to believe, we’re nowhere near viable off-Earth colonies. We’re not even building wheels in low Earth orbit. We’re bolting together modules from rockets we blast up at great cost. The cosmic future we dream of is still unforeseeably far ahead. 2001 is out of our reach, let alone Star Wars.
When we go to Mars, it will be a precarious mission. It may well fail. We’re not even sure astronauts could survive the 500-day trip psychologically, let alone physically. But man thrives on challenge, and we’ve achieved other voyages every bit as tenuous.
The chances of creating a self-sufficient colony on Mars with our current technology, though, are zero. It will certainly require new materials and new fuels to get us there. (Coal’s not going to cut it.) There’s no predicting when we’ll have those. A hundred years? Two hundred?
Honestly, do we really have a hundred years left on Earth? It’s one of those heartbreaking balancing acts. Will we achieve this unknown future before we’ve exhausted our own planet? We’re going to have to save Earth first, just to give us the time to get ourselves out into space.
I’m not talking about scientific missions. We should definitely do those. And we definitely should not cut NASA’s funding. But colonies? Should we be thinking about them?
Living on Mars is going to be tough. The cosmic radiation alone will kill us. It is never likely to be a place we can survive on outside of protective containers. Terraforming, if it’s possible at all, will take an immensely long time, and require a huge amount of raw materials. Even then it may not deal with the radiation or Mars’s harsh temperature swings.
So if we’re going to be confined within our protective containers, what’s special about Mars? Sure, it’s got abundant water, which the Moon doesn’t have. But Earth does. We could build our protective containers on a polluted, fucked-up Earth and we’d still have access to all the useful things of this world, such as minerals. If that’s our fate anyway, shouldn’t we be doing it here?
That mindset — should we be doing it here? — at least gives us the impetus to try to figure out ways to save this planet while we can.
“You want to explore something cold and hard?” Maher said. “How about the facts?”
For someone who loves science fiction, and who understands the necessity of spreading our eggs in every basket we can find (as I explained in the post A Space War Is Fine By Me a couple years back), these facts are indeed cold and hard.
Mars is a “stupid fantasy,” as Maher put it. Worse still, it’s a fantasy that creates the mindset that Earth is already lost. Even the staunchest climate change denier seems to believe this. While slashing the EPA budget on one hand, Donald Trump declared he wants a manned mission to Mars by 2033.
As unsavory as Trump, who almost certainly simply wants his name on the side of a rocket, are the calls by rich industrialists and entrepreneurs to do the same.
Should we really care what Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Richard Branson think, to list the names Maher fingered? Musk agrees that we’ve got to scatter our species onto other planets. But if you watched the SF drama series Incorporated last year, you’ll know how bitterly ironic it is that the entrepreneurs that caused the problems are the ones now claiming to have the answers.
Big corporations are unlikely to be our savior, since up until now they’ve been exactly the opposite.
There’s another problem. A colony on Mars might accommodate up to a hundred people in the near future. Musk talks seriously about putting a million people on Mars — yeah, right! There’s no way that Mars could possibly re-house all seven and a half billion people currently residing here on Earth, a figure that is increasing daily. So all the rest of us can choke to death, right? Oh, the humanity.
You may be excited by the prospect of going to Mars. You might feel yourself lucky. But if you’ve never won your state lottery, do you really think you’re going to be a winner when the odds are 7,499,999,900 to one?
Naturally, if you’re a rich western industrialist your chances just improved considerably. No wonder, then, that Bezos, Musk and Branson are all up for it.
Bill Maher’s argument was impassioned and forceful, and I think he was absolutely right. However, it isn’t the entire story, and I’m sure Maher knows this. He simply didn’t have time to deal with all the issues and still tell enough ass jokes to keep his audience on team.
John Oliver might have handled the complexities of the argument better, but it’s not the kind of story he would run on Last Week Tonight.
There are other reasons why we might want to explore Mars and other potential homes in space. Earth is vulnerable. Asteroid strikes, solar flares, volcanic activity, avian flu, toxic algae, genetically modified crops with unforeseen consequences, pathological liars with their finger on the nuclear button — just about every possible apocalypse save a zombie invasion may lie in our future, and not a thousand years away but tomorrow. We shouldn’t disregard all those SF warnings just because they’re so familiar. The sooner we’ve spread our genes around surrounding space the better.
Earth itself would probably survive, but we haven’t left it in a very good condition for whatever comes after us. Frankly, it has to be us or nothing.
We do need to get out of here. And again, as I mentioned in A Space War Is Fine By Me, it’s government money that will achieve the diaspora. But those are all theoretical disasters. There’s a real disaster happening right now, and we should be doing everything we can to avert it.
A space war is still fine by me. But the manned exploration of Mars is a great and significant undertaking. It would be best if it were conducted not because we want to beat our enemies — in other words, go there as cheap as we can, plant our flag in the soil, and never go back — but because we have a sustained need to expand our human reach.
Personally, I’m happy for China to take the lead on this. Perhaps it’s fitting that the red flag flies on the red planet. And it will certainly stop Bezos, Musk, Branson and Trump puffing themselves up in their luxury golf resorts and private islands as the visionaries and saviors of mankind.
It may have achieved fantastic things in space, but today’s America cannot be trusted with a long-term, stable policy of space exploration. Perhaps China, with its more measured political system (whatever else you think about it), will do better. It is China, after all, that is taking global warming seriously. Our greatest threat to climate reversal may be what America decides to do about the “Chinese menace” on its way down.
China has children too. I guess they care about them a lot more than the rest of us do.