The Dream of Leaving Earth

Humans need to care for Earth before blasting off to Mars

Fresno Bee, June 23, 2017

As this planet overheats, some people are planning to leave. Billionaire Elon Musk wants to start colonizing Mars. He imagines 1 million people migrating to the red planet within 100 years.

Elon Musk, chief executive officer of Space Exploration Technologies

Musk argues that we should become a “multiplanetary species.” He says that there are two paths that humanity can take. “One path is we stay on Earth forever, and then there will be some eventual extinction event … The alternative is to become a space-bearing civilization and a multiplanetary species.”

The most likely extinction event is global warming. An asteroid could wipe us out – or a deadly virus. But climate change is already happening, posing a threat to the human future.

Global warming gives us a reason to worry about the ethics of interplanetary colonization. Until we can prove that we are able to care for this planet, we have no right to colonize another. Until we evolve ethically, we ought not leave this planet and destroy another. The colonizing impulse is connected to the hubris that created the climate catastrophe.

We are living through the hottest years on record. Deadly heat waves have killed tens of thousands of human beings. The World Health Organization predicts that between 2030 and 2050 climate change will contribute to 250,000 excess deaths per year. In addition to the heat itself, risk factors include malaria and other diseases exacerbated by climate change.

But we mostly ignore this. Malaria and hyperthermia don’t make headlines. Perhaps we think common-sense measures provide adequate solutions: drink plenty of water and use mosquito repellent.

The problem is that the poorest people do not have access to clean water or mosquito repellent. The laboring masses live and work outside in the elements. Most of the people who will die from the changing climate are in countries we don’t care about – in Africa and Asia.

Americans will be the last ones affected. We can simply crank up the AC, sip icy beverages and avoid mosquitoes by staying inside. But many humans don’t have such luxuries.

It will be the rich few who will venture off planet, seeking a new start on Mars. Musk wants to get the price of a Mars trip down to around $200,000. At that price, affluent Americans can save or borrow to get on board.

Such a trip is beyond the wildest imagination of those living on $2 per day. But those impoverished people are the ones least able to cope with the world we’ll leave behind.

This is a question of what we call “environmental justice.” Environmental justice is concerned with the fair distribution of environmental benefits – and harms. It seems especially unfair for rich people, who already burn more than their fair share of carbon, to head off planet, leaving behind a ruined world inhabited by poor people with no hope of departure.

Planetary escape is a fun summer fantasy: a diversion to chew on while fishing in a cool mountain stream. But our extra-planetary fantasies should not distract us from the stark reality of the present. Global population is increasing. Fragile earth resources are overexploited. And the climate is heating up.

A harbinger of our hot future is seen in California’s fisheries. California trout, salmon, and steelhead are threatened by increased heat, which changes river flows, even in wet years. Combine the heat with overfishing and increased need for water for agriculture and you’ve got a recipe for fishery collapse.

An old adage about eliminating poverty says, “give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” The problem is that this assumes that there are fish left to catch.

This is also a problem of the Mars dream. There are no fish on Mars. And no flowing water. Musk suggests that life on Mars would be “quite fun.” But human happiness occurs within our ecological niche. We have evolved in a Goldilocks world. It is not too hot and not too cold. It contains clean waters abundant with fish.

The Goldilocks days may soon be ending. Our ethical task is to fairly distribute harms and benefits on this hot, crowded planet, while preserving an inhabitable world for our grandchildren.

http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article157750589.html

Ancient wisdom and climate change

Maybe it’s time to learn from our past

Fresno Bee, August 6, 2016

Clean energy is a good idea. It is smart to believe in science. But we also need a dose of ancient wisdom. Ancient traditions teach that a simple life is best. The climate crisis is a symptom of a spiritual malady that has been with us since ancient times: unbridled desire.

According to NASA, the first half of 2016 was “the planet’s warmest half-year on record.” The warmest previous years were 2015 and 2014. The Earth’s atmosphere is more than 1 degree Celsius warmer than it was a century ago. Polar ice is melting. Sea level is nearly 3 inches higher than 25 years ago.

And yet we go about our business, unable or unwilling to change our collision course with climate calamity.

Some are in denial. Donald Trump has described climate change as “expletive.” He has claimed that it is a hoax foisted upon the world by the Chinese. His running mate Mike Pence has called climate change a myth. Trump wants to cancel the recent Paris climate agreement.

Others admit the climate crisis, while imagining high-tech solutions. At the Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clintondeclared, “I believe in science.” She said, “I believe that climate change is real and that we can save our planet while creating millions of good-paying, clean energy jobs.”

A CLIMATE-FRIENDLY LIFE WOULD BE SIMPLE. 

