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Hawking Declares ‘We Must Abandon Earth’ – Commentary

{‘Earth Rise’}

In an interview posted on the Big Think website this past Monday, August 9, famed physicist Stephen Hawking declared that “Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

Hawking warns that the Earth’s human population growth would soon drain most of its finite resources. He also cites a list of new threats (such as from climate change and geo-political instability) to buttress his belief that if we want to survive into the next century “our future is in space.”

I rarely comment on the items I report, but this one seems to warrant a balanced response…

“Abandon Earth or face extinction.” — from the Big Think website interview with Stephen Hawking, theoretical physicist

Earth Rise or Earth Set?

First, as any regular reader knows, I love my science. I also have a particular fondness for cosmological physics (and have interviewed a few cosmo-physicists in my day).  I am no stranger to some of Hawking’s theoretical work. I am an admirer of his writing, ideas and many contributions to science and cosmology.

Additionally, I am a big supporter of space exploration and space technology transfer, as well as cultural uses for space-based missions (such as the ISS). Also, I have critically reviewed two books concerning “our future in space”– Moonrush by Dennis Wingo and Space on Earth by Charles Cockell–in a generally favorable light. *

I am no “anti-space” reactionary. Not even close.

And I am sure that Dr. Hawking is no anti-environmentalist either. That is why I find his interview comments to be a bit imprudent and ill-considered.

Hawking seems not to consider the popular reactions to his sometimes dire utterances–which for some reason always seem to reverberate with the aura of majesterial absolutism (perhaps his affiliation with the Pontif adds to this effect). Scientists are often inspiring, but just as often, scientists can be dismissive and depressing.

At other times, it seems, Hawking’s almost naive,  enthusiastic embrace of Big Science and its power similarly blinds him to the reality of public fears (even if these are somewhat exaggerated).

His comment, made back in November of 2007 and shortly before the first, trial run of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), is a case in point. Asked of his interest in scientists verifying the existence of the Higgs Boson (the so-called ‘god particle’), Hawking, apparently ignoring the question, instead stated that his interest was in the machine creating a “mini black hole”…As in that thing out in space that sucks other things into it, never to return…

So, OK, a mini black hole wouldn’t last very long or have that much power, but, combine that statement with the oft-repeated, scientific statement that the LHC is the “first atom smasher powerful enough to destroy itself”…and you can easily picture the outcome. Public anxiety was stoked.  Mass media fear-mongering heightened, and a public backlash followed quickly. It has faded for now, but no doubt, will return.

And, how much of this fear contributed to the growing, anti-science mood of a large sector of the population? But I digress a bit.

While wisely stating that we mustn’t put “all our eggs in one basket, or on one planet”,  Hawking is nonetheless doing a bit of fear-mongering, perhaps again, naively, under the veil of an urgent proscriptive: colonize space or else!

I want to be clear about my perspective; there are enough Earth resources, right now (renewable ones), to provide for all the needs of the world’s human population, and still sustain/preserve all remaining wild life and natural ecosystems/environments…for the foreseeable future.

What hinders this realization, and its full practice, is a combination of human-made obstacles. These include the stubborn entrenchment of established energy interests and consumption habits, the general lack of education on the issues facing us (if we can’t understand or agree on these, how are we ever going to agree on future space colonizing?), and political intransigence (to stimulate research and innovation), malfeasance  (denying human-caused climate change) and corruption (taking money from said energy interests), to name just the majors.

At first glance, these obstacles do indeed seem great, even insurmountable. But great as they are, they are not beyond our capacity to transform them.

Already, we are seeing the decided advancement of “green” issues into the political dialogue, into the mainstream of our society–and many societies around the world. New international conventions and frameworks are in place to steward wiser use of resources and protect diminishing resources and ecosystems. New, clean energy technologies are being designed and developed (albeit at a slower-than-needed pace) and people all over the world are taking action to protect their local environments and to achieve a more sustainable, conscious existence.

We are emerging from a wave of media-fed, climate change denial, somewhat scarred, but better informed than before, and with the knowledge that scientific reports of human-accelerated climate change are valid and real and happening now.

What remains is our greatest challenge: to successfully and completely transform our way of utilizing natural resources, consuming energy and generating waste, such that we achieve real, global sustainability benchmarks and insure the health and viability of this, our only home planet.

This will likely mean coming to a deep, humble understanding that global inequalities  and differentials (cultural, political, economic) must be overcome to a significant degree to insure that “we” (all of us) have a better chance at long-term survival. A climate knows no boundaries. Our fates hang together, to paraphrase the playwright.

Yes, there is great myopia (bigotry) and self-interest (greed) to overcome, but if we don’t do it here, first, how can we stop from launching these human frailties into space, and hence, passing them on to our “future in space”? We are more than our genes, than nature; we are also nurture and culture. This is how we may alter selfish, genetic fate.

To repeat, this transformation is our greatest challenge–not the colonizing of space. For, I will argue that achieving any destiny “amongst the stars” can only occur concurrently with the transformation of our ecological being here on Earth.

One can’t help but think that Hawking has, perhaps unconsciously, already given up on this Earthly challenge, and so, he has thrown his existential hat into outer space. Even if we ignore the tremendous investment cost of long-term space exploration (beyond satellite probes and orbiting telescopes) and habitation (beyond the space station), simply deciding who gets to do what (licensing mining operations on the moon?) and why (because otherwise we will keep building war machines?) are issues that will quickly come into play, should any concerted effort be made by one, or several, powerful nations.

