Happy Earth Day!

Later Losers, We’re Leaving this Planet Behind

At least, that’s the message both science and popular culture seem to be sending.
April 22, 2018, 8:12am
Image: NASA

Climate change—a phenomenon that obsesses scientists, skeptics, and even pessimists like me who laze away their weekend watching the newly re-imagined Lost in Space on Netflix. For everyone else on the planet, it’s the reality of extreme weather conditions, devastating natural calamities, rise in sea levels, droughts, famines, and floods. The opening quote to cult show Firefly could easily be our future history: "Here's how it is: Earth got used up, so we moved out and terraformed a whole new galaxy."

It’s not like nothing is being done for this planet. Countries around the world claim to have come together to curb their CO2 emissions in the hope that it reduces the rate of increase of global average temperature. If all the countries abide by their pledges, we could confine the temperature increase within 2°C—manageable for humans.

Noble thought.

Unfortunately, none of the industrialised countries are on track with their individual pledges under the Paris Agreement. As of March 2018, we have 408 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in our atmosphere. If we continue with the current rate, we will have 500 ppm in less than 50 years, and all those dystopian fiction movies and novels will be our reality.

Evidence of unprecedented increase in atmospheric CO2 levels since the Industrial Revolution. Image: NASA

While some are looking for solutions on the ground, others are looking up at the sky for a new planet for humanity. NASA’s Kepler telescope has found around 3,717 exoplanets – planets outside our solar system—16 of which fall in what’s called the habitable zone. Another satellite, TESS—Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite—that NASA launched just this week, is capable of increasing that tally to more than 20,000 exoplanets.

Besides science, our science-fiction has also made giant strides in imagination about life away from Earth. We've landed on godforsaken planets to find alien engineers that created us humans in Prometheus; we've travelled through wormholes to distant planets in search of a home in Interstellar; we've colonised Mars in The Martian; and we have shipped hundreds of people off to inhibit distant planets in Lost in Space and Passengers. All because at some point, Earth becomes uninhabitable.

Agreed, these movies are a work of fiction, but at some level, they depict humanity’s growing hopelessness in saving the Earth. Have we already given up? Have we decided that as humans have always been explorers, it is only natural for them to leave this planet one day? As space exploration technology catches up with ideas once deemed futuristic, escaping off to some far-flung rock to start anew seems easier than trying to save this one.

To boldly go, leaving behind a giant mess. An artist’s illustration of the Trappist-1 solar system, discovered by NASA in 2017. Image: NASA

Chuck Palahniuk wrote in Fight Club that : “We are the middle children of history.” An internet meme adds to this that we’re “too late to explore the Earth, too early to explore the galaxy.” The exploratory curiosity of human beings is what made us uncover the secrets of oceans, and take that giant leap for mankind on the moon. But as the “discovery” of the Americas by Europeans reminds us, exploitation is often the flip side of exploration: “move on once you are done.”

We may be the middle children of history, but one day we might be a spacefaring civilization. Who knows, maybe we’ll be fighting our wars in space rather than on land. But on our way to becoming an interstellar species, it looks like we're probably going to dump the planet where it all began for us.