Clean energy is a good idea. It is smart to believe in science. But we also need a dose of ancient wisdom. Ancient traditions teach that a simple life is best. The climate crisis is a symptom of a spiritual malady that has been with us since ancient times: unbridled desire.

Ancient sages teach that happiness and virtue are found in restraint and self-control. Desire is a flame that easily burns out of control. Materialism distracts us from higher goods. Tranquility and joy are found in peaceful harmony.

The Buddhists aimed to control desire. The Taoists sought harmony in simplicity. Jesus warned against greed and wealth. And the ancient Greeks praised modesty, moderation and temperance.

But we crave the goods of carbon culture: cars, planes and cheap plastic goods. We like air-conditioned houses, stocked refrigerators and weekend getaways. Billions of poor people dream of joining the American middle class in our relentless pursuit of happiness.

I thought about this as I watched shooting stars blaze across the sky on a recent night in the Sierra. The stars were amazing. So too is our hubris and hypocrisy. I spewed carbon on my drive to the mountains, contributing to the climate crisis.

Such is our predicament. Our daily choices contribute to the problem. It is difficult to imagine living otherwise. The habits of affluence fuel our economy and inflame our desires.

Something’s got to give. Or we’ve got to give something up.

WHAT ARE YOU WILLING TO DO TO COOL THE PLANET AND SIMPLIFY YOUR LIFE?

Conan-Arnold PosesOne interesting suggestion comes from Arnold Schwarzenegger. Schwarzenegger has become a spokesman for meat-free meals as a cure for climate change. In a public service announcement he says, “less meat, less heat, more life.”

Schwarzenegger’s advertisement was made to support the Chinese government in its plan to reduce meat consumption as a response to climate change. Meat consumption creates more carbon emissions than a plant-based diet. Locally grown foods also produce fewer emissions.

All of our consumption habits have environmental impacts. Coffee is shipped across the globe. Coffee culture creates vast piles of disposable cups. Beer and soda also have an impact. Energy is used to refrigerate and transport it. There are ecological costs in manufacturing and recycling cans and bottles.

Even our hygiene habits have climate impacts. Hot showers produce carbon emissions. So do our hair and clothes dryers. And so on.

A climate-friendly life would be simple. We would take fewer showers, air-dry our clothes, take few long trips, and rarely eat meat. We would walk or bike to work, drink mostly water, and generally curtail consumption.

This is how most people lived before electricity and fossil fuels. The nights were darker then. The stars provided entertainment and inspiration. We rarely see those stars today.

A simple life is unimaginable in the era of unrepentant indulgence. Our lights and gizmos blaze at all hours. There is no space for silence or stargazing.

Studying the ancients reminds us of the value of simplicity. Of course we need science. But we also need to understand that burning carbon cannot create virtue or happiness.

It’s a hopeful sign that Arnold Schwarzenegger has become an advocate for climate-friendly behavior. If Conan the Barbarian is giving up meat, what are you willing to do to cool the planet and simplify your life?

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article93860892.html#storylink=cpy

Education is the solution to climate change, Syrian refugees and ISIS

The Fragility of Civilization

Fresno Bee, April 2, 2016

  • Climate change, religious extremism are related challenges
  • Recent events expose fragility of civilization
  • Education is needed to preserve civilization, history

The archeological record is reassuring. We build things that last thousands of years. The Parthenon and the Coliseum provide consolation for our mortality and give us reason to hope.

fiala2(2)But malice and indifference could destroy much of what we take for granted. The rising seas of a warmer world could inundate major cities, leaving them lost, like Atlantis beneath the waves. And human destructiveness has already been unleashed against the monuments of ancient civilization themselves, as we’ve seen in Syria.

The climate news is ominous. NASA reports that Greenland and Antarctica are losing billions of tons of ice per year. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is at 403 ppm and rising. That level of CO2 last appeared 2.5 million years ago, when Earth was warmer by 3 degrees Celsius and sea level was 5 meters higher.

Climate scientist James Hansen warns that climate change may be faster and more severe than previously predicted. Rapidly melting ice could raise the sea level by several meters within 50 to 150 years. Superstorms may be generated by permanent changes in ocean currents.

In a recent paper, Hansen and co-authors warn, “It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.” In a video explaining his conclusions, Hansen warns that his predictions may mean “the loss of all coastal cities, most of the world’s largest cities, and all of their history.”

The human toll of superstorms and flooding coasts is difficult to imagine. The loss in terms of human history when coastal cities are inundated will be incalculable. Cities like New Orleans may be forever lost beneath the tides.

The human dislocations of a warmer, wetter world will be significant. Poor people in developing countries will have difficulty adapting. Environmental refugees will flood our borders, looking for sanctuary. Some argue that Middle Eastern refugees inundating Europe are fleeing drought, as well as political persecution.

