Saving the Planet

The word “planet” means wanderer. The ancients, with their lives lived largely outdoors and without artificial lighting, were much more intimately acquainted with the heavens than are we moderns, unless we specialize in astronomy. They noticed that although there was a fixed pattern of stars for the most part, some of them wandered around in complicated patterns.

It was some time before concepts shifted enough for it to be realized that the Earth, too, was a wanderer. The comfortable, solid notion of a fixed Earth that was the center of the universe was grimly defended by the medieval Church but ultimately fell to the advance of science.

There seems to be an unstated assumption in the neo-religious Gaian fundamentalism that is based on this kind of geocentrism — “it’s so big, how could it move?” — in terms of the Earth’s biosphere and climate. There’s also an element of original sin — we icky humans are ruining the pristine planet with our nasty automobiles. The only way to save the Earth is to get rid of us, or at least trim us back to the point that the remaining few can live like hunter-gatherers, or at best like medieval peasants.

But this view of the Earth is incredibly, one suspects wilfully, myopic. The climates — there are many climates on Earth — have varied dramatically in historical, much less geological, time. Consider paleoclimatological reconstructions of the holocene:

(this is from the New Scientist climate change site)

The point to notice is not that you can average all these proxies into a nice smooth curve, but how much each one itself varies (and in many cases the proxies are themselves are already averaged over a wide geographical area) — not to mention the huge jump into the current interglacial — which has now lasted about as long as each preceding interglacial in the Pleistocene. The idea of a single, “natural” unchanging climate, but for human influence, is a neo-religious myth.

There have been extinctions for reasons varying from asteroid strikes to the evolution of lignin in plants (which initiated the Carboniferous period and raised the oxygen level in the atmosphere to 35%!) to the evolution of enzymes in microorganisms to digest it (which ended the Carboniferous).

Freezing the Earth’s climate and biosphere at any given snapshot would (a) require enormous intervention in most ecological and geological processes, and (b) would be completely unnatural. But, at a guess, nanotechnology would give us the ability to do it if that’s what we want.

Is that what we want?

Let’s come at the question another way. Humans have a gigantic effect on their environment. Compare the beautiful, cool green hills of my home in northern Pennsylvania to the flat, hot, crowded concrete canyons of LA or Silicon Valley. In 1000 years, a relative eyeblink geologically speaking, the whole Earth will be like LA, if human development continues the way it has for the past 10,000. The only animal life left will be zoos, farms, and pets.

This is a consummation devoutly not to be wished. On the other hand, I don’t want my beautiful hills scraped bare of plant and animal life by glaciers, either, as they were just 10k or so years back. If we look at the Pleistocene, you’ll note that only 10% of the time is in interglacials — the other 90% is ice ages. If there is a natural state of the Earth’s climate, it’s ice age.

So we have to find some middle ground. We have to control the climate. We have to control the population. It’s not a question of if, but when.

… and, of course, how.

The problems are these: The only known way to ameliorate population growth is wealth. (Note that even in China, the birth restrictions are part of an implicit social contract that includes a metoritic rise in the average income.) The technophobic prescriptions of fundamentalist Gaianism are deeply anti-wealth, and thus ultimately self-defeating, as any reduction in individual eco-footprints will be swamped by more footprints. As no less a Whole-Earther than Stewart Brand himself points out in this remarkable talk, “subsistence farming is an ecological nightmare.”

What then are we to do with the previously-poverty-stricken billions? Are we going to have to pave over the Earth after all? I can see but one solution that really works, in the long run: get them off the Earth. And by them of course I mean us all, or all but a few percent.

There is billions of times more energy available in space than on Earth — and energy is the basis of wealth. There’s at least tens of thousands of times more usable matter in the asteroids alone. There’s plenty of room and resources for hundreds of billions of very wealthy humans without using the Earth at all — we can afford to set Earth aside as a natural preserve or managed park or whatever combination we like.

With a huge, wealthy, off-world population we can afford to experiment. We can experiment with different ecologies and governmental arrangements in the various space colonies. We can experiment with the Earth’s climate and ecology (which we are already doing, of course!) but have the resources to fix it if we screw up, and not place the human race in danger of extinction with every stupid blunder of World Weather Control. We can afford not to fight over the Earth’s resources, because they’ll be 1% of 1% of what’s available.

The really amazing thing is, we can. This really is a possible future, if only we work for it.

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