I recently read a post on a blog called Rationalising the Universe (my favorite science blog, do check it out) about interplanetary missions proposed by SpaceX (you can read that post here). SpaceX is the brainchild of Elon Musk, arguably the most popular entrepreneur in the world right now. He plans to make interplanetary missions possible by 2022; rather far-fetched in my opinion. Nevertheless, I think the idea of interplanetary travel and possible colonization is soon going to become a reality (in about 50 years or so).
What does this mean in the current environmental crisis? Would this be justification for us to unscrupulously utilize all resources available to us? What does this mean for an environmentalist?
First of all, let’s look at this realistically. Space travel and colonizing new planets is not going to happen before the next 50 years. It could happen anytime after that. There is no specific timeline to this project. NASA plans to start probes to Mars in the 2030s and these are just preliminary. Colonization is far, far away into the future (no matter what Musk thinks). Also, commercial travels, no matter how attractive, cannot happen without a proper plan and infrastructure present on the other planet. That can only happen if qualified people first go and make the conditions conducive to life on the new planet.
The first colonizers are not likely to reach Mars or any other planet before 2100.
Secondly, it is impossible to move every one of the 7 billion people on this planet to the new one. Only the smartest and the richest of humans will be given the opportunity to move on and establish a new human colony. The rest, sadly, will remain on Earth.
So, while the human race may survive the current climate crisis on account of space travel in the next 50-100 years, the larger population of humans (~99.9%) will be left on Earth. If interplanetary colonization is seen as a justification for destroying ecosystems for “development”, then it is clearly not good enough. Because only a handful of people will manage to escape it’s implications. The rest of the human population will be left languishing to scrape a living. I don’t think the smartest and the richest of the world will want to start a new life with the blood of billions on their hands.
Therefore, regardless of whether we move to a new planet or not, it is imperative that we continue our efforts to reduce the rate and impact of climate change and ecosystem destruction.
The environmentalist will will not become obsolete. Their work is, and will remain, key in this fight to keep Earth livable.
Ok, the environmentalist will remain on Earth to continue repairing the human race’s damage. What about on the new planet?
I strongly believe that an expert ecologist and environmentalist should be among the first to move to colonize the new planet. If that planet already has a living and thriving biosphere, we will need ecologists to study and understand it’s dynamics. Also, we will need ecologists and environmentalists to assist in the building of infrastructure so that we do not repeat the mistakes we made on our home planet (if we repeat our mistakes there, then we will be no different from the “villains” of Independence Day and all the other space invasion movies Hollywood makes).
If that new planet is not hospitable (like Mars) but humans still want to colonize it, it is vital that we have ecologists, environmentalists and botanists on board the first few missions to set up an artificial, thriving ecosystem. Remember Matt Damon in The Martian? The reason he was able to survive there and grow plants was because he was a botanist and new how to effectively utilize what was available and apply it.
Ecologists and environmentalists will continue to be relevant in the present and the future, both on Earth and the new planet we colonize.