Friday, June 16, 2006

Why We Fly

Within a year of a controversial national election, the building housing our national legislative body suffered a terrorist attack. Frightened by this, that body supinely allowed the new administration to assume unquestioned authority in disregard of the law.

You are part of the group blamed by the new rulers for all the nation's ills, as its spokesmen and sycophants in the media spread escalating hatred for you each day. Should you flee elsewhere, or stay and hope your fellow citizens will come to their senses? Wouldn't fleeing be alarmist? Wouldn't that be ignoring your duty to others to remain and speak, write, vote, and stand up against evil, even if it risks sacrificing your life? Shouldn't you keep struggling to enlighten the masses and convince them to replace this madness with rational leadership instead?

Most stayed. Six million were killed.

Were the ones who remained immoral for choosing to stay? No, they were only mistaken in their predictions of the future.

They are still dead.

The greatest mind in physics today thinks it is time to buy an exit ticket.
The survival of the human race depends on its ability to find new homes elsewhere in the universe because there's an increasing risk that a disaster will destroy Earth, world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking said Tuesday. Humans could have a permanent base on the moon in 20 years and a colony on Mars in the next 40 years, the British scientist told a news conference. ...

"It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species," Hawking said. "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of."
Looks like he struck a nerve. He was promptly denounced as an alarmist, who wanted us to ignore our duty to others. Some were relatively mild: me this seems like trashing a mansion and then moving into the tiny guesthouse, just because we don't feel like cleaning up the mansion.
--Shelley Batts, Retrospectacle
Some were more heated:
According to Hawking's scenario, I envision humans as the rats of the universe; filthy, violent, rapacious, traveling from one planet to another just as rats hitchhiked on ships from one oceanic island to another, destroying everything until the last habitable island (planet) within reach has been ruined. ...

I think Hawking's idea is absolutely stupid!
--GrrlScientist, Living the Scientific Life
Some at least attempted rational arguments:
Flicking a few gametes into the sky isn't any kind of salvation—it's desperate and sad and futile. ...

Making it even more complicated will be biotechnology. We have a problem with bone loss under low gravity conditions, so hey, let's tweak calcium physiology a little bit. And as long as we've got the hood on this baby open, let's toss in a few more improvements. In the long run, I don't think that any of our progeny that we spin off into space will be human for long, and I don't think we can predict what a post-human race would want, or how it would interact with us.
--PZ Myers, Pharyngula
Some were personally abusive:
Stephen Hawking is a tool ...

Religious wingnuts have invented the Rapture to avoid talking about taking responsibility for the future of the human race .... Now Stephen Hawking has just put his authority behind an escape fantasy that allows wingnuts who aren’t Rapture fanatics to ignore the fact that we’re destroying our planet and very soon going to make in uninhabitable. ...

The idea of starting over with a small group of people on another planet is the same racist, classist superiority complex-driven fantasy that fuels the mythology of the Rapture, where it’s assumed an elite group of “Christians” (imagined as mostly white Americans) will get sucked away while the rest of us inferior humans died in the cesspool that is Earth. ...

By the way, I heard clips on Air America from Al Gore on TV last night denouncing Hawking for spinning unattainable salvation fantasies. Good for him. Nip this shit in the bud, Al.
--Amanda Marcotte, Pandagon
Some were sputteringly insulting:
Who the hell does Stephen Hawking think he is anyway? ...

What pisses me off is this. ... Every threat, every looming disaster Hawking’s talking about here is human generated.

There are two reasons why Hawking’s brainstorm is thus just utterly, unbelievably stupid.

First: these problems are mitigatable, if not in fact reversible or (in the case of nuclear war) even preventable if, and only if, addressing them is made a priority. which means not cutting funding to satellite-based climate monitoring programs for some masturbatory, LaRoucheian Robert Zubrin fantasy. ...

We are the problem here. We’ve only got one planet right now and we’re messing it up. What happens when we’re spread out on a bunch of planets? The pressure’s off, and we have one less reason not to piss in our drinking water. ...

And you want to distract us by promising a future that fewer than one in ten million of us here will ever see, based on a techno-wankoff that some of your most respected colleagues have dismissed as utterly useless?

Yeah, right. Great idea, Einstein.
--Chris Clarke, Creek Running North
Fortunately, a few actually read what he said, instead of jumping to assumptions most comfortable to their ideological agendas:
No, Hawking is not being ridiculous. At worst he is being pessimistic about the time scale for major potential catastrophes, and optimistic on feasible time scales.
Independent of the details, there clearly exist extinction threats to humanity, and global extinction threats. Some are self-inflicted, some are external.
On a long enough time scale, a permanent off-planet presence is prudent.
On a longer time scale, progressively and in stages, this presence should be self-sustaining.
It is arguable that a modest economic effort to expedite this now is worthwhile.
Doing so is mostly orthogonal to both minimizing self-inflicted damage, and external threats on Earth.
--Steinn Sigurðsson, Dynamics of Cats
I'm sorry, but I think Steinn is too generous to Hawking's denouncers. Going to space isn't "orthogonal" to their goals; they are opposed to it even if it were free. Except for PZ, their objection is not that the idea is impracticable. They do not want humanity to have any escape from this world. Only throwing the oars and the life jackets overboard will convince everyone else that this really is a lifeboat situation, one which calls for desperate coercive measures -- which they helpfully are ready to prescribe. How dare anyone ignore their duty to suffer and sacrifice for humanity, and run off to some scary frontier instead?

