Dear Press: Stop Enthusing About Habitable Planets until People like Va.’s Cuccinelli Stop Destroying this One

The issue of habitable planets, earth’s own disastrous climate change, and Virginia politics don’t intersect every day. But today they do, and that does not reflect well on the human species or its prospects. Bear with me.

NASA’s now-idle Kepler telescope’s earlier search for habitable planets in the universe from time to time generates breathless reporting on how there are lots of (most recently, “ten billion”) earth-like worlds.

NASAsolarsystem reports that one in five stars have earth-sized planets orbiting in a ‘sweet spot’ so that water and life would be possible.

The problem with getting excited about all this is that space is incredibly big, and human beings have no, zero, nada prospect of ever going to any of those other earth-like worlds (most of which would not in fact support human life because of the need for the right mix of gases in the atmosphere, bacterially-churned soil to grow food in, etc., etc.) Space travel to other solar systems is a wonderful literary device, but given Einsteinian constraints on exceeding the speed of light (not to mention the severe challenges of going even a fraction as fast), human beings are stuck in our own little corner of the Milky Way.

India’s unmanned Mars mission, which just successfully blasted off, has provoked scientists to muse about the possibility of “terra-forming” that planet or engineering it to be habitable for human beings.

This enthusiasm for earth-like worlds, or making other worlds earth-like, makes me tear my hair out, given that we are assiduously destroying the only actual habitable planet we are likely to have any time in the foreseeable future.

The UN has just announced that the chances of us limiting global warming to only 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F.) are almost zero and that we will exceed 2020 carbon emissions targets by 12 billion metric tons. That’s tragic, because 12 billion metric tons could certainly be cut out of our emissions in the next 6 years if we started a crash program to accomplish it. Just increasing our energy use efficiency (25% of American buildings have no insulation) and closing coal plants in favor of green energy sources would probably accomplish it. It would cost some money, but much of that would stimulate economic growth via the multiplier effect, which would be good for a world in the doldrums. The US reduced its emissions from 6 billion metric tons a year to 5 ( more because of wind power installations than because of natural gas) in the past couple of years. A global program to get 12 times that effect, with China, India, Russia and others joining in, is not impossible. It is just highly unlikely.

In my state, Michigan, we had a ten percent green energy goal for 2015, and even our Republican governor is considering increasing that to 15% in 2020 and 30% in 2030. But that isn’t the correct timeline for Michigan or the world. We would need to go twice as fast, 30% by 2020 and 60% by 2030, to avoid catastrophe. I’m putting solar panels on my house, but get virtually no help or encouragement from my state (compare to Washington state, where I’d get a 75% offset). The slower timeline is better for Big Oil and Big Coal, because their commodities keep their value longer, a delay worth trillions of dollars to them. But in order to keep them rich a little while longer, we are scorching and drowning, i.e. torturing to death, our unborn grandchildren.

The sense of urgency about the crisis is almost completely lacking in the political class. Even the world’s food supply is being endangered by our climate emissions.

So far from terra-forming Mars or hoping for life on Jupiter’s moon, Europa (the subject of a fine summer science fiction film, the “Europa Report,” a cautionary tale), we are de-terra-forming earth itself! If we go, as we are likely to, to a 5 degrees C. increase in average world surface temperatures, we could destabilize the climate in ways that would make human survival unlikely. Geologists looking at past eras when the temperatures were that high and this much carbon was in the atmosphere have found evidence of, e.g., 12,000-year-long storms. Gulp.

How does all this connect with the Virginia gubernatorial campaign? The likely loser, Ken Cuccinelli, is typical of today’s Republican Party, a Tea Party evangelical and anti-intellectual science denier. Cosmopolitan Northern Virginia is deeply dependent on science and technology for its economic success, and will join forces with the nearly 20% of the state that is African-American to defeat the rural and small-town population intoxicated with male chauvinism, know-nothingism and a superficial literalist religiosity that kills spirituality.

