The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth
One day about seventy-five thousand years ago, humanity almost died.
A titanic explosion in Indonesia sent up a colossal blanket of ash, smoke, and debris that covered thousands of miles. The eruption of Toba was so violent that it ranks as the most powerful volcanic event in the last twenty-five million years. It blew an unimaginable 670 cubic miles of dirt into the air. This caused large areas of Malaysia and India to be smothered by volcanic ash up to thirty feet thick. The toxic smoke and dust eventually sailed over Africa, leaving a trail of death and destruction in its wake.
Imagine, for a moment, the chaos caused by this cataclysmic event. Our ancestors were terrorized by the searing heat and the clouds of gray ash that darkened the sun. Many were choked and poisoned by the thick soot and dust. Then, temperatures plunged, causing a “volcanic winter.” Vegetation and wildlife died off as far as the eye could see, leaving only a bleak, desolate landscape. People and animals were left to scavenge the devastated terrain for tiny scraps of food, and most humans died of starvation. It looked as if the entire Earth was dying. The few who survived had only one goal: to flee as far as they could from the curtain of death that descended on their world.
Stark evidence of this cataclysm may perhaps be found in our blood.
Geneticists have noticed the curious fact that any two humans have almost identical DNA. By contrast, any two chimpanzees can have more genetic variation between them than is found in the entire human population. Mathematically, one theory to explain this phenomenon is to assume that, at the time of the explosion, most humans were wiped out, leaving only a handful of us—about two thousand people. Remarkably, this dirty, raggedy band of humans would become the ancestral Adams and Eves who would eventually populate the entire planet. All of us are almost clones of one another, brothers and sisters descended from a tiny, hardy group of humans who could have easily fit inside a modern hotel ballroom.
As they trekked across the barren landscape, they had no idea that one day, their descendants would dominate every corner of our planet.
Today, as we gaze into the future, we see that the events that took place seventy-five thousand years ago may actually be a dress rehearsal for future catastrophes. I was reminded of this in 1992, when I heard the astounding news that, for the first time, a planet orbiting a distant star had been found. With this discovery, astronomers could prove that planets existed beyond our solar system. This was a major paradigm shift in our understanding of the universe. But I was saddened when I heard the next piece of news: this alien planet was orbiting a dead star, a pulsar, that had exploded in a supernova, probably killing everything that might have lived on that planet. No living thing known to science can withstand the withering blast of nuclear energy that emerges when a star explodes close by.
I then imagined a civilization on that planet, aware that their mother sun was dying, working urgently to assemble a huge armada of spaceships that might transport them to another star system. There would have been utter chaos on the planet as people, in panic and desperation, tried to scramble and secure the last few seats on the departing vessels. I imagined the horror felt by those who were left behind to meet their fate as their sun exploded.
It is as inescapable as the laws of physics that humanity will one day confront some type of extinction-level event. But will we, like our ancestors, have the drive and determination to survive and even flourish?
If we scan all the life-forms that have ever existed on the Earth, from microscopic bacteria to towering forests, lumbering dinosaurs, and enterprising humans, we find that more than 99.9 percent of them eventually became extinct. This means that extinction is the norm, that the odds are already stacked heavily against us. When we dig beneath our feet into the soil to unearth the fossil record, we see evidence of many ancient life-forms. Yet only the smallest handful survive today. Millions of species have appeared before us; they had their day in the sun, and then they withered and died. That is the story of life.
No matter how much we may treasure the sight of dramatic, romantic sunsets, the smell of fresh ocean breezes, and the warmth of a summer’s day, one day it will all end, and the planet will become inhospitable to human life. Nature will eventually turn on us, as it did to all those extinct life-forms.
The grand history of life on Earth shows that, faced with a hostile environment, organisms inevitably meet one of three fates. They can leave that environment, they can adapt to it, or they will die. But if we look far enough into the future, we will eventually face a disaster so great that adaptation will be virtually impossible. Either we must leave the Earth or we will perish. There is no other way.
These disasters have happened repeatedly in the past, and they will inevitably happen in the future. The Earth has already sustained five major extinction cycles, in which up to 90 percent of all life-forms vanished from the Earth. As sure as day follows night, there will be more to come.
On a scale of decades, we face threats that are not natural but are largely self-inflicted, due to our own folly and shortsightedness. We face the danger of global warming, when the atmosphere of the Earth itself turns against us. We face the danger of modern warfare, as nuclear weapons proliferate in some of the most unstable regions of the globe. We face the danger of weaponized microbes, such as airborne AIDS or Ebola, which can be transmitted by a simple cough or sneeze. This could wipe out upward of 98 percent of the human race. Furthermore, we face an expanding population that consumes resources at a furious rate. We may exceed the carrying capacity of Earth at some point and find ourselves in an ecological Armageddon, vying for the planet’s last remaining supplies.
In addition to calamities that we create ourselves, there are also natural disasters over which we have little control. On a scale of thousands of years, we face the onset of another ice age. For the past one hundred thousand years, much of Earth’s surface was blanketed by up to a half mile of solid ice. The bleak frozen landscape drove many animals to extinction. Then, ten thousand years ago, there was a thaw in the weather. This brief warming spell led to the sudden rise of modern civilization, and humans have taken advantage of it to spread and thrive. But this flowering has occurred during an interglacial period, meaning we will likely meet another ice age within the next ten thousand years. When it comes, our cities will disappear under mountains of snow and civilization will be crushed under the ice.
We also face the possibility that the supervolcano under Yellowstone National Park may awaken from its long slumber, tearing the United States apart and engulfing the Earth in a choking, poisonous cloud of soot and debris. Previous eruptions took place 630,000, 1.3 million, and 2.1 million years ago. Each event was separated by roughly 700,000 years; therefore, we may be due for another colossal eruption in the next 100,000 years.
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