Fortunately for humanity, their angry dreams will not be fulfilled. If Americans don't go to space, others will. And that is a very good thing, because someday those who stay may need their help, when an asteroid hits, or the permafrost melts, or the ocean belches methane. It's happened before:
"...and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God's good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the Old."
--Winston Churchill, Speech in the House of Commons, June 4, 1940
There are also much better reasons for expanding to space than just having an emergency rescue brigade on call:
"Don't let us forget this: that the Earth can die, explode, the Sun can go out, will go out. And if the Sun dies, if the Earth dies, if our race dies, then so will everything die that we have done up to that moment. Homer will die, Michelangelo will die, Galileo, Leonardo, Shakespeare, Einstein will die, all those will die who now are not dead because we are alive, we are thinking of them, we are carrying them within us. And then every single thing, every memory, will hurtle down into the void with us."
--Ray Bradbury, in Oriana Fallaci's "If the Sun Dies", 1966
Ultimately, no reason is needed. Some people just want to head for the horizon, and if the starry-eyed don't want to stay here and be drafted by these angry folk to help sweep the streets, the ranters are foolish to think they will be able to stop the exodus. But they will try. And they will kill some of us in the attempt:
I, the machine, the space-spider, cannot understand. But I have seen it -- the exodus of the hungry, the settling of peace over those who chose to linger. The hungry drink of the emptiness of space, and their hunger grows. The placid eat of the earth, and find peace, yet somehow -- they seem to die a little. ...

Three dumpy idealists built a spaceship, but they were caught and hung for treason. The eight-foot lawyer who defended them was also hung.

The world wears a long face; and the stars twinkle invitingly. But few men look upward now. Things are probably just as bad on the next inhabited planet. ...

But I feel there are some who understand. I have seen the pride in their faces. They walk like kings.
--Walter M. Miller, Jr., "The Big Hunger", 1952


Blogger Karen McL said...

Yeah... I hated to find myself in complete opposition to Hawking...(and I was too busy to get to those point - so Thanks for making them here!)

But this does have the whiff of salvation not through exercising restraint and responsibility to our HOME Planet as the FIRST priority - before thinking about outlandish possible catastrophe's (like Giant Metorites or Viruses - sheesh!) and making folks behave with some modicum of urgency and consideration of these issues NOW.

9:23 AM  
Blogger Jym said...

=v= I guess you don't understand -- indeed, even have a glimmer of comprehension -- about sarcasm and humor. Perhaps those are words you should look up in your dictionary.

2:02 PM  
Anonymous Ron Sullivan said...

... Going to space isn't "orthogonal" to their goals; they are opposed to it even if it were free. Except for PZ, their objection is not that the idea is impracticable. They do not want humanity to have any escape from this world. Only throwing the oars and the life jackets overboard will convince everyone else that this really is a lifeboat situation, one which calls for desperate coercive measures -- which they helpfully are ready to prescribe. How dare anyone ignore their duty to suffer and sacrifice for humanity, and run off to some scary frontier instead?

You're inventing this all by yourself. Speaking of fearmongering and "ideological agendas":

But they will try. And they will kill some of us in the attempt:

Someone else's fiction and Winnie's oratory aren't good ways to buttress your argument either. And no, it's not about "duty to suffer and sacrifice for humanity." It's more like one's duty, when one is physically able, to wipe one's own ass.

I really really want us to be in "space." (For rhetoric's sake, let's elide the fact that we already are, and I don't mean the robots or those folks in orbit.) I'd go right now if I had a one-way ticket and a porthole with a view. But the idea that it's going to save the human species is fairly off-the-wall, and hardly a good reason to continue doing it.

As for Winnie's speech and your prediction, if that's what that was: Help the rest of us? How?

I would strongly advise against using that fake-mindreading ("they want...") stuff in the future. It makes for a weak argument.

You have not thought things through.

2:48 PM  
Blogger Bride Of Acheron said...

Jym: I know the definitions of sarcasm and humor. This post was neither one, nor was it intended to be. Try taking it seriously instead.

Ron: I'm not trying to argue with or persuade you or anyone else. I'm just giving notice that I'm keeping my powder dry. As I said, there are much better reasons for going out there than saving the stay-at-homes who will try to stop us. I've been thinking this through since at least the first grade. See you on Ceres.

6:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wonder if the same people upset about having an emergency escape plan have the same point of view about, oh, the morning-after pill. Or even contraception -- if you don't want to get pregnant or get a venereal disease, just don't have sex.


7:43 PM  
Blogger elissa feit said...

I think what your blog misses and others capture (Creek Running North, for instance) is that if we simple "escape" without taking the steps needed to fix ourselves (our relationship to the earth, to others, our propensity for war, terror, etc.), then we are not escaping. We're bringing the problem with us. Hawking's scenario wasn't about the sun going out in 5 billion years (species generally have a lifespan of a million years or so. The sun going out is not something that humanity will ever need to face), but about the calamities we bring upon ourselves.

And as far as losing Homer, Michaelangelo, etc., we've been losing them daily, as schools and libraries have had their funding slashed for decades.

10:06 PM  
Blogger Helen said...

I'm not American, but I did study "the significance of the frontier in American history." I understand it's important as a meme in American history that once where you live becomes uncomfortable, you move on. Unfortunately, the Hawking solution smacks of desperation.

My point, though, is that this isn't futuristic thinking - it's nineteenth century thinking with a futuristic veneer.

5:31 AM  

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