New Column: Armchair Anarchist on Hawking’s Diaspora

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.

9 thoughts on “New Column: Armchair Anarchist on Hawking’s Diaspora”

  1. Personally, the idea that the earth is headed for ecological disaster has never been a big motivator for the settlement of space (largely because I don’t buy into the global warming hype, especially now that the catch-all term ‘climate change’ is starting to replace it.) I’ve always seen expansion as a sort of holy mission. Right now, the solar system (and possibly the rest of the universe) is a vast, lifeless desert; making that desert bloom is the ultimate function of civilization.

  2. This is the Fermi diaspora. I.e. “Where are they?” questioning that if our galaxy has another intelligent and technologically advanced civilization then why aren’t they here? I think the estimate was fifteen million years to spread across the galaxy. Well, it looks like we will be the ones to spread across the galaxy. We have gone from Wright brothers to two Pioneer craft into interstellar space in one hundred years. We are on our way with most of the fifteen million years left

    Good thing, too. If there was another space faring race out there then they would likely have arrived here before humans developed and with them present, humans would not have developed. Since we are here, we are probably alone and since we are the ones exploring this galaxy it’s likely we always be alone. Our presence will suppress the development of other intelligent life in the galaxy.

  3. I think Hawking is right but there is one hell of a problem. Several actually – colonizing the moon, asteroids of mars may be doable, but the first years of doing that on any large scale will be brutal. Mortality rates over the 50%. New evil diseases. Doing so will be a PR nightmare.

    Next problem I see is the fact we cannot emigrate people. Only thousand initially get to take part and then only when people on earth are dying in droves. Using misery on earth as an argument implies that misery will be so bad before politicians get off their sorry ass that before we have selfsufficient colonies we could be well on the way to gigadeath.

    And finally, my most concerned argument, is what people do we emigrate. Sure I dont mind settling space with US mormons are japanese – but exporting followers of shia there? I man, do we *need* to have all of humanity become a part of space? Personally I am fully prejudiced here – I am against allowing some of the nutters that inhabit earth to settle space. Exploring space requires some high energy tools – we canNOT allow nuclear fused necessary to mine asteroids in the hands of fundamentalist mudyahedeen. I am all for containing the wackjobs here on earth.

    If we have to discard earth eventually, that’ll be bad. But the alternative -extinction- is worse. I just hope the price wont be too high and we have enough time to make it without too much misery.

    Personally my first bet is on a singularity. I think that’ll be earlier than space colonies.

  4. Personally, I didn’t take Hawking’s comments as a plea to do something about global warming. It sounded more like a plea for concerted effort at space exploration. Global warming was just one of the potential future catastrophes he mentioned. And I agree with Hawking–we should move faster toward space exploration and a permanent off-planet presence.

    Personally, and respectfully, I think AA’s take on the two ‘ultimate extremes’ of opinion is a bit biased: one end thinks the world is screwed and we need to do more to save it, the other thinks the world is screwed and doesn’t care? Are those really the two extremes? Meanwhile, another obvious position (presumably believing that the world is not necessarily screwed) is characterised as politicians and “energy barons” rubbing their hands in glee. The closing statement, about the war against “capitalist economics” reveals the writer’s bias entirely.

    I personally hope and believe that “capitalist economics” will save the earth. We will never stop burning fossil fuels and polluting the atmosphere on grander and grander scales (as China and India industrialize) until we find alternatives. And those alternatives are most likely to come from research motivated by free market incentives. With oil prices so high, we should take advantage of the econimic environment where alternative energy, once developed, may be comparatively cost effective.

  5. Thankyou for the comments, gentlemen. Debate is good, and I like to see it.

    I indeed have my own opinions and bias (as do we all, pcrh), and I am fortunate to be in a position to use my column here as a platform for them. I freely acknowledge I don’t have all the answers, and that I oppose the current status quo, but I would contend that a person must speak his mind, whether his opinions be unpopular or not. I think it’s sometimes referred to as democracy in action! 😉

    I take dagon’s points on board as well, but I would argue that the particular flavour of fundamentalist extremism is irrelevant, only the actions and attitudes of its followers. I’d be just as uneasy sharing space with anyone who takes *any* ancient book in *any* language as the verbatim word of a deity whose existence cannot be tested. The problem lies in people devolving responsibility for their own actions onto conceptual figures, and hence allowing their actions top be controlled by those who act as mouthpieces for them. Fundamentalism *of all stripes* is one of the greatest enemies to a viable future for the human race, regardless of the creeds that the faith is placed in. I have no issues with people who have faith in religion. It’s people who believe that anyone who follows any other religion than their own (or indeed none at all) are somehow inferior and less than human that I have issues with.

