Achieve as much as we can—before the Earth becomes uninhabitableby John Mather / August 20, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
Man, claiming position as ruler of planet Earth, is surely rare and perhaps unique in the cosmos. If I ruled the world (by ruling man for a short while), I would ensure that our experiment in civilisation does not crash but continues until the Sun burns out and, if possible, spreads to planets elsewhere. I want that to be our destiny. You might say, who cares, that’s a long time from now, and I just want to live another day. I say, why not? What a glorious destiny to behold and create!
Potential disaster is much closer; our ancestors came through 3.8bn years or so of evolution, survived at least five mass extinctions, and our homo sapiens population may have been down to a few hundred people somewhere in southern Africa about 100,000 to 150,000 years ago. We nearly died out. Am I worried? Not really. Many dominant species came and went, but none before were like us, hyper-social omnivorous predators with hands to caress, and build, and kill, and language to plan, negotiate, adapt, inspire and remember. We are our own greatest enemy, and we are cultural and we respond to our circumstances. We are capable of dramatic advance, progressing in the span of one human lifetime from the first powered flight to landing on the Moon.
There are hazards we could handle better. We already know about war, plagues, pestilence, famine, drought, flood, earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis, but we have survived them all, and each one teaches us how to manage disasters better. Now we can add asteroid strikes, solar storms, nuclear reactor damage, cyber-warfare, bioterrorism, rising sea levels and mass delusion (we have plenty of that natural resource). There’s no reason we can’t understand what we have and make it better, safer and more robust against failures.