We Can’t Destroy Planet Earth

We can’t destroy planet Earth. I don’t think we can wipe out humanity, even with a concerted effort and every tool and resource at our disposal.

This was my biggest challenge when writing WOOL. End-of-the-world scenarios were a popular trope at the time, and when I decided to share my take, my biggest challenge was coming up with a realistic scenario where all of humanity might be put in jeopardy.

All-out nuclear warfare wouldn’t do it. Climate change won’t do it either. Neither will the rise of AI and robotics. The three great existential threats of our time aren’t so existential as it happens.

One of my personal heroes, Stewart Brand, made this same claim recently:

Before I expand upon this and put Earth, mother nature, and humanity into context, an aside here to say that individual life is precious. Individual species are precious. It is worth protecting both. Climate change is already leading to the loss of both individual lives and species, and for that reason it’s one of the most important challenges we face today. But overstating things serves no purpose. We aren’t going to “destroy Earth” or “wipe out humanity.”

Another aside here to point out that every human alive today will die. And every species that exists today will go extinct. That’s as near-certain as any claim can be. The sun will run out of energy. The universe will collapse into a single black hole or expand and turn into a frozen wasteland. All known life will end in billions of years, but not at our own hands or by our own doing.

So when we talk about the “end of the world” or “the end of humanity,” both are assured. Both are natural stages of progression. But our hubris in thinking that we can cause either is a misrepresentation of both our power and our fragility. The former is weaker than we imagine and the latter is far stronger.

Kevin Kelly once asked me to write a science fiction novel about a group of people who need to unplug the internet. It’s a fun thought exercise, trying to imagine how one might go about trying to shut the entire internet down. Kevin’s point is that something we imagine to be easily disrupted is actually so robust as to be nearly impossible to end. Life is like this. Humanity is like this.

Two points that drive this home:

Point one: About 4.5 billion years ago, Earth was a molten ball of lava and boiling water. Formed from a disk of material accreting around the sun, impactors were striking every second with the force of thermonuclear explosions. From this steaming inferno all life today arose. And rather quickly. It turns out that planetary life is a downhill chemical process if you have sunlight and liquid water.

Point two: At some point the population of our ancestors dipped down to around 2,000 members. And at some point further back we would find that our common ancestors broke off at the size of an individual pack or tribe. From this small number of early Humans, nearly every manufactured thing was created. And it was created out of stuff we dug out of the dirt. Your cell phone, my laptop, were made out of mud by a very small group of hominids who came down from trees.

A molten ball of lava. A small tribe of apes. Those are the very real origins of the bounty of life around us and the miracle of all our inventions. Whatever disaster we concoct that might put an end to all life, or all of humanity, must be creative enough to pound us back further than the point from which we actually came.

We forget our origins when we predict our doom.

So how could we wipe out all life on Earth? One idea would be to carve up Earth into individual chunks the size of small moons and tow them with rocketry far enough apart that they’ll never accrete again. That would suffice. Perhaps we could create black holes near Earth’s orbit and steer our planet gravitationally into the sun or out toward Mars. Now we’re talking.

What about wiping out every last human being? A global pandemic; nuclear winter; global warming; caravans of migrants. Again, we can imagine a doomsday scenario where hundreds of millions, perhaps even billions of lives are destroyed, but getting to every last pocket, and taking out the 200 here, or 200 there, in every corner of every jungle and on every remote island … it’s not feasible.

I have a short story in an upcoming anthology inspired by this point. The third entry in the fantastic WASTELANDS series by John Joseph Adams will have a story by me about a place where our worst case scenario has already happened. The story takes place on the island of Fulaga in the remote Lau group of Fiji. This is an island almost completely cut off from civilization, and it’s one of the most beautiful spots on Earth that I’ve seen after years of sailing. If nuclear war broke out across five continents, it would be a very long time (if ever) that the people of Fulaga learned of the collapse of civilization.

The daily routines and existence on Fulaga are what we imagine life to be like in the apocalypse: People constantly hunting and foraging for food, surviving day to day, generation to generation. People living in primitive conditions in small groups. Guess what? The worst thing that preppers fear is a place that I’m dying to sail back to. Not that we should ever wish for the collapse of civilization, but we should be reminded that humanity will not collapse along with it.

There are hundreds if not thousands of islands just as removed as Fulaga. All of human civilization would arise again from any one of them, or from any of the remote tribes far up rivers and deep within forests. There’s an island in Vanuatu I visited where each year another person wanders into town from the jungle to discover human civilization. They see what we’ve built for the first time. Uncontacted tribes living a few days walk from an airport with a direct flight to Brisbane. That shit blows my mind.

When we talk about disasters, we should be more precise in our language and more honest about our concerns. Honesty and precision are the bedrocks of discourse and science. We should protect and prolong individual human life. We should protect and preserve existing species and their habitats. The reasons are simple and selfish: Our own lives and the lives of our loved ones are precious to us, so policies that extend individual lives will likely extend those lives as well. And we benefit from the bounty of nature’s diversity, not just in what we eat and the medicines we discover, but the aesthetic pleasure of being immersed in Earth’s flora and fauna.

You won’t meet many people who love our reefs as much as I do, or spend as much time swimming among them. But I’ll be honest with you: I want to preserve our reefs because they’re beautiful. That’s it. That’s my reason. Because I enjoy looking at them. I’m not remotely alone in this. And that reason should be enough.

I want to limit the impact of global warming because I like the islands we have which means keeping them above water. I like reducing poverty and war, because their reduction lifts the global economy and makes travel safer and more enjoyable, and limiting climate change will help in these areas as well.

What I don’t like is when we exaggerate and undermine our good intentions. Or when we obfuscate those intentions by not being honest about what it is we hope to achieve. Life is no less miraculous for being a downhill chemical reaction; it only happens under just the right circumstances. The big ball of congealed lava on which we live will enjoy these circumstances for billions of more years. We will evolve or engineer ourselves into something unrecognizable to us today, but we will continue to exist for perhaps as long as our sun holds out. Maybe even longer.

It won’t be forever. But it won’t end by our machinations either. Even though it makes for a great fiction.

Stewart Brand and yours truly in Cuba, talking about life not ending anytime soon

(If you want to read my solution for how to wipe out all of humanity, check out WOOL and the Silo Saga. Spoiler: it ain’t pretty)

7 responses to “We Can’t Destroy Planet Earth”

  1. Welcome back, stranger. I like your take on things. I hope you’re happy and sailing somewhere.

  2. Speaking of turning off the internet, Stew, and mutual friends Cliff, John (Tex), and Matt helped turn it on.

  3. I told my dad recently that I could say with absolute certainty that seven billion people would die in the next century. He looked taken aback and I shrugged and said, there are currently seven and a half billion people on the planet and very few of us live longer than a century, so it’s a safe bet that 90-some percent of us will be dead a hundred years from now. The real question is just how ugly and unpleasant those deaths will be. That’s what we’re working for — lots of peaceful old ages in prosperity, surrounded by well-fed descendants, instead of famine, plague, and violence.

    1. Very well said. That should definitely be our goal. And clearly stating realistic goals is more likely to inspire actual progress.

  4. It’s so great to hear from you again. And you certainly do put everything in perspective.

  5. “When we talk about disasters, we should be more precise in our language and more honest about our concerns. Honesty and precision are the bedrocks of discourse and science.”

    I love these two sentences. They are so important today.

    Great post, Hugh.

  6. This is one of the few sensible takes I’ve read about this matter.

    Thank you for writing this.

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