Breathing Space

It's no secret that we humans have botched things pretty badly here on Earth. Can we change our relationship with the natural world before our wild spaces are lost forever? Or - as credible thinkers are now suggesting - will we have to leave this planet to save the human race? Two experts weigh in on humanity's future habitat.

By Stephen M. Meyer and William E. Burrows

Photomontage by Catherine Cole, image courtesy NASA

On the other hand, doing nothing is not an option.

So what should we do?

First and foremost, we must come to terms with this basic fact: The end of the wild is not about this thing we call the environment. It is about us—our cultural norms, our values, our priorities. The end of the wild is a function of how we have chosen to live.

Despite 150 years of conservationism and three decades of global environmentalism, people on the street remain oblivious to the fact that they are the engine of human primacy. It’s easier to blame greedy corporations and crooked politicians than it is to look in the mirror. But we are the ones who demand instant-on appliances, out-of-season vegetables, and ten-mile-per-gallon armored transports to carry our groceries home—and that means drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. People want to motor-boat, fish, and water-ski in the American southwest, and so giant reservoirs are built, siphoning off water from onceroaring rivers and turning them dry for months at a time. Desert habitats drown while riparian ecosystems are dessicated. To achieve weed-free lawns, unblemished fruits and vegetables, and mosquitoless picnics, we dump millions of tons of toxic chemicals into the soil, water, and air. Our appetites are killing the planet.

This is not just a problem caused by the world’s wealthy. Globalization is raising the economic expectations of billions of people in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The only way to satisfy growing populations’ expectations is to exploit local natural resources. The poor and the hungry cannot afford the luxury of worrying about how carving a two-acre field out of a rainforest will affect global biodiversity. Governments are understandably reluctant to remove squatters from bioreserves, for fear of causing destabilizing social unrest.

We already recognize the relationship we have with the wild: It provides us with natural resources. And we are beginning to understand the genetic linkages between humans and other animals. What remains is for us to wake up and see the moral links—the realities of shared existence and shared fate. If the planet is to remain viable for human life, we must develop an ecological identity that underscores the connection between how we live and what happens around us. The challenge is to shift the balance away from human primacy and back toward natural selection, and we can only do this if we move away from our anthropocentric view of the world (What can this desert/rainforest/species do for me?).

Since the invention of the first stone tool, humanity has pounded the wild into a shape that fit its needs. Forests are transformed to fields. Swamps are drained. Arid landscapes are irrigated. The bounty of nature is converted into commodities: timber, food, luxuries. Coexisting with nature has always meant consuming it. Yet, though we can not restore what is lost forever, we do not have to abandon what remains. For if we give up on nature, we give up on ourselves.

Adapted from The End of the Wild by Stephen M. Meyer (MIT Press, September 2006).


So you really want to help the Earth? Then it's the moon or bust.

IN BUZZ ALDRIN and John Barnes’s 1996 sci-fi novel, Encounter With Tiber, a spaceship captain named Osepok warns her crew: “There’s not a place in the universe that’s safe forever. The universe is telling us, ‘Spread out, or wait around and die.’”

Almost ten years later, have we come to that? Serious thinkers, such as the brilliant physicist Stephen Hawking, are suggesting that we’ve damaged the earth so badly that we need to colonize space if we want to ensure our survival.

Aldrin himself and Neil Armstrong took the first tentative step in that direction when they landed on the moon in July 1969, the first earthlings to visit another world. Of course, they weren’t on a scouting expedition for a long-term migration, they were more interested in upstaging the Soviet Union in a spectacular stunt. After six trips to the moon, the Apollo program abruptly ended and NASA set its sights closer to home.

The space agency sent unmanned spacecraft into low earth orbit, where they revolutionized communication, meteorology, land use, environmental studies, astronomy, and other sciences. Communications satellites have made intercontinental cell-phone traffic possible. Earth-observation satellites monitor the breakup of the Antarctic ice floe, the expansion of deserts, and other signs of climate change. A smaller number of satellites explored the solar system. Viking landed on Mars; others have orbited Jupiter, Saturn, and the sun, returning virtual encyclopedias of space. NASA is also tracking large and potentially dangerous asteroids and comets. Spotting a big rock headed this way twenty years in advance should allow sufficient time to send a spacecraft out to meet it and nudge it off course.

Meanwhile, the human spaceflight program has stagnated for lack of a compelling long-term mission. A decade passed between the last lunar mission, in December, 1972, and the beginning of space-shuttle service. The shuttle’s purpose, a noble one, was to fulfill the ancient dream of sending many people to space and helping to build a permanent space station. The station remains a work in progress.

But a conundrum haunts the program. With the exception of time spent going around Earth in endless orbits in the shuttle, there are no long-term space missions.

There should be. We must heed Osepok’s warning and spread out. NASA, in conjunction with the European Space Agency and other space-related organizations, must be mandated to construct a permanent manned base on the moon, capable of becoming self-sufficient. True, ambitious plans to colonize Mars have been mulled over for decades. But the moon is the place to start: It is three or four days away, not nine or more months, making a rescue operation feasible if something goes radically wrong.

Settling the moon sounds gee-whiz, but isn’t. In the 1950s, the Army and Air Force came up with detailed studies for lunar bases; they were supposed to hold missiles aimed at targets on Earth. But the subject has also been planned by civilians, both in and out of academe, for decades.

A lunar base shouldn’t just be about moving people to the moon. It should also store a record of civilization. That way, if what happened to the Great Library of Alexandria happens to the whole planet, we’ll still have a body of collective knowledge—like backing up a computer’s hard drive.

It’s not that Earth ought to be abandoned. The home planet remains our sole source of nourishment, and must be protected in the same way we might build a fence around a garden. For now, a lunar base is an insurance policy. An expensive insurance policy, sure. But consider the alternative.

William E. Burrows is the author of The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth (Forge Books, August 2006).

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Issue 25

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