What Good is it to Save the Planet?

November 28, 2014

“What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” – Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson

First point – the “humanity” that Tillerson refers to consists mainly of ultra-wealthy one-hundredth of one percenters like himself, whose holdings in  fossil fuel mineral rights may become worthless as humanity moves to renewables.  Running the world on energy that is free, and available to all, can only improve the lot of the vast majority of human beings.

Second point: One of the things that bothers me about science fiction movies like “Interstellar” is that they perpetuate this idea that it should be relatively easy to find other nice places to live in the Universe, and that, hey, if we screw up this planet, no problem, we’ll just move elsewhere.
I’ve actually heard self-described “conservatives” express this idea.

Yeah, that’s conservative. Kill one planet? Get another.

Then there’s this.


The universe may be a lonelier place than previously thought. Of the estimated 100 billion galaxies in the observable universe, only one in 10 can support complex life like that on Earth, a pair of astrophysicists argues. Everywhere else, stellar explosions known as gamma ray bursts would regularly wipe out any life forms more elaborate than microbes. The detonations also kept the universe lifeless for billions of years after the big bang, the researchers say.

“It’s kind of surprising that we can have life only in 10% of galaxies and only after 5 billion years,” says Brian Thomas, a physicist at Washburn University in Topeka who was not involved in the work. But “my overall impression is that they are probably right” within the uncertainties in a key parameter in the analysis.

The sheer density of stars in the middle of the galaxy ensures that planets within about 6500 light-years of the galactic center have a greater than 95% chance of having suffered a lethal gamma ray blast in the last billion years, they find. Generally, they conclude, life is possible only in the outer regions of large galaxies. (Our own solar system is about 27,000 light-years from the center.)

Things are even bleaker in other galaxies, the researchers report. Compared with the Milky Way, most galaxies are small and low in metallicity. As a result, 90% of them should have too many long gamma ray bursts to sustain life, they argue. What’s more, for about 5 billion years after the big bang, all galaxies were like that, so long gamma ray bursts would have made life impossible anywhere.

But are 90% of the galaxies barren? That may be going too far, Thomas says. The radiation exposures Piran and Jimenez talk about would do great damage, but they likely wouldn’t snuff out every microbe, he contends. “Completely wiping out life?” he says. “Maybe not.” But Piran says the real issue is the existence of life with the potential for intelligence. “It’s almost certain that bacteria and lower forms of life could survive such an event,” he acknowledges. “But [for more complex life] it would be like hitting a reset button. You’d have to start over from scratch.”

This idea is does not play well with the popular “Star Wars” bar-scene idea of a universe teaming with civilizations and intelligent life.  Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee sketched some of the other showstoppers for intelligent life in their 2003 book “Rare Earth”.
Below, a review:

Library Journal via Amazon:

Renowned paleontologist Ward (Univ. of Washington), who has authored numerous books and articles, and Brownlee, a noted astronomer who has also researched extraterrestrial materials, combine their interests, research, and collaborative thoughts to present a startling new hypothesis: bacterial life forms may be in many galaxies, but complex life forms, like those that have evolved on Earth, are rare in the universe. Ward and Brownlee attribute Earth’s evolutionary achievements to the following critical factors: our optimal distance from the sun, the positive effects of the moon’s gravity on our climate, plate tectonics and continental drift, the right types of metals and elements, ample liquid water, maintainance of the correct amount of internal heat to keep surface temperatures within a habitable range, and a gaseous planet the size of Jupiter to shield Earth from catastrophic meteoric bombardment. Arguing that complex life is a rare event in the universe, this compelling book magnifies the significanceAand tragedyAof species extinction. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries.

Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee – Rare Earth:

The simulations showed that rocky planets orbiting at the “right” distances from the central
star are easily formed, but they can end up with a wide range of water con-
tent. The planet-building materials in a habitable zone include dry materials
that form locally, as well as water-bearing materials that originate further from
the star and have to be scattered inward, mostly in the form of comets. With-
out water-bearing comet impacts, Earth-wannabes would just stay wannabes— they would
never contain any water.
The model showed that the inbound delivery of water worked best in
planetary systems where the intermediate planets, in the position of our giants
Jupiter and Saturn, were far smaller. In solar systems such as our own, the effi-
ciency of water being conveyed to the surface of an inner, Earth-like planet is
relatively small. Yet in systems where the intermediate planets were much
smaller—perhaps Uranus- or Neptune-sized—water delivery was relatively
frequent. But then another problem arises: in such a system, the rate of water-
bearing comet impacts is great; the rate of asteroid impacts, however, is also so
great that any evolving life might soon be obliterated. And oddly, it is not only
the asteroid impacts, with their fireballs, dust storms, meteor showers, and “nu-
clear winters,” that cause a problem. An excess of water-bearing impacts can
amount, in effect, to too much of a good thing: too much water produces plan-
ets entirely covered with water, and such an environment is not conducive to
the rich evolution seen on our planet. Earth seems to be quite a gem—a rocky
planet where not only can liquid water exist for long periods of time (thanks to
Earth’s distance from the sun as well as its possession of a tectonic “thermostat”
that regulates its temperature), but where water can be found as a heathy
oceanful —not too little and not too much. Our planet seems to reside in a benign
region of the Galaxy, where comet and asteroid bombardment is tolerable and
habitable-zone planets can commonly grow to Earth size. Such real estate in
our galaxy—perhaps in any galaxy—is prime for life. And rare as well.
We, the authors of Rare Earth, were in the audience that November day.
One of us raised his hand and asked the question: What does this finding
mean for the number of Earth-like planets there might be—planets with not
only water and bacterial life, but with complex multi-cellular life? Chambers
scratched his head. Well, he allowed, it would certainly make them rare.

