Saturday, November 6, 2010

The Folly of Dueling Disasters

Threats to our existence are everywhere. Sure, that's been the case for as we've existed, but unlike our ancestors we're unable to live in blissful ignorance. We know how hostile the universe is, no matter how much we try to put it out of our minds and go on with our lives. But those threats still lurk. We do what we can to address them, when we can - and some more exotic threats, like that of a gamma-ray burst, are so beyond our control that there's no point concerning ourselves with them.

We know that there are many, many swords hanging over the throne of Damocles. It's when people start arguing over which existential threat is more deserving of attention that things start to get on my nerves.

On Thursday the New York Times printed a letter entitled "Asteroids and Global Warming," a response to an earlier op-ed by Apollo 9 astronaut Russell Schweickart advocating the investment of more attention and resources into a planetary defense campaign. Defense against impact events, that is. Considering that they tend to punch hard, hard enough to bruise Jupiter, I've always known it's a worthwhile consideration. The dinosaurs probably would have as well, had they been aware of their situation.

An artist's impression of the Chicxulub asteroid impact, sixty-five million years ago

Not so our letter writer, Travis Madsen out of Santa Barbara. He seems to take umbrage at Schweickart's proposal while global warming threatens.

Anyone who's read this weblog for long enough will know that while I haven't been talking about the environment as much recently, I am not a climate change skeptic. Indeed, it's one of the big elephants in the room that will likely shape near-future culture to significant degrees, contributing to the whole "we have no idea what the future will look like" issue I kicked around a while back. I agree that we need to do what we can, while we can, to mitigate our effects on the climate - a combination of inertia, foot-dragging, and the crop of skeptics and deniers recently sewn in Washington all lead me to the conclusion that we're not going to get our act in gear until it's way too late - but the wonderful thing about a civilization is this: it can do more than one thing at the same time.

Choosing between planetary defense and climate change mitigation is not an either/or proposition - and neither is it beyond our reach, despite language that seems rather belitteling to me. We're not just "staring off into space," we're exploring vital ways to protect the planet. It won't matter if we've sworn off fossil fuels and made the whole world green if a six-kilometer bolide wants to say hello. We cannot pretend that Earth exists apart from the rest of the universe. There's nothing out there for us to hide behind.

What's more is that, to be honest, I'm damn glad that the existential threat we're dealing with is climate change. It's probably the most tolerable of the whole bunch, in that even now, we are capable of dealing with it, and for one very simple reason: it moves slowly. Sure, humanity is transforming Earth in an eyeblink of geological time, but our advantage is that we're able to adapt far faster than purely natural systems. Even as we change the environment, we can rearrange it. There's an opportunity there to salvage the situation, to pass through the eye of the needle and emerge stronger on the other side.

Not so for disasters like impact events. In all the history of Earth, the capacity to intervene in the celestial clockwork has existed for well less than half a century. Before that, all anyone could do would be to watch as the doom in the sky grew brighter, drew closer. Such disasters are immediately transformative: there's no mitigating an impact event once the crater's been dug.

Besides that, honestly, it's going to be easier to establish a true planetary defense network than it would be to kick the oil and pollution habit. Why? Well, because armageddons aren't good for the bottom line, and a program to keep asteroids from hitting Earth does not upset any huge corporation's applecart.

Mr. Madsen ends by suggesting that we take "meaningful action to reduce pollution now" and save the world. Sure, I'm all for that - but what action? Asteroid deflection would insulate Earth from one of the many dangers that confront it. We can't solve all our problems with a wave of the wand - but that's no reason we shouldn't investigate solutions when they come.

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