Cuccinelli among other things wasted $600,000 of Virginians’ money by pursuing a witch hunt against climate scientist Michael Mann, then at the University of Virginia. Mann, author of the revolutionary The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars, is among our contemporary world’s few true heroes.

Our politicians are not only not announcing a crash program to keep global warming to a 2 degree C. increase, they are actively persecuting and making life miserable for our climate scientists, who are explaining to us the epochal challenge we face.

Human beings began the twentieth century thinking that they were at the apex of global evolution, the planet’s most intelligent and most innovative species. We begin the twenty-first century facing the real possibility that we are mediocre dodos, well-enough adapted to our initial niche but not smart enough to survive in a changed environment. Ironically, we are the ones inducing the changed environment, and aren’t even smart enough to stop digging the hole we’ve gotten ourselves in. Virginia politics, which once gave us Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, now produces bullying ignoramuses like Cuccinelli. It is small comfort that he will likely lose. His ilk is setting national and most state policy on climate.

33 Responses

  1. Interesting, how we portray our villains in our myths. One I really like is “Independence Day,” where a starfaring species of telepathic “monsters” hops from “habitable” planet to planet, killing any potentially complaining life forms and sucking “profit” out of the place before discarding it and moving on to the next space-time-locus with “something” to dominate and extract. Why am I reminded of the Kochs and Krupps and a long list of Robber Baron and Imperial types, who don’t even have tentacles or adaptive exoskeletons (yet, other than socially and functionally…)?

    • Best comment you’ve ever made, JT. We are coming more to resemble the looting aliens in “Independence Day” than the plucky Will Smith character.

  2. Thanks, Juan. The AP “reportage” in my morning paper made it eminently clear that these folks have absolutely no clue about either time or distance. Enstein, Schmeinstein.

  3. We have always longed for companions and felt there must be distant, unseen, mysterious others somewhere in the vastness of creation. It’s good to think so. It’s a comfort, perhaps, when we contemplate the inevitability of our our own deaths. It helps, perhaps, to diminish our arrogance. But at the same time we are essentially alone. We can’t get to other planets, and really, despite the huge appeal of science fiction in which we can, we are misguided to think we want to. Our lives are dependent on this earth. We need this gravity, this air, this blue sky and green earth, these microflora and fauna, this place of our ancestors. This is where our souls are, and if we ever devised a way to leave, we would leave our souls behind, and sicken and die.

  4. It is part of the human condition for people to migrate to other places when conditions become intolerable in their current domiciles. Eventually, they proceed to degrade their new lands and make them uninhabitable. Now we are looking at migrating to another planet after Earth is degraded beyond hope. How long will it take them to destroy their new planet?

  5. Then there’s also the Gaia hypothesis. Not only is Earth in the ‘sweet spot’ astronomically but it has this amazing self-regulating system that maintains the proper conditions for life. The sun’s energy output has increased by around 25% since life first appeared on Earth and Gaia has been able to regulate the Earth’s temperature to within just a few degrees over that time. Not just its temperature but also its chemistry – keeping oxygen to levels where the atmosphere doesn’t just catch on fire, for instance. Even if we had faster than light travel in order to reach all these other planets there’s absolutely no guarantee that any of them would have a Gaia of their own.

    We really do have only one planet. There’s nothing more ideological than Star Trek – the ever expanding frontier.

  6. Wonderful piece, Juan. And JT’s comment is spot on too. From my perspective we’re self-destructing as a species mostly because hardly anyone understands how we actually function, and what really drives our bad behavior. Our nervous system evolved to keep us safe when we were prey animals, so we’re hyper-vigilant about detecting danger…and the moment we feel threatened we might as well not even have a cerebral cortex, because it’s offline, and our Reptilian Brain is running the show. The good news is: the fields of neuroscience, trauma research and treatment methods have made amazing progress in helping us get a handle on how we ACTUALLY function (emotionally, not nearly as ‘rational’ as we believe we are). The bad news is: so far, this information hasn’t gotten injected into the ‘bloodstream’ of our culture; especially not in what passes for political & policy discourse. If anyone out there is interested in dialoguing further about this, my email address is:

    • Its a tough road to try to get a culture interested in learning about the natural strengths and weaknesses of our unaided cognition. There are ways of largely overcoming these problems, but we as a society are too busy exploiting them to advance our narrow minded agendas (political commercial or religious) to be interested. In fact there are many interest groups actively opposed to the teaching of critical thinking.

