If one were looking for a non-metaphysical description of human life here on earth, it would be hard do better than Edmund Burke's statesmanlike definition of society: "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."
Burke's vision of society as an intergenerational partnership was expressed in his 1790 work, the elegiac Reflections on the Revolution in France. In that famous book, reacting to the tumultuous political changes just across the channel, Burke sought to defend England's traditions against French radicalism. More generally, he vindicated Western Christian civilization in its struggle with atheism, relativism, and nihilism. Yet for all its brilliance, Reflections carries an unmistakably melancholy tone, as when Burke sighed, "The age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished forever." In other words, the onslaught of modern things -- dangerous modern things, in his view -- would overwhelm the stable conservative order that he treasured. Looking around today, even fans of progress would have to concede that Burke was correct when he predicted that rapid change would fracture the familiar face of Europe.
Now, two centuries later, political ideas are as important as ever, and as radicalizing as ever, but in addition, technology has added a new and deadly backdrop to the human drama: Humanity has developed the capacity to destroy itself. Society now can be undone, not only by a malignant majoritarian mob, but also by a techno-malcontented few.
So recently another well-credentialed Briton with a philosophical mind, the physicist Stephen Hawking, has offered us a challenging prophecy, which amounts to a techno-tragic updating of Burke. In Hawking's telling, more than custom and tradition will be fractured -- the planet itself will be fractured. As he said recently in Hong Kong, we are at risk of being "wiped out" from a wide variety of possible dangers, including nuclear war, genetically engineered viruses, catastrophic global warming, and "other dangers we have not yet thought of."
Hawking believes that human destructiveness, combined with bad luck, could destroy not only any Burkean intergenerational partnership among humans, but the entire ecosystem. And of course, he spoke before the latest nuclear scare out of North Korea, which should serve to remind us that the minute-hand of the Doomsday Clock is never far from midnight.
If Hawking is right about this impending risk, then we have a duty to listen, and to act -- even if that means going where no man has gone before. That's how we can keep the partnership between the generations in force; we don't have to keep faith with the past and the future only from the platform of this planet. Admittedly, that's not an idea that Burke entertained in his 18th century life, but as he also famously declared, the challenge to leaders in any era is to sluice the tides of change through the canals of custom -- that is, to deal appropriately with change by harnessing it to traditional goals. So Burke would likely approve of new methods, so long as they were aimed at keeping the sacred generational continuity.
If anyone today is well-positioned to speak wisely about the earth and the cosmos, it's Hawking, who holds the academic chair once held by Isaac Newton. His research and ruminations on black holes and other spacey phenomena have earned him a place in the physics pantheon, as well as a best-selling book and a guest gig in a "Star Trek" movie. Now at age 64, suffering from advanced Lou Gehrig's Disease, Hawking has only a little bit of time left to him. So if he worries about the fate of the earth in the future, it's for our sake, not his. And as he said in Hong Kong, "It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species."
So in the name of Hawking, and in the spirit of Burke, we might think about a plan for making sure that the human partnership survives. And while we're at it, why not preserve the plant and animal partnership, too? The challenge of human destructiveness -- combined, it is worth emphasizing, with the naturally occurring malevolence of Mother Nature -- could affect more than just homo sapiens; it could affect all the flora and fauna of the world, too, from the tiniest microbe to the biggest whale. Indeed, in the last half-billion years or so, on at least five occasions, huge extinctions have taken place. In other words, if humanity doesn't destroy us all, the almighty forces of the universe might just finish us off. So with a nod to Noah, a far-seeing fellow if there ever was one, why not build an Ark? The idea of a "space ark," of course, is nothing new, as fans of such movies/TV shows as "When Worlds Collide" to "Battlestar Galactica" to "Titan A.E." can attest.
For a while in this century, it seemed as if politicians were inexorably leading us into space, thus fulfilling, in effect, the space-ark mission. In 1962, John F. Kennedy declared that the US would become "the world's leading spacefaring nation." And in keeping with his own idealism about space, JFK further avowed, "We set sail on this new sea because there is new knowledge to be gained and new rights to be won and they must be won and used for the progress of all people."
Even after Kennedy's assassination, the space vision continued; we would be running around the solar system soon enough. Remember the movie "2001"? Made in 1968, it took it as a given that travel to and from the Moon would be routine -- and that travel to Jupiter wouldn't be much of a leap.
Well, it didn't happen, for three reasons.
First, the end of the space race. Encrypted in all of Kennedy's proclamations was the logic of Cold War rivalry and American supremacy. Good for us: We won. But after we won, there wasn't much to do. Much of the strategic imperative of the space program collapsed along with the Soviet Union. The Chinese have lately shown interest in space; if their program takes off, for either civilian or military purposes, Uncle Sam will likely rouse himself from his present space-torpor, but that hasn't happened yet.
