“Who Speaks for Earth?”

Reiterating the great messages of Carl Sagan for the 21st Century

I figured it time to take a temporary departure from the type of posts that might make me seem hot-headed, ideologically charged, or otherwise just plain annoying. Instead, I decided to revisit a book that I consider to be more worthwhile to me than any holy scripture or self-help book.

The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God

This book is a written record of the Gifford Lectures famously delivered by Carl Sagan in 1985 at Glasgow University. The book is edited by Sagan’s widow Ann Druyan and features a moving foreword to the late astronomer and scientist, and it is accompanied by a stunning plethora of scientific imagery.

Sagan is, for me personally, a heroic figure in the catalogue of human history. His optimism and enthusiasm for learning and education span across fields not just in astrophysics but in linguistics, history, anthropology, biology, chemistry and philosophy. His commitment to rational thought and a humanist outlook enraptured me more than any other religious denomination has. I had in the past often felt at a spiritual loss considering the vastness of the universe and humanity’s position within it; what Sagan did was take that loss and convert it into a wonderful sense of euphoria at the idea of a wider and more exotic cosmos than we ever dared to dream in the past.

Sadly this optimism has been swept firmly under the radar, efforts to encourage the optimism and curiosity needed to gaze up towards the stars rather than at our own planet have waned in recent years. Perhaps those in power have become too scared to look into the darkness, to peel back the thin veil of our atmosphere and imagine at what might be out there. Better not to know, they may say. Or perhaps it is our species’ unfortunate aptitude for conflict that hampers progress in what we may call the optimistic endeavours and encourages progress in the more dangerous and calamitous ones. For example the splitting of the atom was perhaps one of the most significant turning points in our history; offering as-yet-unseen potential in the realm of nuclear energy and a drastic reduction in our dependence on the pollutant fossil fuels. Instead the development of nuclear technology was driven almost entirely by a desire to threaten, control, and destroy. Following the breakthrough of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project the world has since been locked in the disastrous embrace of superpowers pointing these monstrosities at each other as if a bargaining tool.

Sagan warns of the dangers of Nuclear War from the final episode of his series Cosmos.

History books may define the Cold War as a period from 1945 to 1991, ultimately ending with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain; not so. Russia and China have since been unpredictable holders of significant nuclear arsenals in no less the same way as the Soviet Union was towards the United States. The flags may have changed but the old rivalries are very much still alive. Entire generations of people now live under the threat that someone might want to push that button, even great leaders are not infallible when put up against the many flaws of our species; our greed, our short-sightedness, our focus on the here and now not the then and there. Has this become the norm? Has the Overton Window shifted so that those who grew up in a nuclear world are not horrified at the destructive capability of the global nuclear arsenal?

In order to analyse this subject with no bias we must not look at it as a citizen of any nation, but as a collective species:

“We have heard the rationales of the superpowers, we know who speaks for the nations. But who speaks for the Human species? Who speaks for Earth?”

Arguably the most important role of any state is to ensure the safety of its citizens? If we treat humanity as a whole in this regard, is not our foremost duty to protect our one homeworld? I firmly believe that to any outsider observer that humanity appears on a knife edge, we are a very short misstep from global cataclysm. And what after? We cannot just rebuild. One of the primary effects of a global nuclear exchange would not simply be the complete destruction of civilisation but the rendering of Earth as a dead planet. In the space of time it takes for a kettle to boil, the entire legacy of our species would be snuffed out, and our world along with it. The half-life of most radioactive substances ensures that the surface of the Earth would not be habitable for many decades, perhaps centuries. Nothing would grow in the radioactive desolation.

Consider the plain economic cost versus species-wide life expectancy with numbers like these.

What would an outsider say to this horrendous series of events? They wouldn’t pore through our history with any sympathy surely. When the risks are so blatantly screaming us in the face yet our leadership willingly accepts the risks of harbouring a gargantuan sum of world-ending material, we do not deserve the sympathy of an advanced species, and we certainly do not earn the right to call ourselves an intelligent one.

Now despite this, I begrudgingly accept the arguments of our current predicament; many of our enemies have nuclear weapons, and many of their enemies have nuclear weapons. Therefore they provide an almost guaranteed level of security, as I doubt that even Vladimir Putin would be idiotic enough to willingly launch the first warhead. It’s not fun ruling over a wasteland, after all. However if this is an inevitability and if we are going to have to accept that, for now at least, nuclear weapons as a modern reality, then what can we do to better prevent a global catastrophe or preserve our species in the unfortunate event of a nuclear war? What right is it of the aboriginals of Australia to be completely wiped out due to the ideological or economic conflict between two distant superpowers so vastly removed from their situation that they have never even constituted a tactical scorecard for the belligerents? It isn’t. The answer is very short and very simple. It is not.

It is the right of every member of the Human species to be able to enjoy and live a full and prosperous life. But sadly we are being of self-destruction and shallow consideration for others with the tragic potential to become far greater than we are now. The prospects for space exploration and funding far outweigh the risks of global annihilation in terms of profit, stability and longevity for our species by an order of magnitude. Yet we willingly shift funds from the exploration and habitation of other worlds into the coffers of military infrastructure when one explicitly encourages the longevity of the Human race and the other explicitly reduces it. If the leaders of the world are willing to argue that the possession of nuclear weapons is a tool for security, stability and ensured continuation of that nation, then I believe they are entirely blinded by the logic pressed squarely in their face.

I wholly reject the idea that efforts to reduce the global arsenal of nuclear weapons are impractical or contrary to human nature as idiotic and self-destructive; it implies that we accept human nature to be destructive and that nuclear weapons are practical. It seems incredibly depressing to argue that such things are in our nature, and that any species who accepts conflict as an intrinsic part of its being and therefore necessary is doomed to self-destruction by the unshakeable proof housed in statistics and mathematics.

As far as recommended reading is concerned; The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a must-have primer for every Human. Sagan’s original series Cosmos is also worth a watch for the uninitiated, however one can also learn just as much from the remastered vision of Cosmos as hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson currently on Netflix.