20 March 2015


A friend (one of a very few) with whom I enjoy engaging in very long range futuristic speculation, mentioned in an email conversation that he saw the only "course" for humanity as an escape into space. I misread that in my initial reply as "hope for humanity" and replied that if that was our only hope, we are doomed. But when I noticed that he had said "course," not "hope," I came up with this:

Well, if it's "course" not "hope," then, of course. 

Our civilization has, as Lovelock says* (and as have others), evolved as a life-form something really, really important and new, at least to this world, very, very, recently. This being intelligent self-awareness/technological capability. I see these elements as inseparable, but other animals have a good deal of the first part, hardly any of the second. Language is implicit, integral, essential, necessary.

With this adaptation, we, as a species, have become simultaneously the greatest threat to the biosphere of the Earth since the end of the Permian, a quarter of a billion years ago (approximately 1 revolution of the Sun through the disk of the Galaxy)-- and its singular opportunity to really flourish, reproduce in Space, and thus survive really long term. (Without space migration, life on Earth will almost certainly become extinct completely, in a shorter period of time than the period of time in which it has existed to date; if you consider only complex life, then the same time period becomes "about the same period of time as...")

In other words, we have stressed the biosphere of our planet severely, possibly fatally, but we not only have the means to address this, and become the intelligent operator of the biosphere, for sustainable survivability, but we have the fairly obvious potential to develop the only means there is of surviving the eventual sterilization of the planet by the normal evolution of its star (which will be fatal to life on Earth within 1 billion years otherwise). That being, of course, migration of Earth life into space.

I see the next few hundred years as the Long Crisis, which will eventually resolve itself by the arrival at steady states. Stable populations. Stable extinction rates. Stable environments, including large areas of the planet set aside mostly for non-human life. We may not get there smoothly, easily, non-violently, but we will get there. Then, and only then, will begin the true Age of Space, when humans devise the means to dwell first mainly in the Solar System, then later, in long voyages of migration and colonization, elsewhere in the vicinity. Perhaps eventually we will meet (more likely only discover and learn about from afar) our equivalents from other biospheres, and, even longer term, life may be seen to have found its way to all the available habitats... but that could take a period on the same order of magnitude as the current age of the Universe, so, although we may have given rise to (some of) that life, it will almost certainly no longer resemble us.

* James Lovelock, who wrote Gaia and the more recent A Rough Ride to the Future. Creator of the "Gaia hypothesis," q.v. Lovelock thinks it's our recent technological acceleration (i.e., the Steam Engine and since) that makes the critical difference, but I would argue that the most important technology ever invented by any animal on this planet is language, and that advanced technology, including spacefaring, may be all but inevitable once that comes onto the scene.

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