KSJ Tracker May 5, 2014

Times opinion piece says we should protect ourselves, not the planet

Alan LIghtman : physicist, writer, sailor. He says save yourself.

Alan Lightman is a writer who transcends categories. He can make important contribtions to astrophysics, turn poetic phrases, and blow everyone’s mind with a little book of fiction called Einstein’s Dream. And, as we learn in Saturday’s New York Times, he can also sail. That’s where he encounters his limitations. Out on the open waters of the Aegean, he writes, he feels fear contemplating the possibility he could be hit with a surge of deadly dry wind known as meltemis.   

At any moment, a wall of water and wind could have lunged from the horizon, washed over the boat, and drowned my wife and me. I realized that there was no compassionate overseer or oceanic consciousness to prevent that from happening.

In the piece, headlined, Our Lonely Home in Nature, he expresses his thoughts on the purposelessness of the natural world and what he sees as a misplaced faith we put in nature.  When we hear about deadly tornadoes, hurricanes and other natural disasters, he writes, “we feel betrayed by nature.”

And on a cosmic scale, nature is rather hostile to life. Even with the abundance of extrasolar planets being discovered, he calculates that "just one millionth of one billionth of 1 percent of the material of the visible universe exists in living form”. That is a lonely thought.

The piece ends with a message about global warming:   

The recent report by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change documents the damage now being done by human-created greenhouse gases and global warming. In reacting to the report, we should not be concerned about protecting our planet. Nature can survive far more than what we can do to it and is totally oblivious to whether homo sapiens lives or dies in the next hundred years. Our concern should be about protecting ourselves — because we have only ourselves to protect us.

I’ve read this sentiment elsewhere but I can’t quite decipher it. Would we go about saving ourselves differently if we stop worrying about the planet? When people talk about saving the planet, it’s kind of a metaphor for preserving biodiversity, clean air and the like, rather than a literal reference to the rocky body that is Earth. So some people might interpret Lightman’s statement to mean that we should cut down on carbon emissions if we hope to save ourselves. But then there’s really no distinction between saving ourselves and the planet.

Some of the undergraduate students I teach assure me that within 10 years we will have completely terraformed Mars. For them, saving ourselves might mean investing in terraforming, so we can all go live happily ever after on our neighboring planet.

Though we can’t tame Earth’s atmosphere or oceans, somehow, they imagine, we can create a nice atmosphere and ocean on Mars. Or maybe we’d skip the ocean and go with just rivers and lakes. It almost feels like a secular version of heaven.

Given these students’ optimism, I suspect we don’t have an illusionary faith in nature so much as a misplaced faith in technology. We don’t fume at nature for stirring up tornadoes, but we are outraged that technology hasn’t given people adequate warning systems and shelters. When a meteor shattered windows in Siberia last year, people weren’t saying they were shocked that nature would throw a rock at us. They were shocked that NASA didn’t see it coming.

People feel betrayed not because they think nature is tame but because they assume that with our technological sophistication, we humans should have tamed it by now. Perhaps that’s the lesson here. Global warming is changing the climate. Some have faith that technology will save us – someone will figure out how to control the climate, or create a new one elsewhere. But the check-in time on Mars may be later than we think. And there may not be enough lifeboats.


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