Second, and more broadly, came the erosion of faith in the future. Starting in the late 60s, a combination of factors -- the Vietnam War, the gloomy-and-doomy excesses of an often Luddite environmental movement, worldwide economic slowdown, plus a general realization that Big Government didn't work very well -- all united to undercut the idea that governments could do much of anything, including run a space program. People still had ambitions, of course; so even if they were skeptical of collective action, individual entrepreneurs and their corporations still undertook bold missions. But alas, none of those undertakings included space travel that was anything more than a joyride. Capitalism is great, but it does not provide insulation against "market failure" in certain sectors -- in this instance, sustained space exploration. There are some things, it appears, that only governments can or will do.
Third, and perhaps even more profoundly, the realization that there is no other intelligent life in our solar system, indeed no life, period. Yes, we might yet find some fossil algae under an extraterrestrial icecap somewhere, but by now it's gallingly evident that we are alone in our corner of the universe -- and maybe even alone in the universe as a whole. And the effect of that understanding has been to diminish enthusiasm for space travel: If there are no Martians, or ETs, or Klingons, or whatevers to meet -- or to fight, guard against, or trade with, or have sex with -- then the whole space trip just isn't as interesting to people.
OK, so that's why we're here, stuck on this mortal coil. As Los Angeles lawyer-inventor-video-maker Greg Piccionelli has illustrated through his "Doomsday Curve," our present situation is imminently mortal and lethal; his video shows the rising destructive capacity of technology, wielded by either individuals or nations -- he even put it to music!
Of course, many people raise objections to Hawking's space-ark plan. For example, Alan Guth, a physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was quoted in the same round of news stories, reacting to Hawking: "I don't see the likely possibility within the next 50 years of science technology making it easier to survive on Mars and on the moon than it would be to survive on earth." Guth added, "I would still think that an underground base, for example in Antarctica, would be easier to build than building on the moon."
And some are doing just that. In the face of gathering dangers, some farsighted folks, lacking the capacity for spacefaring, are creating their own non-space arks. Survivalists aside, a benevolent bunch looking out for all of us, are the 100 nations that have banded together to establish and endow the Global Crop Diversity Trust, a warehouse for all the world's seed, operated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute. The Crop Trust is building a climate-controlled facility on the Norwegian island of Svalbard, far north of the Arctic Circle, which is known informally as "the doomsday vault." In the words of The Washington Post's Rick Weiss, it is to be "the ultimate backup in the event of a global catastrophe -- the go-to place after an asteroid hit or nuclear or biowarfare holocaust so that, difficult as those times would be, humankind would not have to start again from scratch."
Maybe this is the best we can do: figure out how to save plants, at least, in the event of any catastrophe short of the planet being exploded or incinerated out of existence. The Svalbard facility offers a near-perpetual hope of re-greening the planet, if need be -- assuming, of course, that the survivors know about it.
OK, that's good news for seeds, but what about human beings? A few outfits, such as the aptly named Lifeboat Foundation (of which I am a supporter) call for "self-sustaining space colonies," but such voices are distressingly scarce in the public square. And so we sit, vulnerable.
Yet interestingly, even Guth thinks that Hawking is probably right over the longer term: "If he's talking about the next 100 years and beyond, it does make sense to think about space as the ultimate lifeboat."
So that's our two-fold challenge:
First, to survive the next few decades, even as we share this "pale blue dot" with the likes of Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Those madmen can't wipe out the whole planet, to be sure, but a loose nuke or two could set off a chain reaction, and we know how chain reactions can end. And eventually, Murphy's Law will get the best of us, no matter what we do -- that's Hawking's point.
So, second, to develop a robust spacefaring capacity. It's likely that the Pentagon will be moving forward with its own plans for "milspace," but if we are thinking about preserving civilization, and not just a few colonels, we will have to do more. Let's have a political debate, let's argue, let's logroll -- but let's get it done.
Above all, we must resist the temptation to hide from the problem -- or attempt to hide from the problem. It's no coincidence that back in the 60s, as support for the space program was falling, the desire to get high was, well, rising. That is, as technological forms of tripping faded away, trips of the pharmaceutical kind took off. And in the wake of psychedelic drugs came the efflorescence of New Age religion and, yes, one must also say, the explosion of the Internet. To put it another way, stargazing gave way to acid-dropping, and then to navel-gazing, and then to web-surfing. What a long strange trip it's been, indeed.
But there's one huge problem: No matter how far we go, virtually, we haven't actually gone anywhere, physically. Our corporeal selves are still here on earth, still vulnerable to whatever fate befalls the earth. All those cyber-savvy yuppies in the World Trade Center had their cell phones and Blackberries with them on 9-11, and those machines worked fine, even unto the end. But the vaunted products of the Digital Revolution couldn't save those poor high-techsters from the grim-reaping reality of the massed kinetics of fiery fuel.
And that's the point about the earth, too. If it goes, we go. And so we should go elsewhere, so that when the earth goes, we have another place to go. And while we're at it, we should take our pets and plants, too. We wouldn't want to be without them, just as they wouldn't want to be without us -- even if they don't know it. It's our job to know things, and to act accordingly. And if we fail at that mission, then we really will have failed in upholding our end of the Burkean bargain -- that is, partnering not only with the living and the dead, but with those who are yet to be born.
James Pinkerton is TCS Daily's media critic.