Stephen Hawking has said that mankind must move to another planet within a century or so in order to survive. Elon Musk thinks Mars is the answer. Neither guy is asking the right question.
Manned space travel is a hugely complex and dangerous technology challenge. This means it’s utterly cool to people who like such dares and, judging from the invention of computers and air travel, not beyond reason to think they can figure it out (people went to the Moon and back enough times that the trip got boring).
But the question isn’t if we could do it, but why?
The most common reason is that we’ve despoiled the Earth beyond repair, and we need a new stock of resources to exploit, along with a frontier to which we can send those individuals who don’t do well in established society.
I get the frontier thing, sort of — when human populations aren’t expanding, they’re Europe for most of history, ceaselessly fighting over imagined slights or small tracts of land — and global climate change could itself be reason enough to get outta Dodge before the heat arrives.
Though if we moved, wouldn’t we bring along all of our destructive tendencies, too?
Are human beings nothing more than a galactic biker gang that gets into bar brawls as we hop across our solar system?
Moving to Mars (or wherever) would also raise as many questions as it hoped to answer, starting with who gets to go? There’s a lot of coded nuance in any version of sending “the best and the brightest,” and many sci-fi movies have mined it to comment on social inequality.
Add to it questions about what form of political governance and economy would run a colony on one of the planets orbiting Trappist-1, along with how it would preclude creating the myriad of problems we’re suffering here, and the challenge starts looking more like, well, the myriad of problems we’re suffering here. And it begs the question of what would happen to everyone else who stayed put?
The idea of moving to another planet simply sidesteps these questions.
Outer space is filled mostly with absolutely nothing — no air, no warmth, no food and, almost in defiance of expectations, no other living things — while the Earth is the place we humans came to be, and the only place in which we’re suited to live.
There are really cool why questions about what that is…whether a happy accident, or something emerging from an implicate order or consciousness in the very fabric of the cosmos.
Maybe Earth is our only home for a reason?
Technology can do a lot for us, and we should continue to use it to help solve our problems; but think more house renovation than new construction.
Doing so might help us discover our purpose for being put on this planet before we go looking for another one.
[This essay was originally published at Medium]