Friday, June 29, 2018

The Extinction Test


One of the reasons I became interested in humanity's extinction was because it provides a clear test of whether a set of actions is good or evil. If your actions contribute to extinction, then they are evil (but you aren't). If your actions help avoid it, then they are toward the good end of the spectrum between good and evil. The rationale for this is based on placing the highest value on human life, because without humans there can be no values.

Another reason for my interest was awareness of a non-zero probability that it could happen in my lifetime. While studying the energy crisis as a teenager in 1976, before I ever heard of global warming, I realized that the pursuit of unlimited energy consumption could mean a hothouse-like death if it was confined to our planet, which forced a decision between limiting our consumption or moving it into space. 

Nearly two decades later, after the famous impact of a comet with Jupiter, I prepared a presentation to my local astronomy club on the potential for the impact of a comet or asteroid with Earth, and learned that it was a serious threat to the survival of our species. This was in addition to the long-term inevitability that our planet and all life on it would be exterminated by our Sun warming as part of its natural aging process. Asteroid impacts and solar warming also made the case for at least some people leaving Earth so some of us could survive.

So began my research into the possible ways that humanity could not only avoid extinction, but maximize the number of people over time. This and some happy accidents drew me to the growing movement inside and outside the professional space community to pursue the settlement of Mars. As a founding member of the Mars Society, I promoted that vision while investigating the limits of the ultimate goal: settling the rest of the Universe. 

While trying to estimate how many people could live on another planet, I became familiar with the estimation of how many people could live on this one. Space enthusiasts and environmentalists have long had an adversarial relationship due to a fundamental disagreement about both the existence and acceptability of limits to human activity, and until I began seriously studying the issues I came down on the space enthusiasts' side of that debate. 

Another chance event, my attendance of a lecture by prominent physicist Albert Bartlett on the consequences of exponential growth, especially regarding energy supply and consumption, convinced me that the environmentalists had a point. It wasn't lost on me that I should have seen it myself with years of studying and using both math and physics. 

An update of a famous study relating human behavior to environmental impact provided more detail which I could use to inform my research, and made an even more convincing case that people could conceivably die off, on any settled world such as our own, long before an asteroid impact or solar event did them in.

In 2005 my research became a presentation to the Mars Society, along with a published paper. It concluded with several options:

  1. Change nothing and commit to a minimal population living a brutal life.

  2. Stretch our resources on Earth with a limited population living well until natural disaster strikes. Deflect asteroids to extend that time.

  3. Settle the Solar System and have a large population until the Sun dies.

  4. While settling the Solar System, develop the technology for stellar travel, which may help us outlast the Sun.

After thirteen years of studying ecology, social science, environmental science, and many related subjects, as well as constructing additional mathematical models, I think it's highly probable that extinction is imminent: we have pursued the first option for too long, making it far too optimistic and ruling out the remaining options.

Still, those last two options beckon. My imagination has run wild with ways to yet make them viable, fueled by insights from my latest mathematical model. Exploring those ways and how to make them a reality is why I quit my job, along with realizing that the alternative was a life of failure and despair that would not be worth living.

The Fix timeline is one of those ways. It is a variant of the second option that might help most of us survive for a few decades, if we're lucky, and create a new version of civilization that would be able to responsibly take the next steps: settling other planets. To live for more than short exploration periods on far less habitable worlds than ours, settlers would need to have a basic commitment to sustainability – both physically and socially – with a default respect for all life they encounter since that life would already be adapted to survival in the environment. 

Commitment to sustainability and respect for life would have already been learned as a basic requirement for living on Earth, and may therefore take more than one generation to cultivate before leaving. This points to another way of making a large interplanetary population possible given the short window of opportunity we have to avoid our immediate fate: overwhelming social pressure to enforce the requirements for living in that future world now. The brief amount of time we can live in relative comfort that kills our future selves would be jettisoned like going on a crash diet with the impending absence of food.

While considering the difficulty of these and other ways to save the future, I must remind the reader as well as myself that we are all subject to the extinction test, whether we choose to be or not: assisting the death of our species is the ultimate evil.