On Interstellar Space Travel

Ross 128B - ESO, M. Kornmesser.jpg

We learned this week of the existence of a planet, Ross 128 b, which has roughly the same mass and surface temperature as Earth. It orbits a relatively stable red-dwarf star and—best news of all—it appears to be well-suited to the accumulation of surface water and thus to mammalian habitability. The downside? Ross 128 b is presently 11 light-years away, which is almost three times as far from us as our better known Earth-like twin, Proxima b. But here's the really good news. The solar system containing Ross 128 b is getting closer to our own. In a mere 79,000 years, it should be within, say, 40-trillion km of us!

Critics will say that we should stop looking to the skies and focus on getting our own house in order. This is, without question, a very good point. Others will wax romantic about limitless human frontiers and our longing for interstellar exploration. Another excellent point. But here's the best reason of all to go. If we don't do it, squirrels will evolve higher intelligence and go without us.

A Busy Day at the Vatican

Pope Francis - EPA.jpg

Pope Francis today sent a message of encouragement to the COP23 delegates labouring in Bonn. In keeping with his previous encyclical on ecology, he stressed the need to fight poverty and promote "true human development"—laudable goals indeed. But what is attracting the attention of the secular world is the pontiff's strongly worded insistence that debate on global climate policy be limited to those holding orthodox views on the subject. "We should avoid falling into the trap of these four perverse attitudes," he writes, "which certainly do not help honest research or sincere and productive dialogue on building the future of our planet: denial, indifference, resignation and trust in inadequate solutions."

Leaving  aside humanity's most daunting climate-related ethical challenges—whether the Paris goals are achievable, whether the trillions of dollars required to meet them would be better spent on other mitigation strategies, whether we will have to buy time en route to a carbon-free future by geoengineering the Earth—we might well ask whether those in attendance at COP23 are themselves succumbing to "trust in inadequate solutions"—Chancellor Merkel, for instance, who yesterday reassured disbelieving German protesters that their country's reliance on coal can be "solved in a calm and reliable manner," or President Macron, whose country derives 75 percent of its electricity from nuclear power (which Germany has outlawed). And what of our own Catherine McKenna, who has flown into Bonn to advocate for "a global alliance to eliminate coal-fired electricity" even though Canada is still exporting coal? According to the 2018 Climate Change Performance Index, Canada ranks 51st out of the 60 countries vetted, with "very low" ratings in both GHG-reduction targets and overall energy use, but "very high grades for its performance in international climate diplomacy." Climate politicking circa 2017 may not be perverse exactly, but it's certainly tricky.

Pope Francis cannot be unaware of this obvious truth. Back at the Vatican, having congratulated COP23 participants, the pontiff made his way out to the parking lot to take receipt of a Lamborghini Huracán, presented to him as a gift from the famed Italian automaker. The $200,000 Huracán model, painted in papal white and yellow, comes with a standard 602 hp, 5.2-litre (ten-cylinder) gas-powered engine. The Pope, who drives a 2008 Ford Focus, has directed Vatican officials to auction off the Lamborghini, with proceeds going to three of his favourite charities. That's one way to decarbonize.

On Culling the Human Herd

In his essay "Man and Earth," German philosopher Ludwig Klages despaired of the idea of human progress, which he called "a sick, destructive joke." Progress, he wrote, "is devastating forests, exterminating animal species, extinguishing native cultures, masking and distorting the pristine landscape with the varnish of industrialism, and debasing the organic life that still survives." Klages wrote this in 1913. If it sounds familiar, that's because we've been hearing the same anti-progress, anti-development, anti-capitalist refrain ever since.

Two days ago, 15,364 scientists from 184 countries issued a Warning to Humanity, reminding us yet again that we are on "a collision course with the natural world." Much is noteworthy about this century-old critique, including its authoritarianism (political leaders must be "compelled to do the right thing") and its historic connection to Nazi biopolitics. But its most persistent and apparently beguiling imperative is that we calculate "a scientifically defensible, sustainable human population size for the long term." Scientists have, in fact, been making precisely these sorts of calculations since Malthus—culminating in the Sixties-era admonition to achieve zero population growth. "The battle to feed all of humanity is over," biologist Paul Ehrlich proclaimed in his 1968 book The Population Bomb. "In the 1970s the world will undergo famines—hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death." When Ehrlich made this macabre prediction, there were 3.5 billion people in the world, roughly half the global population today. And what can be said of human progress since then? According to historian Johan Norberg, author of the award-winning 2016 book Progress, "we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place. Poverty, malnutrition, illiteracy, child labour and infant mortality are falling faster than at any other time in human history."

From Malthus' and Klages' eras to our own, the path of progress has been littered with dogmatic and dangerous "scientific" predictions about the human (and non-human) future and Earth's capacity to sustain it. Sensible people know this (click the video link, above). It does not make them "anti-science" but it does help to explain why they're unwilling to give scientist-activists like Paul Ehrlich a free pass on climate change, demography, food security, resource scarcity or any other serious policy issue on which they claim to have a crystal ball.