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Earth Too Polluted? Find a Fresh Planet! A Rebuttal to Stephen Hawking

IFL Science

The Washington Post reported on Monday that theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has set a deadline for humanity to find a new planet to live on.

100 years. That’s it.  After that, according to Professor Hawking’s projections, we pass the tipping point for messing up the Earth so badly, we’re all going to perish. So Hawking argues we’d better start seriously investing right now in long-distance space travel and technology that will allow interplanetary colonization.

As BBC put it, paraphrasing the scientist: “With climate change, overdue asteroid strikes, epidemics and population growth, our own planet is increasingly precarious.”


Now, among Hawking’s four horsemen of the apocalypse, one of them – asteroids – is not our fault.  No use losing sleep there.  But the other three are on us. They’re entirely preventable environmental and public health threats that we know how to solve. 

The problem we face is politics, not physics.

If we, as a society, poured more taxpayer funding into the development of antibiotics, vaccines and public health systems -- instead of allowing a for-profit health industry to earn billions by exploiting the sick – we might prevent the next epidemic ...before it swept the Earth.

On overpopulation: The Harvard Global Health Review reports that the most effective method of population control is not birth control or abortion – but paying for higher education for girls and women. 

So, if we took half of the money we spend fighting terrorism and each other, and instead used it to combat ignorance, we might live sustainably on our own planet.

And then there’s climate change.  It’s a serious problem, caused by our addiction to the burning of fossil fuels – and it’s not just Stephen Hawking raising alarms about it, but also NASA, NOAA, the National Academy of Sciences, and about 97 percent of climate scientists.

But I don’t buy into the doomsday predictions about global warming. Climate change will likely cause flooding of coastal cities, droughts, wildfires, and perhaps even wars over food and fresh water. But it will not cause an extinction of homo sapiens, a species that has proven remarkably adaptable and resilient and I believe will persist, even on a hot, dry and crowded world.

And this is where I get angry at Stephen Hawking.  Why the hell should we abandon our planet?  If we trash this world, and give up on it -- we don’t deserve another. We need to seriously invest right now in saving our home by protecting our forests, oceans, fields and fellow animals from the excesses of our own appetites.

The idea of fleeing into space to escape from problems we don’t have the will to solve would be typical of our disposable culture – like abandoning our cities, and setting up brave new worlds out in suburbia.

The Earth, in this sense, would be like a Starbucks cup – something we use once, and then hurl out the car window, to tumble into darkness.

This wasteful mentality is what we need to focus our most brilliant minds on solving – not inventing plasma rockets and human hibernation pods so we can colonize Mars.  We need to plan an exploration into the darkest reaches of the human character, to discover the alien within us that compels us to wreck our own home and pollute what we find most beautiful.

There is no home for us beyond Earth, Professor Hawking, no technological fix for what we’ve done.  Somehow, we need to cross the void within and between people – a distance that sometimes seems more vast than between planets.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.