Poorer nations should also reap the benefits of space, just as powerful nations have reaped the benefits of resources on Earth.

These are, at their core, very similar to the issues and questions that have to be addressed and resolved now, as we face the emerging and growing consequences of anthropogenic climate change; who is responsible, who is owed, and who pays for the profligate greenhouse gas polluting of the past, the present, and, to mitigate its effects on all of us in the future? We have to arrive at some unity on this issue, or we will not succeed.

In his interview, Hawking also mentions the Cold War and the Cuban missile crisis that nearly brought us to the brink of nuclear war. In context, his note of this past threat implies that he fears another, greater threat from nuclear weapons in the future. This may be a valid fear, but let us not forget that fifty years ago (!) we averted that crisis (and it took both sides to achieve this).

Subsequent to that, several anti-ballistic missile treaties were hammered out, signed and put into effect. Nuclear non-proliferation agreements have been signed by a majority of nations. Though more nations now have the bomb than 50 years ago, and ABM treaties have recently been dismantled, a new push to dramatically reduce and then to eliminate nuclear arms is under way.

More and more people are waking up to the reality that with the same cost of training, equipping and supporting one U.S. soldier, we could fund twenty schools in the developing world. And, in so doing, provide a greater measure of security for ourselves than could ever come from invading another, poorer nation.

There is enough reason, wisdom, creativity and compassion left in the world to overcome these challenges and transform life on Earth for all–despite the temporary set backs, pernicious small-mindedness and reactionary resurgences of ignorance, fear and greed.

And we must overcome them if we are to fulfill our cosmic destiny. A real future in Space without a real future for Earth is impossible.

— Michael Ricciardi

Visit the Big Think website and view the video interview with Stephen Hawking

* To read these two book reviews, visit my book/film review web page here.

photo: “Earthrise” taken by Apollo 8 crew member Bill Anders on   December 24, 1968. NASA



2 comments
  1. Tim Southernwood

    I’m really disappointed that you’ve chosen to misquote Stephen Hawking. I listened to the whole recording, and at no point did I hear him say “Abandon Earth or face extinction”.
    His rational approach isn’t the first suggestion that our resources are finite, and that we need to be looking to space to meet our natural inclination for expansion. It you consider the Earth as a bank account, we’ve already started overdrawing more than the Earth can replenish, and as the equation becomes even more unbalanced, scarcities will become more and more the norm.
    Mankind has to look to the stars in order to survive.

    1. Michael Ricciardi

      A slight correction: the quote came directly from the Big Think web page, presumably quoting Hawking (but possibly a contraction of two statements), and I have added the link to the quote (below the video).

      I understand that Hawking is probably a hero to you, as he is to many, including many young students, whose lives will be more impacted by climate change (and any dream of space) than ours will be.

      I have to disagree with most of your comment. just because Hawking is a scientist, does not mean that everything he says is rational, or, more to the point: responsible.

      Colonizing space is a very far-off destiny, to say the least. But even expanding out into the closer parts of our solar system (for some grand human enterprise) will take a massive effort and will require the participation of much of the world’s leadership. In the meantime, we have a global crisis emerging here on Earth that will also take a massive effort to solve and the participation of most of the world’s leadership.

      Yet, the biggest players in the GHG emissions game refuse to commit to definitive, unalterable, GHG emissions standards (below 350 ppm for CO2 for starters) and a major shift to clean, renewable energy. Make no mistake, this WILL eventually happen..Bbut, ignorance and fear (of change) will drag this effort down for awhile, and that may prove disastrous.

      Your claim that we have already overdrawn “more than the Earth can replenish” is not entirely true, not yet. Nature is resilient if given the chance to be. And further, that is my point when I advocate a major change in our ecological being. WE do have enough resources to provide for all our needs–provided we change our way of living and thinking. This includes some of our cherished economic values.

      We also have the knowledge to restore much of the damage we have done (it will take time for full restoration, of course)…but the point is that this must be done first, or at least, concurrently with any genuine move into space on a massive level (unless you’re talking about an elite few who will be sent forth into space to repopulate the race elsewhere; which will itself require consensus).

      The task before us–mitigating (or reversing) climate change–is huge (but delaying it will cost us even more). It will require massive outlays of capital. Conflicts over this will arise and will need to be resolved. It is a funding priority. It impacts everyone on the planet. No massive undertaking to explore or inhabit the solar system or beyond can be initiated so long as there remains a climate change crisis (and its myriad effects on human life and well being) here on Earth.

      It’s that simple. It’s that rational (and others have made rational arguments similar to mine).

      Look, I love space science, technology and exploration (much of which is designed to protect or benefit life hear on Earth, by the way), but most dreams of a human future in space (Hawking’s included) are quire simply, naive and simplistic. Few advocates of these “space dreams” ever give adequate thought to what must be in place first (ecologically, economically, politically, ethically, etc.) before we can begin exploring “the last frontier”. Here again, Hawking is no exception. I see his interview as a mixture of fear-based futurism, and veiled boosterism for the space industry (more funding).

      And don’t get me wrong, I think we SHOULD spend more on space science (as opposed to military science)..just imagine how far along we would be towards achieving both these goals (solving climate change and expanding into space) if we stopped spending so much on war, and/or diverted a fraction of this expenditure towards climate stability, ecological restoration, environmental remediation, renewable energy, AND new space exploration/habitation technology.

      Hawking is a dreamer, and that’s good. But if you want to make a dream come true, you’ve got to wake up (and smell the GHG emissions).

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