We Can't Go to the Stars

The notion that humanity could live anywhere else than on Earth is an outlier idea.

There is no Planet B.

Why would I say that, given that our galaxy contains billions of planets?

I say it because all those billions of other planets are too far away for us to reach. Tau Ceti, for example, is one of the closest stars to us, at twelve light-years, or ten billion times farther away from us than the Moon. It would take us hundreds of years to reach Tau Ceti in a starship, and if we could survive long enough to get there, which is very questionable, settling on any planet there would present us with huge problems. I wrote my novel Aurora to dramatize these problems, and I believe its conclusions are valid: We can’t go to the stars. The billions of planets in this galaxy are all beyond our reach.

So we’re confined to the solar system, which is in effect our cosmic neighborhood.

This is a space we can get around in. It’s right to think of the planets and moons and asteroids of our solar system as places of human interest. Spectacular and interesting, they would be beautiful to visit, and they’re important to study as a way to gain a fuller understanding of Earth. Our relationship to them may eventually come to resemble our current relationship to Antarctica, where scientists and others go for a while, but no one lives permanently.

Mars is possibly an anomaly in this general situation, because it might be possible to terraform it, by which I mean give it an atmosphere and hydrosphere hospitable to Terran life. This possibility was described in my trilogy Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars, and although some new findings since I finished those books suggest the project might be even harder than it looked in 1990, it still seems not impossible. But it’s clearly a process that would take hundreds or even thousands of years to accomplish; meanwhile, here on Earth we’ve already started an ecological crisis that demands to be solved in the next few decades.

This is an emergency century, a crux in Earth’s history — the beginning of the Anthropocene. It could still be turned into a good Anthropocene, but not without huge and concentrated effort, and if we don’t make that effort, we may instead speed up the sixth great mass extinction event in Earth’s history. In that context, Mars is useless.

So it comes down to a question of priorities, and the proper sequencing of our civilization’s efforts. If we were to invent and institute and live a form of permaculture, meaning a sustainable civilization that functions within the energy flows and biological capacities of Earth’s biosphere, that would create the only conditions in which future generations could meaningfully venture out into the solar system. Stabilizing our presence on Earth is the necessary precondition for any further human project. And if a time eventually comes when we are so secure in our relationship to Earth that some of us want to try to terraform Mars, that would be cool.

A time might even come when people want to launch a starship to explore the other planets out there. That will always remain a crazy gesture. But say it’s the year 3000, and civilization on Earth is humming along in a prosperous, sustainable way, all the intermeshed parts of Earth’s biosphere flourishing. At that point, and only at that point, crazy gestures like starships might be conceivable, at least to some. I think they will always be wrong in many ways, as I expressed in Aurora; but I wrote that book in the early twenty-first century, and by the thirty-fifth century, people may feel otherwise.

For now, it’s the Anthropocene. We humans and the cousin species that make up the biosphere are in trouble. Right now nothing matters but that. Getting into a sustainable balance with Earth is the real problem and the real work.

I think most people alive today know this. The notion that humanity could live anywhere else than on Earth is an outlier idea, indulged by people not paying sufficient attention to reality. The few who really believe in this fantasy are exhibiting a kind of scientism in which continued scientific progress will make anything possible. But no. Some things are possible and others aren’t.

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