Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Isn't it a little early to give up on planet Earth?

Alliance to Rescue Civilization

Come on, guys ... When I wrote the post "Bush to planet Earth: 'Drop Dead!'" the other day, I was speaking metaphorically, if a bit sarcastically. But today the NYT seems to be taking the prospect literally and exploring off-planet alternatives, under the headline "Life After Earth: Imagining Survival Beyond This Terra Firma," accompanied by a wonderfully loopy illustration reminiscent of 1950's Russian science fiction art.
SAVING SPECIES: The Alliance to Rescue Civilization differs from other so-called doomsday projects. It envisions a lunar base where, in the event of global catastrophe, humans could carry on, protecting DNA samples of life on Earth and maintaining a bank of human knowledge.
The story is about scientists affiliated with the Alliance to Rescue Civilization, which largely seems to be a book-promotion website. They reference the same Earth-from-the-moon photo I did the other day, but draw a different conclusion.
In 1999, the same year the book came out, Dr. Shapiro wrote an essay with Mr. Burrows for Ad Astra, an astronomy journal. There, they formally laid out their plan for the rescue alliance, beginning by warning that “the most enduring pictures to come back from the Apollo missions were not of astronauts cavorting on the Sea of Tranquility, nor even of the lunar landscape itself.”

“They were the haunting views of Earth, seen for the first time not as a boundless and resilient colossus of land and water,” they continued, “but as a startlingly vulnerable lifeboat precariously plying a vast and dangerous sea: a ‘blue marble’ in a black void.” A conversation shortly after the essay was published, Dr. Shapiro recalled, resounded with the earnest imagination of science fiction drama:

Dr. Shapiro: “We’ve got to use space to protect humanity!”

Mr. Burrows: “By God! Yes!”

The concept is not new, but there is some fresh momentum. Mr. Burrows’s new book, “The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth,” is due out this month. And the physicist Stephen W. Hawking, who is not part of the group, began arguing this summer that human survival depends on leaving Earth.
Obviously, there are some technical difficulties here. It's hard to imagine human life being sustained on the moon, even in stripped down form, without a lot of support from infrastructure on Earth that presumably would no longer exist in the event of some ultimate calamity that the venture is designed to protect humanity from in the first place.

But that's just a quibble. What this really reminds me of is the old fantasy that's accompanied Western science from the beginning -- the dream of an ultimate escape into some higher realm, more often than not in recent years, that of cyberspace. As Margaret Wertheim demonstrates in her wonderful book "The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace: A History of Space from Dante to the Internet," it's an old theme that's basically religious in its origins, with Neoplatonic, Christian roots. The same theme runs through a lot of science fiction. On that level, it's harmless enough.

But once it starts to invade "Science Times" -- or worse, when even Stephen Hawking seems ready to bail on our home planet -- I worry that our best and brightest minds are simply starting to give up on the problems that face us. Granted, saving the planet won't be easy.

But retreating into escapist fantasies isn't the answer.

Cross-posted at My Left Wing.

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