Asian Development Bank
Health + Tech /10 May 2019
05.10.19

Saving Humanity by Colonizing the Stars

Why are we here? It is a question that has consumed philosophers, artists, and maudlin teenagers for millennia. In one sense, though, the question is easy to answer. Biologically, the purpose of any one of us being here is to carry on the species. In an age where humanity controls the means of its own destruction, there is only one way to ensure we achieve that goal: colonizing the stars.

Confinement to Earth will inexorably lead to extinction, by our own hand or otherwise. The moment an offworld colony attains self-sufficiency, however, any event that extinguishes human life on Earth would be downgraded from a species-ending cataclysm to a mere unrivaled catastrophe. Working toward establishing such a colony will give humanity a hedge against planetary disaster and lessen the chances that we ourselves are its cause.

Popular concern about nuclear war has largely dropped off since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Certainly, the kind of world-ending exchange envisioned during the Cold War is seen as a distant possibility. The fact remains, though, that as long as nuclear weapons exist, there is a nonzero chance they will be used. Furthermore, even if the chances of nuclear war – or any world-ending event – remain consistently low, the cumulative probability that one will occur grows alarmingly with time. For example, if the chance of nuclear war remains constant at 1% each year, odds are better than even that one will occur within a century.

A nuclear exchange involving the expenditure of the entire U.S. and Russian arsenals would inject an estimated 150 million tons of soot and debris into the upper atmosphere. The sun would be blotted out, and temperatures would fall by as much as 30℃ in Eurasia and North America. Under these conditions, those humans that did not die in the initial blasts and radioactive clouds would starve to death when their crops failed to grow. We also face threats from asteroids, pandemics, climate change, and other forces, natural and manmade.

Taken individually, none of these are likely to end human life on Earth anytime soon. But over time, these small, persistent threats conspire to virtually guarantee our extinction. The best insurance we have against them is to spread our civilization across as many celestial bodies as possible. It is time we started thinking of offworld colonization in terms of a real policy goal rather than science fiction.

Establishing the first offworld colony may take centuries to accomplish. If we adopt this goal today, we will not live to see it attained. That does not make it a hollow gesture. Recognition of the goal is the first step toward it, and that can happen now. Commitment to it will give us purpose and direction, an end goal by which to guide our actions. It will transform us from nations adrift and quarrelsome into peoples that must cooperate in a common endeavor. Most importantly, adopting this goal now will bring its achievement that much closer. The time saved could mean the difference between death and survival for the human race.

Secondarily, embracing this goal will make us safer while we strive for it. There can be no colony of the United States, nor China, nor India on the moons of Jupiter. There can only be a colony of Earth. Such a colony would need the support of all Earth’s peoples and must exist for the benefit of all mankind. It would encourage international cooperation by requiring it. By doing so, it would reduce the risk of a deadly international collision and facilitate more immediate foreign policy objectives.

Finally, preparing to build a self-sustaining extra-planetary colony will improve our chances of survival here on Earth. A mock-up for such a colony built in Antarctica would not only simulate the harsh conditions found offworld, but it could also serve as a doomsday insurance policy. If the world did end, the facility could maintain its hermetically-sealed bubble of life indefinitely, lying in wait for the right conditions to re-seed life on Earth.

The knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons cannot be returned to Pandora’s Box. Even if we manage to eliminate the world’s nuclear stockpiles, the warheads could be rebuilt. Furthermore, even though arms control efforts lessen the gravest danger to our survival, they do not address the myriad other threats we face. Colonizing the stars is the best way to ensure our offspring will live for millennia to come.

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