  7. It certainly hasn’t helped that in the U.S. we get trained very early to be good little ‘consumers’ vs. good citizens. We start learning quite early that ‘the key to happiness is having stuff,’ vs. really looking at our intrinsic value, and that of others. We’ve venerated competition, and look upon cooperation and sharing as nostrums to teach little kids, knowing that they’ll outgrow their idealism and will quickly learn to get in the societal ring and stop worrying if they have to step on others in order to ‘get ahead.’ It’s just the American way…

  8. Hey professor, don’t write mankind of just yet. Consider the following: horses, trains, high speed trains, cars, planes, jets flying through the skies lack palaces with wings, rockets, mobile phones, smart mobile phones, ipods, that horrible institution we call the NSA that can store everything we every say or do on phones and internet and so it goes on. We have come a long way in less than a century or two. They say we can’t travel faster than light, yet a black hole is there because light is being pulled into it faster than it can get out, so if light is traveling backwards faster than it can travel forwards, then the speed of light can be exceeded!! I know, the scientists among you can knock my point down, but never underestimate man’s ability to find a solution.

    • JW, consider that a person who falls off a cliff “goes a long way,” too, and his “progress” also accelerates, at a nominal 9.806 meters per second squared. The sounds he emits probably depend on the reason he’s falling (clumsy, or pushed, or base-jumping, “ending it all”), anything from EEEEEEeeeeeeeeee… to AAAAAAAaaaaaa…. to YAHOOOOOOOooooo. How many happen to be wearing, and know how to use, that neat little fanny-pack ram-air wingchute? And even with that Advanced Technology, there’s still this kind of outcome: link to

      Wonder if one could base-jump into a black hole?… ANYthing’s possible, right?

      • Absolutely it is possible, JTM – but coming out of the black hole intact enough to say “Hell Yeah!” and pump a fist in the air probably isn’t.

    • After horses you listed a lot of technology which has only been possible due to abundant and cheap fossil fuels, which is the cause of the de-terra-forming of our planet. People tend to think of our technology as being the creative masterpieces of humanity, but its really access to cheap and abundant fossil energy that has enabled all of this, not human ingenuity. This belief in technology is essentially what brought each level of optimization, enabling humanity to consume the planet at increasing speed, up to a point where CO2 emissions and changes to our biosphere is happening at a pace that is faster than anything the planet has endured before. Basically human technology is the biggest force of nature and can perfectly well make the whole planet uninhabitable for the majority of critters.

      I do believe the solution is more about humanity ability to change their habits and our social structure than waiting for a tekno-fix. And that is the reason why we cant seem to fix this, because we are a herd of trained consumers with no respect for the planetary impact of our consumption.

  9. There was quite recently a great hoopla about a possible microbe found on Mars and about the same time there was a widely commented on photo of a rich man posing with the corpse of a just slain elephant that he had shot in the head for fun. We are reality challenged. Some of us are so excited about life somewhere else, as you say, Juan, but the life all around us is apparently worthless. We do not recognize that we are a part of this biosphere. We feel alone, but we do not stop to look around and see that we aren’t alone. We just do not know how to communicate with, listen to and understand the life around us. With each passing day we see our children taught to be consumers rather than developing humans in a great wondrous adventure. Huge numbers of humans and other species die preventable deaths, yet in this country, in particular, it seems we are just to accept these deaths as unavoidable. I think this is insane. I think modern life is insane. You may have been to harsh on the Dodos. At least they didn’t take the whole planet with them.

