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.