    Anyway, thank you for reading and taking the time to share your opinions, gentlemen. I am pleased that you take my writing seriously enough to raise objections to its content, but not its style.

  6. AA …maybe I just hope to taunt the iranians. If they read what I wrote, they might wake up to the reality that in the big picture flatlander stuff is not really that significant. I *want* Iranians and Chinese and Pakistani to be at each others throats in competition to create permanent space colonies. I want the US challenged every step of the way. I think there is nothing more important than changing the status quo in favor of singularity and/or space exploration.

    We don’t know the facts. But as far as I can judge now, humanity could actually fail. And that would be such a monumental waste of potential. Most people have *no* idea.

  7. We don’t know the facts. But as far as I can judge now, humanity could actually fail. And that would be such a monumental waste of potential. Most people have *no* idea.

    On that, we are in complete agreement, my friend! Competition is a fine thing too, and a great driver of progress. It’s competition using guns and bombs that I’m not so keen on. It would be a shame to make it off-planet, only to continue bickering over petty differences out there too. You are right: as a race, we are capable of so much more.

  8. 1. I don’t think the human race faces disaster in this century. Many of the proposed dooms are unlikely to occur, and the few that may be real will give adequate warning. I argue this point in my

    2. As long as humanity continues to increase in longevity and prosperity, the ability to mobilize world GDP for any drastic action will be limited. World War II shows that mobilization can be very quick once the great harm has been done and great imminent danger recognized.

    3. Establishing settlements on other planets, asteroids, and in free space will certainly give humanity greater safety. The amount spent on it should go up by at least a factor of 20, and such an increase would not diminish earthly prosperity.

    4. The Armchair Anarchist is mistaken in demanding that humanity work as one. Humanity will do better if there are many projects, each carried out by people confident in its particular

    approach. (Are you sure you wouldn’t rather call yourself The Armchair Fascist?)

    5. Fortunately, no single approach to human survival and advance is likely to be able to get a monopoly.

    John McCarthy

  9. Mr. McCarthy;

    Point 1 is debatable, but I’ll not attempt to contradict a man of greater education and erudition than myself; suffice to say that I sincerely hope you are correct, but I will continue to point towards current problems, in the hope that they may solved before they become a crisis.

    Point 2 follows on in logic, and again is not an issue I could even attempt to argue with from any position of authority. However, as a corrolary to my reply to point 1, I would hope we could encourage a mobilisation of humanity that involved a lot less death and desperation than WW2. The capability of man to act in time of need is undeniable – his ability to sort things out before they become a matter of life and death (despite evidence that there is a storm on the horizon) can, in my opinion, be questioned rather more rigorously.

    On point 3, we are in complete concurrence.

    With point 4, I feel that either I have communicated poorly, or you have misunderstood my intent – I would like to see the entire human race working for the future, but I never claimed that they should all unite behind one single project or ideology. As you point out, that would squelch the competition that has always been a great driver of human progress, which is the last thing we need to happen – again, we agree in principle, though my choice of words may well have failed to make my point correctly. My point was that, among persons already with an avowed desire to see the human race continue and succeed, arguing about the root causes of the problems do nothing to solve the problems – if we all agree on what the problems are, we can surely argue about who to blame once the issues are no longer a pressing concern.

    The ‘fascist’ comment is one that I shall ignore – I will assume it was either made in the heat of the moment in reaction to my (perceived and misinterpreted) ‘promotion of a global monoculture’, or that you are employing sharp rhetoric to make a point, and are offended by (and reading a lot into) my pseudonym, or my use of the term ‘race’ (by which I actually refer to any and all lifeforms possessing the same number of chromosomes as myself). I shall decline from invoking a fulfilment of Godwin’s Law, as the rest of your points are exceptionally lucid and well reasoned.

    Point 5 holds very true, and will continue to do so when the human race makes it off the home planet – which, I think we can agree, is one of the best argumnents for doing so.

    I thank you for reading my work, and for your replies.

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