    • Of course, it was the “benefits” of Empires and the “inevitable increase of trade” that occasioned the extinction of the dodo — we humans ate them, for convenience, protein to fuel the sailors who spread the “virtues” of European commercial culture around the world, and the rats and pigs and monkeys imported to that island singularity. link to The poor old dodos, eating and excreting and reproducing in a nice niche, had not much to do with their departure unless, as with the Kochian “vision” of Rand-Space, they were “guilty” of not being vicious enough to protect their turf. Wonder how (longstanding sci fi theme) the kinds of humans likely to afford going spacefaring will be received by any sentience elsewhere?

  10. John:

    Not sure about either “writing mankind off” or, conversely, blithe unconcern as valid attitudes. The above reminds me of “They said we couldn’t” blablabla. Never mentioned are all the good things other “theys” promised that never materialized. Take the nuclear industry – power was supposed to be too cheap to meter as early as the 1960s. Where are the flying cars? Where are Julian Simon’s inexhaustible resources? Etc. The people who were mostly right were the environmentalists and the more pessimistic futurists, frankly.

  11. Climate change is not going to make the world uninhabitable or in itself drive humanity extinct. Earth has survived a lot more than that just fine, with just a minor mass extinction or two. Humans like rats and cockroaches are able to survive in most climates and should, as a species, do just fine even if more specialized species go extinct, although possibly in somewhat smaller numbers. Conflict for who those survivors are going to be may, on the other hand, be quite unpleasant, and if it involves larger uses of nuclear or bacteriological weapons might well kill us off.

    Going to other planets isn’t impossible, just very complex and time consuming. If our civilization manages to survive long enough it seems quite plausible to me that we will send ships to them with either people in some kind of suspended animation, or, more likely, just fertilized eggs or even DNA-code, and machines that upon arrival raise a population.

    Juan is quite right that this is not going to happen unless we learn to take care of our own planet first, though. I do hope we try to build some more self-reliant space colonies, as that will really hammer in how complex it is to create and support an ecosystem when you don’t have it for free like on Earth.

    • The biggest extinction event killed off 90% of the planets life and generally anything bigger than a rat will not survive changes i toxicity to the air, and a reduction in the amount of available oxygen. Note that mass extinctions normally involves that a number of the lower parts of the food chain goes first, so it spells bad for any species higher on the food chain – human beings are on the top. Phytoplankton provides the earth with 50% of our oxygene – anything that affects them will affect us as well.

  12. It’s not absolutely impossible to travel to other stars, we could one day build generation ships and do it.

    But there’s no point to that because when you’re able to build generation ships and live indefinitely in space between the stars you’re removed any need to make the trip.

    At that point you have all the resources and er, space you need for ever.

    I think it’s a bit harsh to rag on enthusiastic forward looking folks because one is upset about an economic system that isn’t their responsibility ravaging our environment.

    It sounds a little like the mean spirited arguments against the space program from sixty years ago that complained it was wasted wealth that should be spent on feeding people when the technological advances in weather observation alone repaid the investment many times over and was the basis of our dawning awareness of how much we were polluting.

    We didn’t know how much damage was being done until we got into orbit and looked down.

  13. Now, now, NASA would say it cares about our future, Just think what are the chances of an extinction event or large enough asteroid hitting. Okay, not so great. I’m not sure if its possible to do this either, but NASA just recently issued an Ed Wood RFP (it recently closed out) for ideas as to how to calf rope and divert a flying megalith on a crash course with earth.

    If Newt Gingrich had won the Presidency, NASA would not have to be so inventive about finding ways to justify its continued funding at space race levels. And Newt could take soon-to-be-unemployed, i hope, Cuccinelli with him to found his colony of lunatics.

    I hope Juan doesn’t lose any hair over this…i think he’s kinda cute the way he is.

  14. As a former academic turned farmer I consider myself one of the troops at ground zero for climate change. And I can say, we are in peril. The problems agriculture will face are enormous. Given the timeline required for technological advancement to get to other planets and . . . well, it all seems pretty much like science fiction and fantasy to me. Hell, we can’t even figure out the food system on this planet, and we are talking about traveling to others? Excuse me?

