Valuing the spaceship we’ve got

In a lecture I attended last night, Daniel Lerch, editor of the immensely informative Post Carbon Reader, opened with that iconic picture of Earth shot from Apollo 8 as it circled the moon at Christmastime 1968:

Photo: NASA

No doubt inspired (again) by the image, I woke up in the middle of the night out of this dream: I am an astronaut hurtling through space on an exciting mission where we will figure out how to make our spaceship like Earth. We will recreate its ecosystem and its ability to sustain and renew life. There’s only one big problem: we don’t know how to make life itself begin. With a start I realize that this huge problem has already been solved for us—on Earth! And what a relief—the spaceship we are traveling on IS Earth!

This morning I check out the blog Climate Progress, as I do most days, and the opening item is this piece: “GOP announces new climate strategy: Abandon Earth.” Quoting Brad Johnson’s story at Think Progress (link no longer available as Climate Progress shut down in 2019):

However, Republicans in Congress find the clean energy pathway unreasonable, arguing the costs of reducing our toxic dependence on coal and oil would be too great. Perhaps stung by accusations that they are simply the Party of No, a group of House Republicans have now put forward an alternate strategy to avoiding disastrous global warming: the first step being to scrap NASA’s world-leading climate science research funding, and direct it instead into sending people into unpolluted outer space:

Global warming funding presents an opportunity to reduce spending without unduly impacting NASA’s core human spaceflight mission. With your help, we can reorient NASA’s mission back toward human spaceflight by reducing funding for climate change research and reallocating those funds to NASA’s human spaceflight accounts, all while moving overall discretionary spending toward 2008 levels.

The signatories of this Abandon Earth letter to House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-KY) and Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) are Reps. Sandy Adams (R-FL), Rob Bishop (R-UT), Mo Brooks (R-AL), Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Pete Olson (R-TX) and Bill Posey (R-FL), all from districts that play a role in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) manned spaceflight program. As they are currently on planet Earth, they are also all from districts threatened by the effects of global warming.

Now, I could write a blog post about just how wise dreams are—recapping themes from the day before and alerting us to what is to come in the days that follow—but that’s kinda old news. Anyone who pays any attention to their nightly theater learns it in time.

I want instead to outline some ways to take care of the spaceship we’ve got, the one right now hurtling through outer space—and the only one we know that has solved the problem of how to create life. (What follows are my points, not Lerch’s, though they were inspired in part by his talk.)

  1. Learn from nature, not control it. We haven’t yet been able to create a system that is as efficient in its energy use and output as this Earth. The best we can do is learn from it. See Wes Jackson for details. The closest we came to it, the Biosphere2 experiment, showed oxygen decreasing to unlivable levels in less than two years.
  2. Live within our means. As Lerch pointed out in his lecture last night, humans have repeatedly moved on when the soil was depleted or the land got too crowded or the trees were all cut down. For a cautionary tale on what deforestation can do to a culture, see the history of Easter Island. Living within our means might involve lowering our fertility, especially in industrialized countries, where we are the biggest spenders of energy. It will certainly mean abandoning the dream of unlimited economic growth. Though dismissed at the time as doomsday prophecies, the book Limits to Growth in 1972 predicted scarcities that would be experienced by the early twenty-first century if growth continued. Lerch noted that even the Wall Street Journal has acknowledged that these predictions were correct.
  3. Share. Our environmental crisis is also a crisis of equity. We need to share decision making as well as resources. “This is one thing capitalism got quite right,” Lerch said, “that no one small group of people has all the answers.”
  4. Reciprocate. It’s another word for “share.” It’s also another word for “closed-loop systems,” where waste from one process goes to feed others in the next process. It means giving back. Making exchanges that are equal. Nature doesn’t reward those who hoard more than their share.

We’re already on a spaceship, prepared with everything we need. And it’s the only place in the universe we know this to be true. It’s time to abandon the dream of elsewhere and take care of the spaceship we’ve got.


One Response to Valuing the spaceship we’ve got

  1. Gail Storey says:February 16, 2011 at 8:57 pm

    Sending people into unpolluted outer space?! That reminds me of the suggestion to put more pollution into the air until the chunks are big enough to vacuum up.