Reaching for the stars and staying down to earth

Curtis Forbes

Astronomers recently discovered an Earth-like planet, orbiting a Sun-like star, at an Earth-like distance, only 20 light years away. 1  The lead scientist in this project, Steven Vogt, has gone so far as to state that he is basically “100% certain” about the existence of life on the newly discovered world, a bet placed primarily on the planet’s distance from its sun.2  The only inhospitable-sounding part of most descriptions is the planet’s catalog-derived name – Gliese 581 g.

The subsequent public uptake of this discovery, for example by NBC’s Brian Williams, has gotten many people rightly concerned about the social consequences of generating hype about this astronomical discovery.  After reporting on this astronomical discovery during the nightly news, Williams finished his report by stating, “It’s just nice to know that if we screw this place up badly enough there is some place we can all go.”  David McConville, a science educator, responded with an avatar-based video, arguing that statements like Williams’s are routinely used to “subconsciously justify the continued destruction of our planetary ecosystems,” and that he should therefore retract his insinuation that Gliese 581 g could serve as a “back-up” Earth.  It’s not at all clear that he’s wrong about that.

This artist rendering (by Lynette Cook of the National Science Foundation) depicts the new planet. While the data about this planet is scant at present, one thing that is claimed about it is that its orbit always keeps one side of the planet facing the sun, and the other always facing away. While this is obviously radically different from the situation here on Earth, Steven Vogt, leader of the team that discovered Gliese 581g, believes that life would thrive on the line between shadow and light.

We often dream of taking to the stars and recapturing the colonial life-style.  By colonizing space we could connect with our pioneering roots, seeking to set up shop on some unknown but hospitable world that is entirely untouched by anything we would recognize as sentient labour.  But as we are dreaming about the adventures we could have traveling to other worlds, we simultaneously face environmental situations here on Earth that, if left unimproved, will make our home planet increasingly inhospitable to human life.

To be clear, the environmental movement is making headway, and the (professed) attitudes of most Westerners have largely shifted in a “green” direction.  But sometimes we’re not all making the smart choices, leading us to still look for “back-up” plans in case we don’t adequately curb our environmentally damaging practices.  So, we get caught up watching Star Trek re-runs, looking for earth-like planets in the sky, and dreaming of a space-faring human future that our current best scientific theories tell us is all but impossible instead of figuring out how to transition to sustainable energy technologies, or dealing with the ecological impact of our agricultural practices.  That, I would argue, is an environmental issue in itself, especially given how incredible and unrealistic the idea of traveling to another solar system is.

To get the facts straight, the informed estimates for our travel time to this new star (Gliese 581) is 180 000 years.  That’s based on the capabilities of our current fastest unmanned spacecraft (Helios), which is meant only to house electronics, sensors, transmitters, and some steering equipment, not to permit for 180 000 years of human flourishing on board … nevermind 180 000 years worth of fuel.3

But even indulging in technological fantasy and assuming we could invent some magical propulsion technology that could get a human population, without killing them, up to near light speed, it’s still not an insignificant journey to Gliese 581 g: even at 92% the speed of light it would take about 23 years to get there; and while, to be fair, that is only about 7 years for those traveling on the spacecraft due to relativistic time dilation, that’s far more time than most cross-Atlantic colonial journeys from human history were … and this one would be in space.  The Atlantic Ocean may have been relatively inhospitable compared to the dry land of the European continent, but it’s entirely livable when compared to the vacuum of space.

Alexander Rozhenko, the exobiologically implausible son of Lt. Worf from Star Trek: TNG, is one quarter human, three quarters alien, and pure science fiction.

The time commitment of such a journey, the immense distance, the vacuum of space, and the incredibly novel technological developments needed are not the only problems with the fantasy of space-colonization.  The biggest issue, I think, is what would happen when we get there. When Westerners colonized the New World, we found edible plants there in abundance.  Despite some noticeable differences in flora and fauna, the New World was found to be much like the Old World, as both are ecologies capable of sustaining human life.  This is because all life on Earth shares an evolutionary history, and a globally-bounded ecology, all of which is based in an oxygen-rich atmosphere.  The ecological differences between the Old and New Worlds are nothing compared to what we might expect to find of life elsewhere in the galaxy.  Most exobiologists (people who think about what extraterrestrial life is likely to be like) doubt that alien worlds like Gliese 581 g would harbour anything like Earthly life.  All the different sentient species in Star Trek may have been capable of interbreeding, leading to plenty of “mixed-race” offspring, but it is doubtful that we would even be able to eat – nevermind procreate with – anything of non-Earthly origin.  There are no Buffalo in space … at least none that we should be comfortable eating.