    I think people would be pretty shocked if they knew the precarious situation as concerns the relationship of the food system to geo-politics and the environment. Farmers require a relatively stable climate environment; we know that no year is the same, but we require a certain degree of “dependability” with variation within that stability. That stability is rapidly vanishing.

    And with it will vanish economic, social, and political stability. It’s fundamental, it’s basic. Bread riots are coming – or, to use a “GameofThronism”, “Winter Is Coming”. We have already seen instability as a result of inflated food prices in Arab countries dependent on a depleted Russian wheat harvest.

    How will we live when the Nile no longer floods? When Bangladesh is under water? When our heartland is too depleted and drought stricken to produce corn, wheat, and soy? When the Himalayas no longer have water enough for the peoples of Asia? When the oceans collapse? What will it take? I suspect that it will be something asinine – the failure of hops that elevates the price of beer. The vanishing of ancient vines in France, Italy and Spain. Or maybe something extreme – say a pandemic from a mutated virus that thrives in warmer climes and the death of a third of the world a la 1348. Or a minor nuclear war between India and Pakistan over water. Who knows?

    But it will certainly, no certainly not be the displacement of the peoples of the Earth with slightly browner skin and slightly flatter noses and slightly strange gods. No, it will not be that sort of thing that awakens us to the threat.

    L’inverno viene. Hiberna venit. Das Winter kommt.

  15. There’s only one thing that could survive an interstellar journey – a hollowed out solid asteroid to provide shielding against the constant shotblasting of cosmic radiation, and provide mass for propulsion.
    However, without any local star to provide energy, finding a power source capable of sustaining a human colony and its biosphere for thousands of generations is beyond anything we can create, and there’s a problem of how to reinsert into a stable orbit around a distant star, without flying off into

    Our little blue Petri-dish is the only home we have, so we should really stop terradeforming it.

  16. Evolution’s mistake is to produce an “intelligent” species like Homo Sapiens, one that is greedy with a me-first attitude to boot. Intelligence with those properties does not sit well with survival of the ecosystem. So we perish because of our own intelligence. What is needed is intelligence with wisdom but I guess it’s a bit too late now.

  17. To paraphrase Tip O’Neal, I think the applicable paradigm is “all survival is local”. If the UN determined that a cohort of a billion people would perish due to the affects of global warming, the gut (and voting booth) reaction would not be “let’s save those people”, rather it would be “I’ll do anything to stay out of that cohort”.

  18. This kind of reflection should be more widespread. Especially the zero-zilch part. Unfortunately it is scientism rather than evangelical Christianity that spouts that pseudo-scientific nonsense. The science-deniers are in fact far less dangerous than the mindless tech-fetishists.

  19. I’ll agree and disagree with you, Juan, though I generally agree with you more far, far more often than not.

    The space program was instrumental in outlining several environmental problems that needed fixing, and is still vital for understanding climate change at all. Minus weather satellites we would have near-zero data on the large-scale effects of climate change. We wouldn’t really be able to see it. And I submit that the iconic images of the Earth in space kick-started the environmental movement in many ways.

    Technological solutions are definitely not always in order, and the relation between technology and human progress is a complicated one. (To give one example, the cotton gin actually made slavery *more* economically viable than it was before in the US). You are quite correct that many technologies rely on access to cheap energy.

    While it isn’t possible currently to travel to planets around other stars faster than light, we actually have the technology right now to build starships. it would just be stupendously expensive. For instance, a generation ship (say, a wheel design that hits ~10% lightspeed) is well within our reach, using a combination of say, NERVA rockets and ion engines, or solar sails. Even the old Orion project might do it. But it would bankrupt the US to build right now.

    In one sense though, a generation ship is a good idea. Even if humans were perfect environmental stewards there’s always the possibility of the stray asteroid we don’t see in time. A sufficiently large one would wipe us out. Getting to other planets solves the “eggs in one basket” problem.

    All that said. Yes, you are quite correct that we need to radically change the way we do business here, now, if we are to survive to achieve any of this.

    I think that while it’s easy to dismiss the enthusiasm over finding other worlds that are “Earthlike” (the term is a loose one) the discoveries also underscores just how fragile and unique our planet actually is.