Even if we overcome apathy about climate change and avoid the deluge, malice remains a threat. The fragility of civilization was exposed recently when Syrian forces recaptured the ancient town of Palmyra. Hundreds of thousands have been killed in the Syrian war. In Palmyra, ISIS’ sinister ideology turned against the archaeological record.

Statues and reliefs were smashed. Monuments were toppled. The Roman Arch of Triumph was blown up. Torturing and beheading human beings is evil. Iconoclastic attacks on historical artifacts expose a sinister strand of nihilistic extremism.

Somehow all of this is interconnected. The oil economy is part of the history of colonialism and militarism. This has created backlash and religious extremism. Globalization gives us global capitalism, global terrorism and global warming.

Some wise pundits may connect these dots in more detail. But beneath all of this is a flaw in human nature. We are not rational. Nor are we good. We fail to plan for the long term. We succumb to stupid ideologies and get-rich-quick schemes. We singlemindedly pursue our agendas, indifferent to the consequences. Power, profit and political inertia prevent us from doing what is right for each other and for Earth.

The solution is as obvious as our fatal flaw. Education is the cure for the twin diseases of indifference and wickedness. Indeed, education is an act of preservation and conservation. We need to learn more about science, history, politics, religion, art and ethics. We need to criticize greed, hatred and indifference. And we need to understand the fragility of civilization.

It is difficult to imagine civilization crumbling. Our achievements seem permanent. But historical and geological education reminds us that none of this will last forever. Civilizations rise and fall.

If we don’t take care to preserve the accomplishments of civilization, they will fall faster, brought down by stupidity, arrogance and selfishness. Of course, human beings will adapt. Life will go on – albeit in a different form – once ISIS is destroyed and the oceans rise. Our grandchildren will remember New Orleans and Palmyra as lost gems. But they will rightly blame us for failing to protect and preserve what our own ancestors so painstakingly created.

Science, Religion, and Hope for Ecological Revolution

Science, Religion, and Hope for Ecological Revolution

Fresno Bee, June 26, 2015

  • Pope Francis’s ecological manifesto provides a source of hope that is foreign to science
  • The question of population control will continue to divide science and religion
  • The ecological crisis may demand a revolution in culture and consciousness that could unite science and religion

It seems like we have always lived under the shadow of environmental crisis. Climate change, ground water depletion, pollution, and other ecological ills have plagued us for decades. Political posturing, ignorance, and denial continue to impede action.

pope-environmentPope Francis’s recent ecological encyclical offers a bit of hope. Addressing the global community with the hope of stimulating a green revolution, the Pope warns that we are “reaching a breaking point, due to the rapid pace of change and degradation.”

The Pope blames this on a variety of factors: consumerism, worship of technology, and our Promethean faith in human superiority. He sees the ecological crisis as a sign of a broader “ethical, cultural, and spiritual crisis.” To respond, Francis argues, we need a “bold cultural revolution.”

Some scientists have been saying similar things for years. Stanford University’s Paul Ehrlich argues, for example, that we are in the midst of a human-caused mass extinction event, which could lead to the collapse of civilization. In the 1960’s Ehrlich warned of “a population bomb.” Population growth and environmental degradation have continued unabated. Ehrlich is not convinced that we will do what is necessary to avoid ecological collapse.

I asked Ehrlich via email whether there are any reasons for hope. He responded, “I hope we will take the well-known steps that would give us a chance to avoid a collapse of civilization—like humanely stopping population growth and reducing overconsumption by the rich.”

Ehrlich is, however, not optimistic, given the cultural and political status quo. He concluded, “I see little hope that we will do the things required, like giving full rights and opportunities to women everywhere and supplying all sexually active people everywhere with access to modern contraception and safe backup abortion, and rapidly transitioning away from fossil fuels.”

Scientists are not in the hope business. They deal with facts. Species go extinct. Past civilizations have collapsed. The earth has a limited carrying capacity. The concentration of climate-heating CO2 continues to rise. The most a scientist can hope for is that human beings will respond rationally to the facts.

But the Pope has a different source of hope. For the Pope, we are “not adrift in the midst of hopeless chaos.” Rather, Francis believes that God “does not abandon us.”

Here we have a fundamental disagreement. Does God promise ecological salvation? Or is civilization a fragile product of evolution, which could die of natural causes?

Ehrlich would argue that theological hope misleads, especially when religious moralism about reproduction is part of the problem. But the Pope might argue that without religious hope there is no basis for his imagined ecological revolution of the spirit.

