Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.
It is beyond remarkable to witness human ingenuity at work in real time across vast stretches of outer space. From NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory nestled in the foothills of southern California’s San Gabriel mountains, technologists this week guided a near-perfect landing of the Perseverance rover that traveled 292 million miles from home to poke around for microbial signs of life, past or potential, on Mars.
The exploration of Mars would seem to pit the visionaries bent on escaping the troubles of our small orbiting sphere with those limitarians whose realism recognizes that there is no Planet B. But, as Claire Webb points out in Noema, these are two sides of the same coin.
Seeking out worlds beyond our own, she reflects, has never been just a matter of the curious seized by wonder, but often as not linked to “fears of terrestrial apocalypse.” It is not lost on Webb that any hopes of the present mission discovering lifeforms on the red planet coincide with intensifying climate change and a plague sweeping across human civilization. “Anticipations of worlds beyond Earth — places that might be (or might be made to be) habitable — are made possible by conceiving of Earth as both threatened and interconnected,” she writes.
Webb pans Space X’s Elon Musk for what she regards as his narrow escapist mission just as we are grasping that the self-regulating Earth system is one connected tissue that demands collective care to survive. “Musk’s SpaceX has reshuffled the hierarchies and priorities space exploration: individualism over nationalism, money power over patriotism, the adventure or even salvation of the few over the many,” she blasts.
Though there may be some truth in this indictment, there is far more to it.
Musk is not only one of the world’s leading innovators of non-fossil fuel transportation, but his vision of a “multi-planetary civilization” is also far broader than she gives credit.
I once spoke to the irascible inventor about his drive to colonize Mars. His motivation, he told me, is the “preservation of consciousness and human civilization as we know it up to this point. From an evolutionary standpoint, human consciousness has not been around very long. A little light just went on after four and a half billion years. How often does that happen? Maybe it is quite rare. In fact, it would appear to be quite rare. Or, others out there with a consciousness are very good at hiding. If it is such a rare thing, then we should do whatever we can to ensure its long-term survival.”
Vaclav Smil, famous for being Bill Gates’ so-called guru, is among the most prominent limitarians who look to the Earth instead of the heavens for salvation. “Managing the biosphere,” he says in an interview with Noema this week, “is the main issue, because it’s the only biosphere we’ve got. We are not going to colonize Mars, despite Elon Musk’s enthusiasm. Let’s be clear about that. I remember he said he wanted to send a manned mission there by 2024. He wants to launch massive spaceships to migrate to Mars. I mean, hell, this is beyond ridiculous. It’s totally laughable. This is the only biosphere we have, and we have to take care of it here and now.”
By Smil’s reckoning, “our biosphere is fragile but, fortunately, it is also resilient.” The Anthropocene has surely inflicted severe damage on the planet, but it is also capable of regeneration if we only help it along, above all, by curbing the waste of gross overconsumption that is pumping so much carbon into the biosphere that it risks reaching the point of no repair or return. For Smil, there is neither a fantasized escape from the fateful path we’ve set ourselves upon nor one silver bullet that will enable us to reverse course. He sees only realistic adaptation.
That’s “the nature of the beast in complex systems,” he says. “If you attack a single problem, it will impact, say, 6% or 7% of what ails the biosphere. There is no single energy consumption area or environmental issue where, if you fix its problems, 40% of the emissions will vanish. What we have are lots of small keys to get rid of 3% a year here, 6% there and so on. To assemble such an array of responses requires much more attention, much more consistency and much longer periods of devotion to the problem.” In other words, perseverance. As Smil puts it, we need to be “simplifying maximalists” with a diverse arsenal of practical remedies instead of imagining one doctrinaire solution as “complexifying minimalists.”
In the end, as far forward as we can see, perseverance at home, not seeking escape elsewhere in a largely unknown universe, is the more urgent and realist path to the preservation of human consciousness in the only habitable biosphere we know. If we are capable of precisely charting a spaceship’s trajectory across hundreds of millions of miles in space to test the hopes of a distant future, ought we not also be capable of summoning a whole Earth discipline here and now? Since the jury is still out on that prospect, one can hardly fault the Elon Musks of this world for hedging their bets.