Last night I watched BBC4’s Stephen Hawking night. One of the programmes concerned the search for an exo-planet that human beings could colonise. According to Hawking, we need to find a way to reach such a planet within the next 100 years, otherwise we’re toast: asteroids, a global virus, AI gone rogue etc. But hang on a sec. Surely all those things could just as easily happen on the new planet. In fact wouldn’t they be more likely to happen on such a planet where environmental conditions are unpredictably different and probably hostile and the number of colonists initially small?
So why are we spending, or likely to spend, trillions of dollars on such a wild goose chase? It seems to me obscene that we allow millions of people in the Third World to live lives of unrelenting poverty and misery before succumbing to starvation or disease or war while a small cadre of smart privileged scientists and not-so-smart privileged politicians in the so-called developed world pour shitloads of money into what’s essentially a vanity project designed to satisfy a megalomaniac wish for intellectual adventure or egotistical self-aggrandisement. Why not spend all that money on fixing up our own planet instead? Getting population numbers under control, curing disease, ending poverty, rewilding the landscape. Everything we need is here on our doorstep, not on another brave new world that we’d probably end up trashing anyway. All we lack are the wisdom and compassion to see what a baboon could probably tell you if it could talk.
Besides, what’s so special about us? We won’t be around forever because nothing is around forever. Species come and species go. What makes us think we’re so different? If we’re being generous we might call it mankind’s insatiable intellectual curiosity or that vapid term, human exceptionalism. But if we’re being honest it’s just plain old vanity by another name, the same vanity that once led people to believe that the sun went round the earth or that Adam was granted dominion over the animals or that humans are anything other than an evolutionary way station on a relatively insignificant piece of cosmic real estate destined for eventual demolition.
At least that’s one thing the Bible got right: vanity of vanities, all is vanity.
One final thought. What if the exo-planet we finally choose to colonise turns out to have other ‘lower’ life forms already living on it? Haven’t we been here before?