    Beyond the silly headlines, anyone who takes even a cursory dip into astronomy is, if they can think at all, immediately smacked in the head with the sheer size of the universe. Astronomy makes you realize just how brief human lives are, how long the rest of the universe has been around, and the depth of your connection to it. Carl Sagan was hardly a shill for the oil industry — he in fact was one of many who back in 1979(!) noted that (per others’ work and his own) that humans could do a great deal of damage to the environment we depend on. Nor was he a fan of purely technological fixes. He was very, very clear that Mind — us, that is — might be common in the universe as a whole, but we’re pretty well on our own and had better not screw up.

    Yes, the major news outlets should pay more attention to climate change. To the Koch brothers. To the nature of rapacious capitalism. Yes, we have serious problems that need addressing.

    But to say that it’s wrong to be enthusiastic about human possibility in this sense is to me, like being upset that we discovered how to make laser beams before we figured out how to do open-heart surgery, or found the structure of DNA in 1953 but still can’t cure every form of cancer.

    The questions over what makes planets habitable – and what other planets look like, are in fact an important piece to answer if we are to avert disaster here.

    This also doesn’t mean that scientific priorities aren’t affected by what gets funded, et cetera. But think of my example of the space program above. Would we really have taken action to limit CFC production. for instance, without the information from satellite imaging? I doubt it. What effect did the views of Earth from space have? I doubt too many people saw that and said. “I want to drill for more oil.”

    And to global warming: The work that was done on the atmospheres of Venus and Mars were both very, very important in understanding the role of even trace gases in the atmosphere of Earth. CO2 especially. We know now that minus a CO2 atmosphere Mars would be even *colder* and Venus is a hellish place because the atmosphere is largely CO2. We know that CO2 atmospheres are common (most rocky bodies int he solar system have that as a major gas). That tells us a lot about the Earth and how not to de-terraform it.

    At best I think you are being uncharitable, and at worst you’re looking at science as a zero-sum game, and forgetting the interrelated nature of the enterprise.

    • 100% agree – space research and exploration is complimentary and not opposed to combating climate change (as well as a number of other important social issues). The argument that the relatively small amounts of money and wealth invested to date in the quest to push mankind’s frontier outward should be ceased in order to focus on more local issues is short-sighted and counter-productive. If you want to find things we should stop paying attention to, reference any of the Real Housewives shows, and if you want to find things we should stop wasting money on, look towards things like subsidies for corn in the U.S. and farmers in general in Europe.

  20. There is no good reason to suppose that humans can survive outside of the earth-moon system. Even assuming the discovery of cheap antigravity, what about radiation? And anybody remember Biosphere 2?

    As for the viability of long-term human colonies, consider how precarious pregnancy is, even on earth. Now imagine how things like zero gravity and the absence of a lunar cycle might affect fetal development.

    • Combating radiation is not technically difficult – there are already solutions that have been developed for interplanetary travel (in particular designs relying on the fields created by superconducting magnets) and habitation on various planet surfaces (lunar regolith is actually effective at blocking radiation, for example).

      I have no doubt that human birth can be made possible in sub-1G gravity and in the absence of lunar cycles – we have made huge advances in reducing infant mortality on Earth already, and it is entirely conceivable that even if it is impossible for the human body to produce such children on other planets (which I see no reason to believe is so), that babies would be incubated in non-human hosts.

      In my opinion a greater challenge to creating and expanding human settlements on other planets would be preventing the potentially catastrophic transmission of diseases from earth to such settlements.

  21. Europa Report was indeed a fine summer film. And with astronaut Col. Chris Hadfield on a book tour, I’ve listened to several radio interviews in which the procedures learned watching Europa Report were helpful in understanding his descriptions of actual events which occurred during his space missions.

    Europa Report falls into that SciFi subcategory which tries to avoid excessive speculation and to adhere as closely as possible to currently understood science. Made in technical consultation with NASA the events in the movie are not just plausible, but some seem to have been plucked out of actual space missions.

Comments are closed.