Hopelessness is a significant ecological problem. It breeds indifference and selfishness. If civilization is doomed to collapse, then why bother to fix things? If we are destined for destruction, then why not horde, stockpile, and consume in anticipation of the collapse?

Hope is clearly needed, if we are going to make progress. But theology is not the only source of hope. The final chapter of human history is not yet written. Unprecedented change can happen. Spontaneous decency can occur. And rational behavior is not impossible. To succumb to despair is to deny that the future is ours to create.

One hopeful sign is the considerable agreement between the scientist and the Pope. They both call for a quick end to the fossil fuel economy. They believe we have an obligation to distribute resources equitably across the globe. They are each appalled by consumerism, especially overconsumption by the rich.

Some differences are substantial. Ehrlich advocates birth control—including backup abortion. Francis just as clearly does not. While the Pope rejects population control, Ehrlich views such rejection as part of the problem.

Population control will continue to divide us. It is easy to despair about such differences. But there is hope in the growing consensus about the need for an ecological revolution.

We need to cherish the delicate beauty of nature and understand our precarious place on this perishable planet. Science and religion actually agree about our fragile mortality and about the awesome wonder of nature. Religion and science can work together to foster the ecological revolution. Let’s hope it does not come too late.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/religion/article25546198.html#storylink=cpy

Climate, Consumption, and Self-Control

Global-Climate-Change3Looking down the rabbit hole

Fresno Bee, January 23, 2015

The earth’s climate is changing. Last year was among the hottest on record. And human population continues to grow. Current projections estimate that the human population will grow to around 11 billion by the end of the 21st century, reaching 9 billion well before then. That’s an increase of between 25% and 50% from the current population of 7 billion.

Imagine 100 people crowded into a warm room. Now put 25 or 50 more people in that space. Now imagine them all wanting to live and consume resources at the level that Americans enjoy. If the scientists are right, we are heading toward a hot and crowded future.

The good news is that by now nearly everyone admits that the climate is changing. President Barack Obama mentioned climate change in his State of the Union speech. Pope Francis will address the issue in an encyclical to be released this year. And the U.S. Senate voted 98-1 this week to affirm that climate change is real.

Unfortunately, 49 senators voted against the claim that human activity causes climate change. This includes Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, chair of the Senate Environment Committee. According to Sen. Inhofe, the Bible shows that humans can’t cause climate change — only God can.

A similar sort of denial occurs with regard to population growth. Pope Francis said this week that people should not “breed like rabbits.” But Francis backtracked a bit, later in the week, explaining that every child is a gift from God.

One obvious solution to both issues is birth control. Unfortunately, this solution is often taken off the table on moral grounds. The Pope, for example, opposes artificial birth control, advocating only natural methods for controlling sexual urges and channeling them properly within marriage.

Birth control is not the only solution. Another solution would be to reduce consumption. We could fit more people onto our crowded planet if each person consumed less. This is especially true if those of us in the developed world consumed a whole lot less. The earth could support a large human population if we all became vegetarians and lived much more simply.

But the difficulty of this solution is clear. The vegetarian option runs counter to our culture’s love of meat. And the idea of simplifying our needs runs counter to capitalism, which is based upon a model of continuous growth.

Carnivores, Catholics and capitalists do not appear to be inclined to change their thinking. We are creatures of habit, who remain committed to old ideas, even when they no longer make sense in present contexts.

We are also not very good at controlling our desires. Our inability to restrain ourselves helps explain a lot: from credit card debt to obesity and addiction. We readily sacrifice long-term goods for short-term pleasures. This explains why birth control — whether artificial or natural — fails. In the heat of the moment, passion undermines good judgment.

Good judgment also encounters resistance from strong cultural forces that are slow to change. When ideology is connected to self-interest, profit, and political gamesmanship, it is even more difficult to respond rationally.

The big question here is whether human beings are rational enough and virtuous enough to regulate our own behavior. Perhaps we are not much better than the rabbits of the Pope’s memorable analogy. Rabbits will continue to breed until they outstrip their food source, at which point the population declines. If human beings are like rabbits — unable to limit our reproductive or consumptive behavior — we may be doomed to a similar fate.

We often continue blithely along, ignoring reason and morality. We don’t change until we run out of money, until we are rushed to the emergency room, or until our addictions destroy our lives. We may be more like rabbits than we like to believe.

The ultimate solution is to stop hopping along the bunny trail. We should restrain our sexual activity, curtail consumption, avoid greed and profligacy, and live in balance with the world. Those are old moral ideas that make even more sense in light of the contemporary science of ecology. But these ideas will only prevail when we stop living like rabbits and start behaving like rational human beings.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2015/01/23/4344634_ethics-looking-down-the-rabbit.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy