What Astrobiology Teaches Us About Living Well on Earth
The Mars rover scenario represents a stark illustration of a debate that has raged in the environmental community for decades — whether to keep environments completely free of the contamination from human influence or whether to take the pragmatic approach of regulating how humans change their environments.
"There's eco-pragmatism where you recognize, 'Yeah, we live on a planet that's permanently altered by humanity, and rather than seek to return to or preserve pure wilderness, we recognize that's an illusion and we proceed under the new knowledge that we live, in fact, in a human-dominated planet,'" Grinspoon explained.
Environmental awareness has strong roots in the famous "Earthrise" picture taken by Apollo 8 astronauts on the moon in 1968, which helped people appreciate the fragility of life on our planet, said Jean-Francois Mouhot, a historian who specializes in environmental history and the history of slavery.
"This picture of the Earth from space had a major impact on the environmental consciousness especially in the western world, and a lot of people became attracted to the environmental movement," Mouhot said. "And especially by seeing this small planet as, you know, spaceship Earth, a fragile planet that it's alone in the universe, it could die one day. It has a limited amount of resources."
The scholars talked in particular about the challenges posed by climate change on Earth — a process that includes a warming trend fueled in part by rising concentrations of carbon dioxide and other emissions. Many human activities, notably usage of fossil fuels to power modern civilization, have contributed to the rise in carbon dioxide.
Still, Grinspoon said that humans have a responsibility for their actions because they possess the consciousness and intelligence to look into the future and anticipate some consequences.
A technological breakthrough or "game changer" could help humans continue to produce the energy they need without impacting the Earth's environments and climate even more, Grinspoon suggested. He also agreed with Mouhot's preference for a "change in moral landscape" that would promote sustainable living attitudes.
"We have to learn to become a new kind of entity on this world that has the maturity and the awareness to handle being a global species with the power to change our planet and use that power in a way that is conducive to the kind of global society we want to have," Grinspoon said.
Science fiction has often imagined a fantasy of intelligent aliens coming to tell humans how to handle matters on Earth, Grinspoon joked. But without an ET intervention, humans will have to look to literature, history and science to figure out how to keep their advanced civilizations going sustainably far into the future.