The death of cosmologist Stephen Hawking earlier this year made me sad on so many levels. A proponent of technological advancement without losing sight of our common humanity, Hawking was the most critical of critical thinkers, constantly questioning our perceptions of the universe and humanity’s place within it.
In the 2017 BBC documentary series “Expedition New Earth,” Professor Hawking gave a dire warning and shocked many by stating that the threats posed by global warming, over-population, epidemics, nuclear weapons, and overdue asteroid strikes made it necessary to establish human colonies on other planets within the next 100 years in order to preserve the human species.
Previously, Hawking had said that humanity had approximately 1000 years left on Earth. The influential scientist had also warned on several occasions that the rise of AI was a potential threat to the survival of humankind.
Peter Holley presented Hawking’s predictions with a much-needed sense of humor in a Washington Post article lamenting the loss of 900 years in which to prepare for planetary evacuation.
The Earth’s carrying capacity
Archaeological evidence tells us that advances in agricultural output allowed modern humans to begin organizing themselves into settlements approximately 10,000 years ago. It took thousands of years–until around 1800–for the world’s total population to reach 1 billion. In a scant 200 years, that population has grown exponentially to reach around 7.5 billion today and growing.
That’s almost 8 billion souls, many of whom aspire to live the stereotypical life of a middle class American family with a spacious house, multiple cars and far too many material possessions.
Can our Earth sustain such excesses? And if not, who gets to tell the vast majority of those in the developing world that the planet can’t survive if they fulfill their aspirations?
Don’t worry, be happy
Even considering our world’s alarming future population estimates, those who deny any human role in the warming of our planet will no doubt say that Professor Hawking, as brilliant as he was (is!), was human and therefore fallible.
Of course no one can accurately predict the long range future of humanity on planet Earth. Right?
And if it’s any consolation, humans would almost assuredly wipe out all other species prior to our own self-annihilation.
Let’s just go about our business as usual and head on down to Walmart and buy more of those cheap Chinese-made plastic bins that will store even more of the unneeded crap we’re hoarding in our houses.
Humanity is the problem
Thinking about the whole business of planetary destruction and human relocation brings back the memory of a time in the early 1990s when I had placed a (very much) ‘tongue in cheek’ bumper sticker on my Suburu wagon that read, “Save the Earth, kill yourself.”
As a nature lover and having witnessed the negative ways in which humanity had already impacted the environment, I found this bit of simple wisdom quite humorous.
It was enlightening at the time to find that some of my own friends had a very different take on this message.
The artist with whom I shared a studio space told me how disappointed he was that I would display such horrifying words for the public to see. He went on to say that he’d thought I was a kind, gentle person, but changed his mind after seeing the bumper sticker.
Sense of humor aside, many of us just aren’t willing to recognize and take responsibility for the damage we’ve collectively done to our global home and to see ourselves as the problem.
While some of our destructive tendencies can be blamed on evolutionary genetics that predispose us to struggle for survival at all costs, much of the actual destruction of the planet is due to human greed and arrogance.
As a species, humans have shown that we aren’t satisfied with simply having access to the necessities of life. We have an ever growing appetite for our planet’s resources that feeds our endless search for fulfillment through personal wealth creation, and the collection of material possessions.
Humans branch out
Some entrepreneurs appear to see such apocalyptic warnings as new business opportunities. They’re betting that an (at least partial) evacuation of planet Earth will be one viable path for the future of humanity.
Futurist and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk is working to put humans on Mars within a few decades and establish ‘a self-sustaining colony’ on the red planet within the next 50-100 years.
Given Hawking’s predictions of a doomsday scenario, who would make the tough decisions involving the select few who would go and the masses who would be left behind on a dying planet?
Obviously the young who possess good health and the right skills to start and sustain new colonies in space would be favored. So too the wealthy who would likely help fund such missions with the caveat that they and their families would be benefit.
Some people would inevitably choose to stay behind with their homes and defend their possessions (yes, that stuff in those plastic bins!)—just like some have done during hurricanes and other natural disasters in the past.
In addition, I suppose all those guns in circulation in the USA would allow a large portion of the American population to be eliminated quickly, especially when food supplies became disrupted or began to run out.
This cinematic version of the end of life on Earth is surely no match for the actual suffering that would occur for decades or even centuries while ecological and environmental conditions deteriorate all across the planet.
We can get glimpses of such devastation by looking at the chaos of the multiple wars currently being fought within Syria or famines caused by climate change in other regions of the world.
No surprises here!
As a kid who grew up during the 1950s and ’60s days of fallout shelters and school drills that taught us how to react to potential Soviet missile strikes on US soil, the fact that humanity will most likely be responsible for its own demise doesn’t come as a complete surprise.
It seems that humanity has been hastening the destruction of our planet, and by extension ourselves, ever since the industrial revolution set us on a path of world-wide resource exploitation and greenhouse gas emissions.
Is the demise of our planet and a frantic search for new worlds to exploit really set in stone? Have we as humans on planet Earth reached the point of no return? Is abandoning our planet the technological solution that will save the human species?
If so, I have to admit that I’m more than a little disappointed. Call me naive, but I somehow thought we as a species would eventually come together to work toward resolving our mutual problems rather than brutally raping the Earth and then moving on to our next victim in the galaxy.
But I suppose human evolution simply occurs too slowly to halt the destructive tendencies of the human species in time for it to save itself.
Having feasted on Star Trek episodes as a kid growing up, I personally find the idea of space travel incredibly exciting, but at the same time, I’m saddened by the notion that humankind would choose a future of chaos and destruction rather than make some fundamental changes that would allow life on planet Earth to sustain itself.
Just as many countries worked together as allies to triumph during past wars and epidemics, much of the world longs for America to rejoin other responsible nations in an effort to solve the environmental crises we’re all facing at the moment.
Will American leadership in Washington, D. C. rise to the challenge or continue to place short-term financial gain over the future of our species?
As I’m sitting by the window writing this, the thunder has begun to rumble as a storm rolls down the mountain slopes toward town and nature once again reminds me who’s really in charge.
We must develop an awareness of the choices we make each day that edge us ever closer to our collective future as a species. Our lives, and those of future generations, depend on it.
Featured Image courtesy of CDMX Lucie Foundation