There are no crew on spaceship Earth -mixed messages about Mars

TED 2015 is on right now in Vancouver and while I am not there (one day:) I have been watching the various media streams when I have a moment.

What I was struck by on the first day was what I think is a profound dissonance between a couple of presentations on the general topic of missions to Mars and the implications.

While I recall previous talks by Prof Brian Cox “Why we need the Explorers” and various others over the years in support of the general thesis I was very interested in Lucianne Walkowicz was talking about this year.

Contrast the comment attributed to Elon Musk (below) “50,000 people living on Mars by 2050” with a more sobering assessment by Walkowicz.

Lucianne gave a TED talk in 20111 Finding planets around other stars so she has a different perspective to most of us. Marcus Wohlsen of Wired.com has been writing about #TED2015 this week – scroll down to Day one or search on the title “TED Day One: Mars Isn’t a Good Backup Plan for Humanity” or for another view On blazars, quantum computers, and looking for life on Mars: A recap of TEDFellows Session 1 at TED2015

“But the biggest challenge to an audience steeped in Silicon Valley pieties was astronomer Lucianne Walkowicz. Her work involves looking for what she called “choice alien real estate,” searching the cosmos for planets that might be hospitable to life. “The more you look for planets like earth,” she said, “the more you appreciate our own planet itself.” Among the planets that don’t quite measure up is Mars.

Mars might have been inhabited by life once, Walkowicz said. But these days, she said, compared to earth, it’s a pretty terrible place to live. She pointed to the fact that humans have so far failed to colonize the least hospitable places of our own planet, such as deserts, which have the advantage of a rich, highly oxygenated atmosphere. Aspirations to colonize Mars, as described by Walkowicz, have an air not of innovative ambition, but of giving up.

If we can figure out how to make Mars habitable by humans, she said, we ought to be able figure out how to keep earth habitable for humans, too—an effort at which we are currently failing miserably.

That last statement about how we should “figure out how to keep earth habitable for humans” really struck a chord with me (italics are mine.)

Here is a talk she gave earlier. When this years talk is released on video I will update this post with the new clip. Lucianne is not some disinterested bystander; she works on the NASA’s Kepler mission so to hear her frame her talk in this way is significant.

Many years ago Marshall McLuhan was quoted as saying – “There are no passengers on spaceship earth. We are all crew”. What I think Lucianne is saying is that we aren’t behaving like crew and really solving the big issues that face earth. Instead we are like a bunch of passengers trying to get off to the lifeboats of Mars.

I’m surprised that given that #TED2015 is being held in Canada that quote is not being mentioned. I’m guessing that McLuhan himself may have been referencing “Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth which is a short book by R. Buckminster Fuller, first published in 1968″.

In my view the short version is that we shouldn’t give up on spaceship earth – despite it being a hard question to ask and answer. Like in the famous “Space Seed” episode of StarTrek 1967 I’m paraphrasing here – Khan says despite the improvements in technology, we humans are still much the same and in 2015 that is still the case.

I look forward to the video of  Lucianne’s latest talk but in the meantime here is another quote by her.

For anyone to tell you Mars will be there to back up humanity is like the captain of the Titanic telling you that the real party is happening later on the life boats,” Walkowicz said. “It is hubris to believe that interplanetary colonization will be enough to save us from ourselves.

What do you think?

Update: Here is the talk from Lucianne. At the time of writing this blog post I had not seen the talk in full – just caught elements of it on twitter and background reviews. Enjoy.