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

Earth Day

Earth Day reminds us of the challenges of cooperation

Fresno Bee, April 22, 2016

  • Earth Day was not always on the same date
  • The history of Earth Day shows us the challenges we face
  • The goal is peace, justice and living well on a stormy Earth

Space exploration, religion, and ethics

Exploration of outer space prompts philosophical reflection

Fresno Bee, July 24, 2015

  • Pluto’s icy world reminds us of earth’s fragility
  • Search for alien life creates complex problems for religion and ethics
  • Are are we conquerors or compassionate collaborators?

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

We must learn to live in harmony with nature

We must learn to live in harmony with nature

BY ANDREW FIALA

Fresno Bee February 7, 2014

Some have prayed to God to end our drought. But drought is not about God’s will. It’s about our habits. Human beings choose how to use the rain that falls. Despite the recent showers, we still need the wisdom to adapt to changing conditions.

Drought is a relative term that depends upon long-term average rainfall. Drought in the Olympic rain forest is different from drought in California. But we may have misjudged California’s long-term average. The 20th century was wetter than previous centuries. Less rain may be the new normal.

We must respond to local conditions and new circumstances. But we often ignore the constraints of our ecosystem, insisting on our own preferences, failing to harmonize with the land and its changes.

Aldo Leopold, the great conservation ecologist, warned that contemporary American life was out of synch with the land. Unsustainable practices do not respond to the unique beauty and integrity of the local environment. Leopold’s famous “land ethic” aims to find harmony with the land.

Harmony is an interesting concept. Musical harmony joins together different tones to make a synchronized and beautiful whole. Harmonizers respond to change in creative, sympathetic and peaceful ways. They don’t insist on their own tone. Rather, they learn to blend by listening and adapting to what’s unfolding around them. Grace, balance and harmony are essential for a happy life.

Harmonious living is a central idea in the Chinese philosophy known as Taoism. Taoist myths explain that Lao-Tzu, the old master of Taoism, despaired of the disharmony of political life and left civilization behind. But before he retreated to the wilderness, he reminded people to be less like rock and more like water: to flow with the world. Taoism links harmony with flowing water. The Tao Te Ching warns that without harmony, valleys dry up and life withers.

This discussion of harmony may sound frivolous in the face of the hard reality of drought. Drought forces tough choices about distributing harms and benefits. Do we need more dams and reservoirs? Should old rivers be restored? What about the fish? What about the farmers? Ask those questions around here and you’re bound to find conflict.

That is part of the problem. We’re in conflict with one another and in conflict with the land. We don’t listen, and we don’t blend.

A Taoist would suggest that toughness and hardness are part of the problem. To adamantly insist on living in a way that is not responsive to the natural world is to miss an opportunity to harmonize.

Green summer lawns, to cite one obvious example, are out of tune with the reality of our dry summer climate. To live harmoniously in California we may have to give up green summer grass. Someone might object, “A lush, green lawn is central to our way of life. And we’ll be poorer without them. Let someone else sacrifice. I want to live how I want to live.” When each party insists, conflict ensues.

We become adamant when asked to reassess our idea of what is needed for a good life. Drought, however, requires a reassessment of priorities. A different way of living would be beautiful in its own way, so long as it harmonizes with the world.

The point is not to advocate asceticism, self-denial and miserable subsistence. Nor should we prioritize fish over farmers or vice versa. The goal is to find a way to prosper while listening and blending. To live well is to live in balance. We forget that because we’ve been taught to insist and resist, to fight and accuse. That discordant approach is typical of our disharmonious political culture. It is the same sort of culture that led Lao-Tzu to despair.

Many prefer strife and struggle. We hammer each other, proudly displaying our resoluteness. But unyielding hardness only produces short-term gains. It does not delve into the difficult process of learning to blend with each other and conform to the land.

In the long run, the weather will change us, despite our resistance — just as water wears away the hardest stone. Human civilization is a tiny pebble in the river of time. Wisdom is learning to listen and harmonize with the changing chords of the natural world.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/02/07/3756489/we-must-learn-to-live-in-harmony.html#storylink=cpy