AA holds forth on the debate sparked off by Stephen Hawking’s comments on the human race’s long term future – isn’t it time that all the futurists started pulling in the same direction?
Late last month, renowned physicist Stephen Hawking provoked a furious debate, in response to comments made at various functions he had spoken at.
“It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species,” Hawking said. “Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers we have not yet thought of.”
Regrettably, there is no transcript available for his speech (at least, not one that I have been able to track down), which means all we have are the soundbytes that the newswire journos decided to impart. This leaves us with a problem of context.
The blogosphere, as always, seemed to be split two ways on the comments. A fair few posts I saw took his statement to mean, “we’ve screwed the Earth, let’s cut our losses and get out of here.” This is the way that anyone with an ecological bent seemed to be leaning.
However, the futurist lobby took a more forgiving (if wide-eyed) interpretation, best described as a belief that Hawking was kicking around possible responses to a worst case scenario where we fail to pull the Earth out of the frying pan – although it is fair to say that some people believe it’s already too late.
Obviously, we are left wanting on the details of Hawking’s statements, but the blogosphere is rarely afraid of operating in a vacuum of detail. For all its pros and cons, the ‘citizen journalism’ that we partake of is very often opinion-based. In a way, however, this is no bad thing. The fact that an eminent person of Hawking’s stature can get people thinking and debating about issues that stretch more than a few decades into the future is an achievement in itself; personally, I like to believe that was his entire intent. He’s not someone who needs to chase headlines for their own sake by using inflammatory conjecture. If he wanted coverage, he could get it easily by opining in his own field of expertise.
But this polar debate, largely conducted between persons who already have an interest in the long term future of the planet and the human race, brings to light an issue connected to what Hawking was talking about. It seems to me that, as much as there is a growing consensus that we need to start fixing our environment (like, yesterday), the people who believe this all have very different views on why and how it should be achieved. Those who have decried Hawking’s comments believe (quite rightly) that we aren’t yet making enough of an effort to save Earth from imminent catastrophe, and that his speculations amount to a betrayal of our heritage. The other end of the field believes that we might just as well cut and run; what do we owe the Earth, after all? It’s just a ball of mud where we were born by chance, right?
It seems to be a function of human affairs, especially in the West, to split all debates into a dualistic separation – take the two ultimate extremes of opinion, and let them duke it out. It is this attitude, in my opinion, that is hampering our progress not only in our efforts to save the planet from (and for) ourselves, but also our efforts to explore space, to explore and expand human potential (both physical and mental), and to transcend the limitations of the socioeconomic systems in which we are entrenched.
‘Divide and conquer’. It’s an old quote, but truisms often are – truth is a fairly timeless thing when human affairs are being discussed. There are organisations and hegemonies with a vested interest in the status quo remaining unchanged; witness for example the furious attempts at spin being launched against the overwhelming evidence for climate change and global warming, largely from companies that profit from pollution and the politicians who live in their pockets. While these groups can keep their opposition divided, bickering over details, motivations and the apportionment of blame, they can be sure that little progress will be achieved.
Think about it; the two sides of the debate over Hawking’s comments, the eco-warriors and the diaspora-futurists, are largely singing from the same song-sheet. They both want the human race to survive; they both want the Earth to be restored to stability, if possible. But there is an arbitrary polarisation to debate over, which could be summed up as ‘should we go down with the ship once it is determined that it is definitely sinking?’ It’s a cogent point. But it’s not the sort of thing that anyone taking the long view should be falling out with their colleagues over at this stage of the game. While we are divided over ideologies that will only have relevance after we have attempted our best to fix the situation, we are failing to unite to convince the sceptics and (more importantly) the apathetics that we have to start working on the current problems right away. It should be acknowledged that there is a whole spectrum of philosophies between the two poles of opinion, and that all those philosophies essentially focus on the same thing: the emancipation of humanity from our own ecological mistakes.
But while the debates are going on, the politicians and energy barons are sat rubbing their hands in glee. Because the longer we quarrel over what are minor differences in long-term philosophy, the longer it will be before the population in general sees a united group of intelligent rational thinkers, armed with relevant data and bright ideas, ready to show them what they need to do to ensure that their grandchildren have a future that doesn’t consist of scraping an existence from the shell of a ruined civilisation.
It is my belief that, if there is to be a future for the human race that lasts more than another few centuries, then we must all realise that working as one is the only way it will achieved. One planet, one race, one chance – and one chance only. Arguing about who is pulling the hardest is no way to win a tug-of-war against the laws of nature, physics and capitalist economics. It’s time for everyone to get a grip on the same rope.