Book Excerpt: Can We Escape the End of the World by Going Interplanetary?
In his new book “End Times: A Brief Guide to the End of the World: Asteroids, Supervolcanoes, Rogue Robots, and More” (Hachette Books, 2019), science journalist Bryan Walsh explores eight different scenarios that could completely change life on Earth as we know it.
Then, he tackles what we could do to survive these threats. Among the options he considers is going interplanetary, setting up human outposts on other worlds that could withstand any harm that came to Earth.
It’s an idea that’s particularly popular with SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, and it’s one Walsh evaluates in the excerpt below.
Excerpt from “End Times” Chapter 9
As the richest man in the world, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos has a lot of money, and he could choose to spend it on anything on Earth. But he doesn’t want to spend it on Earth. In 2000 Bezos founded Blue Origin, a private spaceflight company, and he has said he now liquidates about $1 billion in Amazon stock each year to fund its work. Given that Bezos is Bezos, he likely has a business reason for spending billions on rocket ships — and if there’s not one now, he’ll find it soon enough. But he has a higher purpose. “We have to go to space to save Earth,” Bezos said in 2017. “We have to hurry.”
But Bezos isn’t the only tech billionaire with a side hustle in space travel. When he isn’t building self-driving cars or warning the world about the dangers of AI, Elon Musk also runs the private rocket company SpaceX, which has already begun flying missions for NASA. And like Bezos, Musk thinks that spreading to space is our destiny — though he has a characteristically dramatic way of putting it.
“If we were a multiplanetary species, that would reduce the possibility of some single event, man-made or natural, taking out civilization as we know it, as it did the dinosaurs,” Musk told Rolling Stone in 2017. “It makes the future far more inspiring if we are out there among the stars and you could move to another planet if you wanted to.”
It’s true that spreading off world would provide protection from a number of existential risks. Asteroids, supervolcanoes, even nuclear war — the Earth could be utterly destroyed and our space colonists would remain safe. Given the distances involved in interplanetary travel, even the most finely engineered disease would be unlikely to remain infectious long enough to kill off-worlders. Climate change, of course, is a problem for Earth and by Earth.
That attention is again being paid to the possibility of space colonization is chiefly because two very rich men are willing to spend a lot of their money on the idea — even though NASA hasn’t carried out a manned [sic] spaceflight since retiring the shuttle in 2011. But Bezos — who has predicted that one day there will be a trillion human beings living throughout the solar system — is on to something. “If you take current baseline energy usage, globally, and compound it at just a few percent a year for just a few hundred years, you have to cover the entire surface of the Earth in solar cells,” Bezos said during a talk at the Yale Club in early 2019. “Everybody on this planet is going to want to be a first-world citizen using first-world amounts of energy, and the people who are first-world citizens today using first-world amounts of energy? We’re going to want to use even more energy.”
We will need more raw materials, more energy, more space. Just as we once grew by spreading across this planet, we will eventually need to grow by leaving it. It might be a hundred years — it might be far longer — but humankind’s future as a technologically developing species means expansion, possibly endless expansion. To miss out on this future — whether because of extinction or a catastrophic setback — is to suffer what the existential risk expert Nick Bostrom has called “astronomical waste.” It’s the loss of the cosmic inheritance — all that energy, all that space — that could be ours.
There’s a difference, though, between fumbling the present so badly that we allow an extinction to occur on our watch, ending the human story prematurely, and delaying the launch of humanity on a cosmic voyage not all of us necessarily want. Space colonization may be our destiny, but it won’t keep us safe — not for the foreseeable future. The energy and money that might be spent on nascent efforts to move off planet would be better used combatting existential threats that could end that future — and readying our survival, should the worst occur.
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Space is at best a distraction for now. Mars may be the other planet in the solar system most conducive to life, but it is still far more hostile than any place on Earth, save perhaps the bottom of the ocean. Just the round-trip to Mars and back would expose astronauts to up to two-thirds the radiation limits advised for space workers, putting them at unknown risk of cancer. Mars has been gradually losing its atmosphere for billions of years. It is very cold, and the air is unbreathable. There is a reason that as far as we know nothing currently lives in Mars. It’s a bad neighborhood.
In March 2018, I visited my friend Ed Finn in Tempe, Arizona, where he was putting on a conference about human space settlement, which included a mockup of a city on the moon set almost 150 years in the future. Ed is the founding director of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University. He is someone who welcomes what’s to come — but when I asked him about Musk and Bezos’ plans, even he was skeptical that space could serve as our species’s escape pod.
“When we think about the climate crisis and other threats over the next hundred years, this space stuff is a luxury,” Ed told me. “It is never going to solve our problems on Earth and it will never be a safety valve. Maybe in a few hundred years we’ll be ready. But in the short term, space is an experiment, not a survival plan.”
We still need survival plans.