Hawking and Lovelock say Planet Earth's had it – but should we stay or go?

by Paul Thomas / 17 July, 2017
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Life on the moon. Photo/Getty Images

We gotta get out of this place seems to be the message from two prominent futurists, but they must have missed the portents in Blade Runner and Alien. 

Well, the good old days may not return
And the rocks might melt and the sea may burn.
I’m learning to fly, but I ain’t got wings.
Coming down is the hardest thing
– Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Learning to Fly

As far as futurists Stephen Hawking and James Lovelock are concerned, the die is cast: the good old days are gone and they’re not coming back. In 2008, Lovelock’s advice to the human race was “enjoy life while you can because, if you’re lucky, it’s going to be 20 years before it hits the fan” – “it” being globally devastating extreme weather conditions triggering wars and famines that will wipe out 80% of the world’s population by the turn of the century. Hawking sees all that coming and more in the form of asteroid strikes, which, he says, are guaranteed by “the laws of physics and probability”.

Lovelock visualises a future of sorts for the human race on Planet Earth: those worthy of being the “carriers of the civilisation ahead” will “sequester” themselves in a high-tech civilisation sustained by nuclear power, desalination plants and synthetic food, while what’s left of the hoi polloi scavenge a Saharan wasteland trying to stay one step ahead of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

Hawking, however, is adamant that we’ve got to get out of Dodge. We need to establish colonies on the Moon within 30 years and Mars within 50 as a prelude to mass evacuation. Last November, his time frame was 1000 years, but Armageddon is on fast forward: now he’s saying we need to be goneski in 100 years.

Stephen Hawking. Photo/Getty Images

The colonisation conundrum

Speaking at the Starmus science festival in Trondheim, Norway, last month, Hawking said: “When we have reached similar crises in history, there has usually been somewhere else to colonise. Christopher Columbus did it in 1492 when he discovered the New World … We are running out of space and the only places to go to are other worlds.”

It’s an interesting analogy. In 1492, Europeans didn’t have the technology to know there was a New World but possessed the means to get there. The opposite applies to colonising outer space: we know, via telescopes and unmanned probes, that there’s any amount of empty real estate out there, but at the moment and for the foreseeable future, we haven’t got the technology to put a few astronauts, let alone entire communities, on much of it.

Only 20 years separated the first flight by a jet airliner – the de Havilland Comet in 1949 – and the first flight by a supersonic airliner. But Concorde’s sonic boom and limited capacity made it a white elephant in the dawning age of mass tourism: only 20 were ever built; only two airlines bought and operated them. The Soviet Union’s Tupolev TU-44 fared even worse, making just 55 scheduled flights before being retired.

Christopher Columbus. Photo/Getty Images

No one has been tempted to build Son of Concorde. The big R&D pushes have been in computerisation, fuselage size, fuel efficiency and environmental compliance. Every now and again, the manufacturers brainstorm what a second-generation supersonic might look like, but it’s largely pie in the sky. In 2015, the European plane-making consortium Airbus Industrie floated the idea of a hybrid: a supersonic corporate jet with military applications that could carry 20 people from London to New York in an hour and launch precision strikes by electromagnetic pulses. Now that’s dual-purpose.

The issue is cost: the disparity between evolution and revolution is enormous. Hawking knows full well that mass evacuation to other worlds would require the urgent development of technology straight out of the most imaginative science fiction – “nuclear-powered fusion ships powered by matter-antimatter reactors or some completely new forms of energy”. Necessity is the mother of invention, but the outlay – and therefore sacrifices – and international co-operation needed for such an undertaking are unlikely if not unthinkable as things stand.

Another difference between 1492 and now is that the New World was habitable: colonists didn’t have to create an ecosystem to enable them to survive in an environment bearing little resemblance to that they’d left behind. The 2016 discovery of the planet Proxima b in a habitable zone close to the red dwarf star Proxima Centauri generated much excitement. However, as well as being 40 trillion kilometres, or 4.2 light years, away, it’s apparently lashed by winds 2000 times stronger than anything we experience on Earth.

James Lovelock. Photo/Getty Images

“A new life awaits you …”

Science fiction has tended to overestimate mankind’s capacity for and interest in getting off the third rock from the sun. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) concerned a manned voyage to Jupiter, a mere 588 million kilometres away. In 1982’s Blade Runner, set in an acid rain-drenched Los Angeles in 2019, the off-world colonies are spruiked on giant screens floating above debris-strewn streets much as New Zealand must have been sold to Victorian Britons: “A new life awaits you in the off-world colonies – a chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure.” (The sequel Blade Runner 2049 comes out in October.) Then there’s the Alien series, which begins in 2091 and makes staying put, climate-change catastrophe and all, seem infinitely preferable to voyaging into the unknown.

If Hawking and Lovelock are correct, the choice is simple: fight or flight. If we stay, we’ll be in much the same position as the few hundred men of the 93rd Highlanders on that fateful day in 1854. Hours before the charge of the Light Brigade took place, they were all that stood between 2500 Russian cavalry and the strategic but vulnerable British camp in Balaklava.

Sir Colin Campbell told his men, “There is no retreat from here. You must die where you stand.” “Aye, Sir Colin,” replied an aide, “if needs be, we’ll do that.” The Russians were repulsed and the legend of the thin red line was born.

Or there’s the Hawking/Petty option:

So I’ve started out for God knows where.
I guess I’ll know when I get there.
I’m learning to fly, around the clouds,
But what goes up must come down.

This article was first published in the July 15, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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