The Dangers of Being a Single-Planet Species

The NASA-funded study released this week talking about the end of civilization (that they are now distancing themselves from) reminded me of one of my favorite soapboxes, which I have somehow been remiss in discussing on this blog to date: the fact that we are a single-planet species.  All our eggs are in one basket.  If anything major happens on Earth that makes us humans go the way of the dinosaurs, well… we go the way of the dinosaurs.

We’re pretty smart creatures.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  If we put some resources into traveling to other planets and establishing colonies in places that might survive certain planet-killing events – such as Mars, the moon, or even perhaps the bottom of the ocean – a few humans might survive catastrophe.  But we have to have the will to put our smarts and our money into something like that.  It would be a huge challenge to overcome, especially if we want to get those colonies to a place where they could, should something awful happen to our home planet, be self-sufficient.

The human race is one super-volcano, major asteroid/asteroid/comet strike, huge tectonic event, nuclear war, or super-plague away from extinction.  This isn’t just the stuff of sci-fi.  We’ve had the asteroid thing happen before, and the others have probabilities high enough above zero to make me uncomfortable.  Our planet and its ecosystem are delicate little things in a big, scary universe.  I may not always be much of a people person, but I certainly don’t want all people to disappear forever.  So the thought of something ending the human race shakes me up a bit, to say the least.

Whole lot more where these came from – and a lot of them could eventually head our way!  Artist’s rendering from NASA/JPL-Caltech at http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/spitzer/spitzer-20061010-full.jpg

Knowing all these awful things that can happen, the next thing to figure out is: what can we do about it?  We can do the same thing we always do to mitigate risk – we build in controls and redundancy.  Backup systems, if you will.  Only in this case, we need backup locations.  We need to get enough people off the planet and in other places that no matter what happens back home on Earth, humans will go on exploring and creating and procreating.  A lunar colony, a massive space station, huge colony ships, a Mars colony.  Frankly, I think we need all of the above.  Just to make sure we’re covered.  We need to spread out, to explore, and to keep on moving.

Other good backup plans would be to actually develop technologies that can prevent some of these events at home – ways to deflect inbound asteroids, better methods for reacting quickly to new diseases, maybe even a way to predict and safely ‘defuse’ a volcano about to have a massive eruption.  The more planet-killing events we can prevent or mitigate, the better.

But what can you do about all this?  Support good research, instill the importance of STEM education in your kids, write to your congressman, senator, president, and whoever else you can think of about better funding for research in these areas.  Insist on resuming a robust manned space program.  Hug a scientist.  Do whatever you can to remind people that life and our planet are fragile, and we need to be not only good stewards of what we already have, but also to focus more on the future instead of always kicking the can down the road.

What planet-killing event scares you the most?  Would you support an off-Earth colony?  Would you want to go yourself?

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