We live in a universe that is very hostile to life as we know it. The only habitable place we’ve found so far is the place we grew up: a thin layer atop the surface of the Earth. This is an incredibly small fraction of all volume in the known universe. Even if we make extremely generous assumptions about the habitability of planets around other stars, we’re still looking at a universe that is almost entirely unwelcoming.
However, intelligent life is a different matter. Humans have already ventured out of the cradle of our existence. During the last fifteen years, humans have maintained a permanent presence in low Earth orbit. In the past we’ve even gone as far as the Moon. If we continue our outward forays and eventually manage to establish self-sufficient colonies on other planets, in other solar systems, and eventually in other galaxies, our future potential is shockingly vast. In this scenario, even a conservative estimate of the number of possible future human lives is immense.1
In short, the universe is generally hostile to life, but intelligent life can thrive in it. Humanity’s potential is staggeringly large, but if we hope to achieve it we must become a species that is no longer dependent on the Earth.
Spreading beyond Earth will not be easy. So far we’ve only tiptoed out a short distance before hurrying back to safety. Building self-sufficient human colonies off world is an enormous challenge. We will need new technologies as well as the stability, resources, and vision needed to apply them effectively. We will need both prosperity and peace. A poor agrarian humanity cannot reach for the stars. Neither can one that is busy ripping itself apart. Deep cooperation is necessary.
Humanity’s greatest challenges are thus spread among many seemingly unrelated disciplines. Progress towards the full realization of humanity’s potential is being made by many people in many different fields. To be certain of our success, we need to succeed on most (if not all) fronts. A critical failure in one area could spell our demise.
Advanced but fragile technology can’t ensure our future; to live permanently on other planets we need to design and build machines of unprecedented reliability and effectiveness. A political balance of power among Earth’s nations won’t suffice; we need effective global government. Ceasefires, truces, and armistices are not good enough; we need profound peace.
Today, these goals may sound like naive platitudes. Despite our impressive progress so far as a species, we still have a long way to go. We must accept this discrepancy and work to close the gap. Even though we can’t currently see every step of the path that will lead us to success, we know what we must achieve. Spreading beyond Earth is an absolute necessity and an unprecedented challenge. Our long term survival requires that we thrive in ways we can scarcely imagine today.
- Bostrom, N. (2003). Astronomical waste: The opportunity cost of delayed technological development. Utilitas, 15(03), 308-314. [↩]