Our Potential Legacy

The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it

~ William James


I’m writing this essay from Brooklyn, New York in early April 2018. I’m here of my own free will, to the extent I have any free will. I never imagined I would write those words.

I’m actually enjoying myself here in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world. I never thought I would write those words, either.

I am enjoying myself not because of the cultural amenities the city has to offer, which are many. Rather, I am enjoying my time alone in a comfortable accommodation provided by a friend. I am especially enjoying the birds outside the window. I don’t know what kind they are. I’m not much of an ornithologist, in part because I’m chromatically challenged. Today, for me, it doesn’t really matter the names we put on these animals. These organisms are beautiful in their own striking way, and they are communicating with each other in a way that makes me curious and joyful.

These birds remind me that we humans have a moral obligation. It is an obligation — a responsibility, along with a joy and a privilege — that can be assumed by no other species on Earth. We are unique in our stunning ability to transform the planet. We are unique in our tremendous power and our stupendous will. To date, our record is poor. We have used our power to transform the planet almost exclusively for the worse. Particularly striking is our potential nuclear legacy, hanging on the horizon like the harsh glare of the setting sun.

What will we leave behind? When humans depart the planetary stage, will we leave in our wake a dead planet? Will we create a Mars-like rock floating in space, as I’ve suggested for years? Or will we allow the continuation of environmental conditions that allow life to persist?

These are the questions that haunt me. These are the questions that bring my humanity to the surface, thus overwhelming my rationalist brain.

I suspect we have a choice. I suspect, although I’m not certain, that we can leave a planet brimming with the potential for life. This, of course, would require planetary heating to stop before we boil away all the water. I’m not at all certain we have a choice about abrupt, irreversible climate change. However, providing for the potential for a verdant future on Earth also would require safely decommissioning and dismantling the world’s nuclear power facilities. We cannot leave Earth bathing in ionizing radiation and expect the living planet to recover, as it has from the previous five Mass Extinction Events.

Based on our limited history to date, I doubt we rise to this most important of occasions. Rather, I suspect our species will depart our only home like a flamethrower in an oil refinery, with a planetary bang and a cosmic whimper.

I’m not at all certain that we could pull off this most profoundly positive of outcomes. Perhaps it’s not even possible. If it is possible, I would like to help make it happen, to the extent I’m able to contribute to such an endeavor. Even more, I’d like to believe my outlook is impossible, that abrupt climate change and ionizing radiation pose no serious threat to life on Earth. Lacking evidence to support this Pollyanna perspective, I fear the worst will follow our demise.

I’ve been wrong before. A comprehensive list is provided by anonymous trolls online. The list is wrong on many fronts, so you’ll need to apply critical-thinking skills to differentiate the facts from the fluff.

I suspect, and I shudder at the thought, that engineers will be necessary to avoid a near-term lifeless Earth. I suspect, and I shudder at the thought, that CEOs and politicians will be necessary. I suspect, and I shudder at the thought, that a multinational effort rooted in civilization will be necessary. On the other hand, why not? Why not come together as one at the one time cohesion really matters?

So far, that’s as far as I have proceeded on thinking about this endeavor. With thoughts such as these, Brooklyn doesn’t seem like such a bad place after all. And observing those birds out the window is amazingly pleasant.