How Sustainable is Humanity? Combining Earth & Space Sciences to Illuminate our Future
Scientists have begun to question how long Earth can support our technological civilization. The extraction of energy changes landscapes; human-caused global warming alters climate patterns; ocean acidification modifies ecosystems and overexploitation of resources overtakes natural replenishment. In a paper published in the journal Anthropocene, astrophysicists call for the creation of a new research program which combines earth-based science of Sustainability with the space-oriented field of Astrobiology to answer questions about humanity’s future.
The science of sustainability is focused on the effects of one particular species during one particular epoch, whereas astrobiology broadens its purview to all possible species on Earth or elsewhere. Notable discoveries and theories in the field of astrobiology suggest the potential for applications in sustainability studies.
“We have no idea how long a technological civilization like our own can last,” says University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank. “Is it 200 years, 500 years or 50,000 years? Answering this question is at the root of all our concerns about the sustainability of human society.”
More than a billion Earth-mass-like worlds are now expected to exist within habitable zones. The authors calculated that even if the chances of a “high tech” species such as humankind existing are 1 in a 1,000 trillion, there will still have been 1,000 occurrences of a history like Earths’ across the “local” region of the Cosmos.
Therefore, the inherently large-scale and long-term view of the evolution of life and planets in astrobiology, may cast the global problems of sustainability science into a different, and perhaps useful, light.
“Maybe everybody runs into this bottleneck,” says Frank, adding that this could be a universal feature of life and planets. “If that’s true, the question becomes whether we can learn anything by modelling the range of evolutionary pathways. Some paths will lead to collapse and others will lead to sustainability. Can we, perhaps, gain some insight into which decisions lead to which kind of path?”
The paper shows that studying past extinction events and using theoretical tools to model the future evolutionary trajectory of humankind—and of still unknown but plausible alien civilizations—could inform decisions that would lead to a sustainable future.
Journal Reference: Adam Frank, Woodruff Sullivan. Sustainability and the astrobiological perspective: Framing human futures in a planetary context. Anthropocene, 2014; 5: 32 DOI: 10.1016/j.ancene.2014.08.002
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