Space vs The Environment: A Study in False Choices

Earth from orbit, at sunrise. A thin blue shell of air is all that protects us from space

Who should win in the battle of space vs the environment? Both! It’s a false choice.

The recent release of the National Research Council’s comprehensive report into human spaceflight, coinciding with the discovery of another “possibly habitable” exo-planet, has stirred up some interesting but misguided sentiment pitting space against the environment.

I’ve seen this point of view floating around the internet before, and I wanted to dig into it a bit deeper, because I disagree profoundly with the unstated premise that human spaceflight is somehow anti-environmental.

Jettisoning the Escape-Pod Mentality

First, a little reading homework provided by Andrew Simms at The Guardian: Forget life on Mars, it’s closer to home that matters – (Or, you can get the gist of the piece from the quotes below).

If they found on Mars a single blade of grass there would be ecstasy at mission control, unleashing visions of humanity spreading out across the cosmos.

It won’t take  a blade of grass to unleash visions of humanity spreading out across the cosmos, we have those visions now, and they are not contingent on there being life on Mars.

And yes, there would be ecstasy at Mission Control. Finding evidence of life elsewhere in the universe, life that arose separately to ours here on Earth, would be a truly profound discovery.

But does the obsession with finding life on other, potentially habitable planets somehow excuse and blind us to the trashing of this one?

No. No it doesn’t. Why would it? The false assumption here is that anyone starry-eyed enough to be looking out out into the cosmos has no regard for the amazing planet they are standing on.

Which is complete rubbish. In my experience, the polar opposite is true: people who have the perspective to understand that our whole world is just a pale blue dot, a dust-speck in the vastness of the universe, and that it is the only place we know in the universe that can naturally sustain our form of life – people like that can’t help but have a reverent and protective attitude toward our planet. There’s even a name for it: it’s called the Overview Effect.

News of the discovery of yet another Earth-like planet fuels the fantasy that if we scorch our own, we can always relocate. From Richard Branson to Stephen Hawking, there’s a hypnotic fascination with the possibility of escape which somehow relieves the pressure to look after our own, extraordinary planetary home.

And here is the heart of the assumption that fuels the space vs the environment false choice: The idea that human space settlement is about escaping from the messes we make down here on Earth.

Andrew is not alone in believing this.  Check out Bob McDonald’s piece Let’s go to Mars, but make sure it’s for the right reasons at, where he makes a similar “space vs the environment” fallacy:

A new report from the US National Research Council on Spaceflight recommends a more realistic approach to sending humans to  Mars, including the rationale that going there, “ensures the survival of the human species through off-Earth settlement.”
That is the last reason we should explore other worlds.

Why? Because:

Let’s go to other worlds to discover the nature of planets, so we can appreciate our own and learn better ways to protect it. Let’s not use Mars as a reason to think of the Earth as disposable.

In one respect, I actually agree with Andrew and Bob: It’s a fantasy to think humanity could escape a polluted Earth. Even with full-scale settlement of space, which I would love to see started in my lifetime, the vast majority of humanity will never leave our cradle planet.

We will always have a responsibility to take care of the Earth.

But I couldn’t disagree more strongly with their implicit characterization of space exploration advocates, that we would willingly write the Earth off as disposable.

Is space exploration and settlement really all about pulling the eject handle on the good-ol’ Earth Escape Pod? Is that what the likes of Branson and Hawking are actually saying?

No, it’s not.

Home and Contents Insurance for a Whole Planet

What they are actually saying is that the human race can’t afford to put all its eggs in one planetary basket.

If something catastrophic like an asteroid strike happened to the Earth (and they have happened in the past), it would potentially be curtains for the human race. Having branches of our civilization thriving elsewhere in the solar system – Mars, the Moon, or free-space orbiting colonies – provides an extinction insurance policy.

That’s not the same thing as running away from our messes down here.

I get the impression from articles like those above that the authors would like us to cease all space exploration to concentrate solely on cleaning up this planet.

Terrestrial environmentalism is a worthy goal, and it’s not actually in conflict with humanity’s expansion into space – we don’t have to stop doing one to do the other. It’s not space vs the environment, it’s space and the environment.

But environmentalism alone is simply not sufficient to secure the welfare of future generations. We could return the Earth to an untouched natural paradise, but that wouldn’t matter to some future planet-killer asteroid that had us in its cross-hairs.

If such an asteroid ever comes calling, the worst case outcome is that we lose the unique and amazing Earth, and with it our unique and amazing human race.


Every single thing, from Picasso to Pol Pot, Stalin to Shakespeare the good, the bad, the mundane. Nothing about our whole existence, with the exception of a few interplanetary spacecraft and Lunar Module descent stages, would survive.

Humanity would certainly be gone, and with it almost all of the diversity of life on Earth that we might want to preserve from our own exploitations.

If we have settlements in space, at least some part of our civilization would survive.

But to me, that’s not the compelling case for space settlement, that’s good, but it’s really just a consolation prize: “Gee, sorry you lost your planet, at least you still have your health.”

The compelling case is this: Learning to live and operate in the hostile environment of space would almost certainly give us the capability to deflect our hypothetical asteroid from ever hurting Earth in the first place.

What better expression of environmental care could there be than saving the entire planetary biosphere from annihilation?

Space settlement is not about escaping from an Earth we messed up because we always knew we could leave. It’s about insuring our civilization against a planetary catastrophe just like you would insure your house against an earthquake or fire.

And, ultimately, it’s about protection. You can’t stop an earthquake. You can stop an asteroid.

But, not if you don’t have a space program. There is no “space vs the environment” false choice. Bringing life to other worlds is not about abandoning this one.

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