12 Responses to “What Good is it to Save the Planet?”

  1. dumboldguy Says:

    One of the best clips from Star Wars. Gets the heart rate up. Thank you.

    There has been discussion for some time about the likelihood of the simplest life forms and/or precursor molecules being found everywhere in the universe. Some have hypothesized that life was wiped out on Earth several times in the distant past and “reseeded” by comets, asteroids, and “space dust”. Some think that’s where life began on Earth—-that it didn’t generate spontaneously here but came from elsewhere.

    It is part of the mindless bright-sidedness of some folks that they think we will ever be able to “save mankind” by going to other planets. This is it folks, there is no place to go and only the fools will say “but some day we may have the technology to do it”.

    Regardless of what we do, we are just another life form that is living out its span on this planet, and 99.9% of all species that ever were are no more. Our time will come to a close also, and we are doing all we can to hasten that. The only difference between us and the 99.9% is that we have evolved to the point where we have a brain, think and “philosophize” with it, and therefore occupy our spare time swapping endless BS about “life” while inexorable natural law moves on.

  2. “Our planet is a lonely spec in the great enveloping cosmic dark.” – Carl Sagan

  3. dumboldguy Says:

    Since no one is saying much on this thread, let’s go whole hog with the Sagan quotes about the “lonely speck” that he more famously calls the “Pale Blue Dot” after the picture taken from many millions of miles away by a space probe.


    It’s the lower photograph in the link. The first part is the reading of of the quote below with some pretty powerful imagery attached.

    “From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

    “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

    “The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

    —Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, 1997 reprint, pp. xv–xvi

  4. “What good is it to save the planet if humanity suffers?” – Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson

    When you consider how much power and influence he has that has to be one of the most frightening things to hear

  5. Regardless of there being other habitable planets we have no way of getting there. Even if there was a way of getting there, only a very few could go. Even if you were one of the few, it would be a long, perilous and very boring journey.

    Destroying our only home is beyond sociopathic.

  6. Andy Lee Robinson Says:

    We are stuck here orbiting our star for practically eternity, for no technology we currently possess nor even conceive could allow us to reach even the nearest star on any meaningfully human timescale.

    A colony ship on a 50,000 year journey to even the nearest star could not carry enough fuel to sustain 2,000 human generations.
    Even if it could, the occupants would die out through abnormally high mutation rates and cancers.
    Any material the ship would be constructed out of would degrade and fail through the incessant shot blasting of high energy cosmic rays.

    The only method of transport I could conceive of would be to live like termites in the centre of a solid asteroid a few km in diameter, in structures similar to a sponge to retain atmospheric pressure, and use a large fusion device to create a magnetic field around it, and ionise some of its mass and fire it out the back at incredible velocities to attain the highest specific impulse possible.

    It would take centuries to modify its orbit enough to leave our solar system, then a similar amount of time to slow down enough to insert into an orbit of another star system.

    How to keep a colony alive in such a closed system for so long without destroying itself is an exercise we are currently engaged in, except we have a whole star providing unlimited energy.

    There is nowhere else to go as remotely hospitable as our planet.
    We are stuck here and have to look after it.

  7. Ultimately, Homo sapiens sapiens–in great pain and misery–is guaranteed to go extinct on this Pale Blue Dot.

    We know that human extinction will not be due to human-caused global warming.

    Whether it happens in 4K, 4M, or–as the last of the species–to some poor schmuck and his family 4.5 billion years from now, does it really make much difference what it will be due to instead? Or when?

    Since it doesn’t appear very likely that H. sapiens will deal intelligently with the AGW until it’s too late, there’s some curiosity about how this once-in-an-earthtime experiment turns out.

    Since we’re almost certainly going to do it pretty much BAU anyway, it’ll be kind of interesting, when worse comes to worst, to see how well the models did. The real nihilists might say, to hell with it… let us run it to the max, just to see. In the end, does it really matter?

    “We told you so” won’t be much of a consolation but, the fact is, we did.

    Shabbat Shalom and Happy Holidays!

  8. This is one of the better videos of The Pale Blue Dot,,, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pfwY2TNehw

    • dumboldguy Says:

      Yep, a good one. Too bad no one will pay any attention to it. They’re all busy doing more important things——like SHOPPING.

    • dumboldguy Says:

      PS It’s quite revealing to note that this video has been on Youtube for 7-1/2 years and has been viewed only ~1.6 million times. In the “modern” world, some “pop culture” videos that have gone “viral” have been viewed that many times in well under a week. And I would bet that far more people know who Snooky is than Sagan. Priorities, I guess

  9. MorinMoss Says:

    “What if it’s all a big hoax and we create a better world for nothing” – Joel Pett


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