February 2021 was quite exciting for all space enthusiasts, as three spacecraft were arriving at Mars: Hope (Emirates Mars Mission) and Tianwen-1 (China’s Mars Mission) entered Martian orbit to investigate the Martian atmosphere. And last week, the NASA rover ‘Perseverance’ landed on Mars on its ‘Mars 2020’ mission to look for signs of ancient microbial life or even bring probes back to earth.
These are pretty exciting times, given that interest and investments in space missions were significantly decreased after the Cold War and that to date we haven’t managed (or didn’t want to?) establish a presence in space beside the ISS; let alone that we have built a moon village in the last decade. So it’s great to see this interest being revitalized by the ongoing Mars missions, and SpaceX plans to start colonizing Mars by the middle of this decade.
At the same time, the climate movement Fridays for Future (FFF) released a satirical tourism ad last week, promoting Mars as a perfect travel destination: no war, no pollution, and no pandemics. An untainted planet and a new world. So, who wouldn’t wanna go there? You just need to get used to living in a space station.
Yet, this is pure nonsense. And that was the whole point of the ad. As FFF pointed out to Euronews, 99 % of humanity won’t ever have the chance to travel to Mars. Thus, from the activist’s viewpoint, governments would make better use of money fighting the climate crisis rather than spending billions of dollars on space exploration.
And that is exactly where the ad fails to get its message through: Promoting the idea of traveling to Mars is probably not the most effective way to raise awareness for the climate crisis. Too much escapism, too little focus on how to tackle the actual problem.
Also, it misses the point, as astrobiological research does not infer escapism, neither does cutting down on space exploration provide a good starting point to mobilize additional forces to take climate action. (As it was pointed out before, the U.S. government allocated about \$700 billion to defense in 2019, but only \$21.5 billion to NASA’s science and human exploration programs. The FFF critique seems misplaced at this point*.)
So I don’t believe that the thinking, either we save Earth or travel to Mars, will get us very far. Space exploration has the potential to trigger the general public’s interest in science and technology. It will lead to advancement, push technology and society forward, and will even foster a technological solution to reduce or better capture carbon emissions.
This is judged by the progress in the last century. The Cold War, and in particular the Sputnik crisis, led to a massive surge in space defense projects and innovations, a greater focus on STEM education, and ultimately, massive investments in the chip industry that gave birth to Silicon Valley.
The Quest for Tech
Today, more and more people get aware of the climate crisis. But the Sputnik event is missing.
Despite the best efforts by Greta and FFF to activate millions of people around the world, so far, political leaders have failed to take adequate action globally. The last UN climate conference, COP25, set a bad example. And while the data on the ongoing climate change is absolutely clear, it is absolutely unclear how to prevent this change given current politics and our state-of-the-art technologies.
Where is the Sputnik event that drives massive efforts in planting trees and recultivating grounds, sky-rocketing carbon taxes, and tighter regulation (even prohibition!) of carbon-intensive activities?
Reducing emissions immediately is still our best bet to mitigate the effects of global warming, and there are many things one can do on an individual level. Yet, the most effective thing of these is activism to urge decision-makers to take climate action. Or to go for moonshot projects.
In the spirit of ‘Doing Good Better,’ following a high risk – high potential outcome path is also a fairly good option: Start a (social) business like Ecosia. Start a non-profit like ClimateScience. Or research and develop technologies e.g. for carbon capture. These paths may not be for everyone, and they pose the risk of failure. But potentially, they may have a huge (i.e. scalable) impact.
Currently, the situation with technological advancement is similar to the agricultural revolution.
As Yuval Noah Harari nicely pointed out in his book Sapiens, agriculture was a trap. Farmers worked longer hours and had worse living conditions than hunter-gatherers. But, since the population exploded, there was no way of going back as hunting and gathering could not feed such a large population. And actually, in the very long run, this turned out to be much better than hunter-gatherer life: without farming, we would not have arrived at our present standard of living.
Similarly, there is no way of going back to a society without technology. In the last century, technology has been the driver of increased living standards worldwide but also provoked environmental pollution and global warming. Given the inertia of politics, the unwillingness of people in ‘developed countries’ to cut down on their standard of living, and the current state of the climate crisis, developing technology further remains crucial. Even if the illusion of a simple technical solution to fix the climate may prevent leaders from taking effective action.
Recently, Elon Musk has announced to donate $100 billion toward a competition for the most effective carbon capture technology. Trees and other plants already do this, but can it be done technologically more efficiently? Probably. Let’s see which solutions the award will bring up.
During the 2020 Australian bushfire season, vast land areas got burned, and many people had to move, who were then deemed to be the first climate refugees. This is pretty ironic since Australia is also one of these ‘developed countries’ with serious carbon emissions, especially from the coal industry.
In the light of the FFF Mars tourism ad, another form of flight enters the discussion: escapism. Given the ambitions of SpaceX and others, interplanetary space travel will get feasible this or the upcoming decade, which raises several practical and ethical questions: Should ‘the rich’ be allowed to escape to a space station or even to Mars in case of a global catastrophe on Earth?
It reminds me of the sci-fi trilogy ‘Remembrance of Earth’s Past‘ by Cixin Liu, where humanity faces an upcoming invasion of a superior alien species, the Trisolarans. As traces in the intergalactic medium manifest the evidence that a fleet of Trisolarans is on its way to Earth, this constitutes the Sputnik moment that sparks off crisis and depression worldwide.
But then humanity switches into the hyperdrive mode: New inventions and massive investments lead to the construction of space elevators and starships. Governments around the world join forces and envision the ‘Wallface project’ as a global defense strategy. And a global ban on escapism from Earth is rolled out. There it is again, the discussion on escapism.
What would you do today if you would know that a fleet of Trisolaran battleships was to arrive at Earth – in 300 years. You would never encounter Trisolarans yourself. Neither would your children do. But you would know with certainty that at some point, they will arrive and destroy Earth. (Or at least enslave humankind.)
The climate crisis is similar in the sense that it doesn’t really matter whether a huge portion of humankind will get wiped out in 300 years by aliens or natural disasters. But unlike the case of alien invasion, different countries have different interests concerning the climate crisis. Not only the oil-producing countries. Some countries like Russia might even get more hospitable and less frosty and benefit by a few degrees.
The impact of the changing global climate is creeping up, but it is not clear which catastrophe happens next. The Sputnik event is yet to come.
We should treat the climate crisis with the same seriousness as an upcoming alien invasion. We need to prepare for it, and rather than disregard space exploration as “escapism,” scientists and activists should work closely together on this issue.
*Disclaimer: The climate crisis is a real issue, and FFF is doing overall an amazing job of bringing this issue to people’s attention, which I absolutely support. I just had the impression that this particular clip was not a particularly good PR move.