There is clear interest in this discovery from the public.  There are already speculations abounding that sentient Gliesers are sending us signals using lasers4, the Journal of Cosmology has recently published a special issue entitled “Colonizing Mars: The Mission to the Red Planet,” and people are beginning to call the UN’s director of the Office for Outer Space Affairs the UN’s “Ambassador to Aliens“.5  But why is there so much speculation about taking to the stars when it’s such a risky and complicated endeavour, so clearly out of our technological grasp, and so clearly a replication of problematic colonial practices from Earth’s recent history?  Mary Midgley believes it’s a result of our unwillingness to acknowledge our situation here on Earth, where a legacy of over-consumption and expansion has led us to wonder about fantastical options that don’t require us to change our ways of life in especially sacrosanct and entrenched ways.  In a fit of fatalism about the state of our environment on Earth, we reach for what Midgley call “science as salvation” – a promise of being saved from our social ills by speculative (i.e. scientifically unfounded) technological fantasies, thereby excusing us from any responsibility to reform ourselves and our ecologically unsustainable habits.

But the fact of the matter is that such salvations are myths and fantasies.  Only 12 men have ever even set foot on the moon, and the space program has a (understandably) quite imperfect track record so far as safety goes.  Long-distance space travel is more likely to be a nightmare than a dream.  So instead of letting indulgent fantasies about traversing the Galaxy take prominence in the news, I, like Midgley and McConville, would prefer an acknowledgment that humans are Earth-bound, and that we need to resolve our environmental problems here on Earth before we earn the right to fantasize about going on a few Star Treks.  Before we even start thinking about extra-terrestrial colonization, we should probably clean up the environmentally destructive legacy left over from our history of environmentally unconscious, expansionist colonialism here on Earth.  If we can’t make it work for humanity here on Earth, the home we have evolved to fit so nicely into, we’re unlikely to do any better on a foreign planet full of alien life, or in the inhuman emptiness of space.

  1. This discovery has not gone undisputed, however.  Here is a discussion of the controversy surrounding this “finding”
  2. This claim has, rightly, come under intense criticism from astronomers.  As Mark Thompson put it, “We can’t even be 100% sure it’s made of rock!!!”
  3. The fastest manned spacecraft to date was Apollo 10, whose top speed was a full order of magnitude lower than Helios’s, putting estimates for a manned trip, using current propulsion technologies, in and around the two million year mark.
  4. For a correction to this fervour from Ragbir Bhathal, the scientist who detected the “laser look alike signal” in vague direction of Gliese 581 g, see here
  5. A title which she “categorically denies
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Curtis Forbes

About Curtis Forbes

Curtis actively works on a variety of topics in the philosophy of science. Three of his main interests are the ethics of scientific research, the nature of scientific representation, and the role of science and values in public policy-making.

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6 Responses to Reaching for the stars and staying down to earth

  1. [+]

    Great post. The idea of pioneers settling distant planets is a romantic one, but unrealistic. Going to the moon or Mars is a lot easier than settling there. Perhaps the real question here is why proponents of space settlement are so willing to give up on planet Earth? Global warming? Nuclear war? Ov...

    • Curtis Forbes Curtis Forbes says:
      [+]

      While I'm not certain about the cause of such assumptions, I suspect (as is probably clear from my post) that the answer to your question has a lot to do with valorizing our colonial history, shared short-term interest in ignoring our environmental situation, and the persistence of some 'classic' (y...

  2. Boaz Miller Boaz Miller says:
    [-]

    I don’t want to be petty, but in Star Trek TNG they explained why most intelligent races have humanoid form and why they and interbreed. There was an ancient alien race that scattered its DNA all over the galaxy, which is the ancestor of all of us.

    • Curtis Forbes Curtis Forbes says:
      [+]

      I wasn't going to mention that, but yes, the Star Trek universe is apparently the result of a non-theistic form of intelligent design ... to be fair, though, the psuedo-evolutionary history given barely makes sense, and probably has nothing to do with the actual universe's history of local, planet-b...

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