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Escape from the rock

| Monday, September 28, 2015

Pope Francis’s encyclical “Laudato si” and his recent speech to the United States Congress have both reignited the discussion over climate change, its effects on future human life and what steps we can take to combat it. Some, including students at Notre Dame, have suggested divestment from fossil fuel industries. Others believe that cap-and-trade legislation or carbon taxation will prevent the catastrophic disruption of Earth’s climate.

I readily acknowledge the reality of anthropogenic climate change and its negative effects on that world, though I am skeptical of the proposed solutions. As cynical as it sounds, getting all countries (particularly the developing world) to restrain their energy use to the levels required would be nigh impossible. It’s far more likely that our swelling population and rapidly industrializing world economy will gobble up all available resources without regard for ecological consequence. We’re already seeing this in the form of fracking; America has plenty of oil as long as we don’t care what we have to do to get it (and we don’t).

But let us charitably grant success to these environmental efforts. In this case, we must still recognize that they are but half-measures. Humanity cannot think in the short term of one century in advance or even two. We must plan for the long haul; it is time for man to get ready to leave Earth.

Consider the precarious current state of our species. We’re on a tiny ball of iron, oxygen and silicon that hurtles through the void at enormous speed. The collective fate of humankind rests on what happens to that pale blue dot on its perilous journey — we have put all our eggs into a very fragile basket. On all sides we are surrounded by asteroids, hypervelocity stars and gamma ray bursts, any one of which could devastate all terrestrial life.

Even if we run the gauntlet of these celestial executioners and miraculously achieve sustainable civilization, a slower, more certain doom awaits all those stranded on Earth. Everything we’ve built across our entire history will be swallowed by the inexorable advance of our swelling sun. In as little as a billion years — a very short period, cosmically — increased solar radiation will cause the runaway evaporation of the oceans, rendering life impossible. Life on Earth will likely be extremely difficult in just a few hundred million years.

Certainly some will claim that these dates are too far off for us to care about; I have several responses to this line of thought. First, such an attitude betrays a self-centered disregard for the welfare of others, as well as a lack of concern for one’s own legacy. After all, no matter how memorable your exploits, if there’s no one around to remember them, they won’t be remembered. Second, remember that this may in fact affect your life. Not only could some of these cosmic disasters strike without warning, but every year brings new medical advances that extend human lifespans. It’s within the realm of possibility that some of us will live to see the Earth destroyed; therefore, we should plan to ensure we aren’t standing on it when that happens.

The 20th century brought us great strides in extraterrestrial travel, culminating in the Apollo missions that put man on the moon. Unfortunately, this is but the smallest of cosmic shuffles — less than a quarter of a million miles from home. Compounding the problem, our society has since sharply reduced emphasis on space exploration. In the 1960s, NASA received more than 4 percent of the American budget, compared to less than 1 percent today. If we’re going to make it to other worlds, that number must increase precipitously. The cost will be great, but it is an investment in the continued survival of our species.

Perhaps the best way to start this new era of exploration would be to establish a colony on Mars. Within a century, we might have a permanent, terraformed base on the Red Planet that will give us a “backup” earth. While it won’t save us from the expanding sun — we’ll need a new solar system for that — a colonized Mars will allow us to start over in the wake of an Earth-localized catastrophe such as a nuclear war.

Whatever our plans for universal exploration, we cannot afford to wait. We must find a way off the Earth before it becomes the tomb of humanity. We must escape from this rock.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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