Mitigating Humanity’s Existential Risk

Elon Musk wants to preserve the species. The ONLY way, he thinks, to do this is to make humanity a multi-planet race.

Ignoring the fact that the Universe is Absurd, that ultimately everyone and everything will dissolve into the void, let’s examine the factors that support or refute his hypothesis and come up with an alternative.

Let’s say we want to plan humanity’s continued existence out a billion years, out to when the Sun begins to bloat and heat Earth’s surface to the point of boiling off the oceans and roasting the biosphere to a crisp. What will we need to prepare for?

  • Asteroid/comet impact
  • Super volcano eruption
  • Narrow beam gamma ray burst
  • Solar eruption
  • Nuclear war
  • Plague

There are other risks that don’t really rise, realistically, to the level of “end of days”: antagonistic AI, global warming, alien invasion, and those unknown unknowns. But I wager that humanity’s existence is not actually threatened by such things.

I’ll clarify here that we’re not talking about human civilization. Let’s start first with just persisting the species out into the future a few thousand to a few million years. Yes, we stated that a billion years is our target, but let’s start small and see how far we can get.

There are a few factors we’ll need to address. The first is timing, how quickly will humanity need this capability. Then there are resource requirements, sustainable independence, minimum viable population, and, if we want to retain or return to a technological civilization, the reemergence of industrial capability. We won’t get to all of these but we’ll skim over them for completeness.

Why are we bothering with this discussion?

Right. Here’s the gist: I posit that there’s an alternative means of human preservation that we should be pursuing right now, in lieu of and/or in addition to, spreading humanity’s legacy out among the planets.

What are we afraid of? We’re afraid of the surface of our planet becoming uninhabitable. Mitigating every one of the above listed risks involves sequestering an enclave of humanity *somewhere* safe, for years if not decades. We want to hide out in some protected, self-sufficient place until we can resume activities, hopefully Earth-top-side.

What if the surface of Earth never returns to a livable state? Bah! Five massive extinction events resulting in five returns from the brink of annihilation prove that, until the Sun swells to consume the inner planets, Earth will always return to a state of habitability.

Is space the only alternative? If not, then where, other than the surface of Mars or the Moon, can we squirrel away a self-sufficient, re-emergent pocket of humanity?

Queue the music…

Under the sea.
Under the sea.
Darlin’ it’s better, down where it’s wetter, take it from me.

Who’s up for a little cocktail (sauce)?

A city on Mars?

Bullshit. Build a city at the bottom of the sea. Or deep within the Earth.

Such a metropolis would be protected from cosmic radiation, volcanic winter, nuclear fallout, a ravaging plague of zombies, and all the toxins and trauma, malcontents and mayhem. We wouldn’t need to spend $billions blasting resources into space. Or traversing billions of miles of a very nasty inter-planetary void. We could leverage all the benefits of cheap labor, cheap materials and exhaustive know-how right here where we need them.

Within a few years we could build a vast network of cities, all self-sustainable, all independent. Such preserves could be supported by tourism yet isolated at the first signs of trouble.

Every disaster movie ever made makes provisions for such failsafe protections of humanity. And there’s a reason why — it make sense. Even if (or when) the worst of the worst calamity takes place, the buried and submerged cities would weather the situation far more easily than some half-baked outpost on Mars could survive the decades alone without support from Earth.

Eventually, if humanity can survive its own self-made ills, it might construct the means to disperse its seed into the cosmos. (Why we, here and now, should give a shit about that, is beyond me.) But, even if Elon wants to immortalize himself as some savoir of Humanity 2.0, then building a city on Mars shouldn’t be the first step. Establish a subterranean city for the Morlocks and Mermaids and then shoot for the stars.

Comparing a Martian colony to Nemo’s Atlantis we have the following factors:

  • Timing: How long will it take to get a viable habitat built, stocked and operational? Do we have 10 years before the next apocalypse? 50? We don’t really know, but surely sooner is better. With Nemo City we could start tomorrow.
  • Resource requirements: Besides air, water, nutrients and nearly everything else, what does Mars need to establish itself as a potential sanctuary for, not just humanity, but all of humanity’s dependencies? Think biosphere/ecosystem here. Again, for a earthly solution, all the stuff required for existence is right outside our front door. For Barsoom City? Oy! Maybe you won’t have to bring dirt for farming (provided you can wash the peroxide salts from the Martian soil).
  • Sustainable independence: Will a Martian colony EVER actually become independent? With technology, industry,  agriculture and growth enough to blossom and return the favor back to Earth? Sure science fiction thinks so. But reality?
  • Minimum viable population: We know humanity prospers in the gravity well, with the oxygen levels and sunlight saturation of Earth. On Mars? What strange illnesses will reveal themselves, both on the red planet and along the months long trip to get there? Will human births suffer? Human fertility? What of restocking Earth with surplus Martians and surplus supporting biota (animals, plants, bacteria and fungi)?
  • A technological civilization and the reemergence of industrial capability: It took humanity thousands of years, and terrajoules of energy to lift itself up to a technological society. Will Mars be able to repeat this?

Elon, do you really want to preserve humanity? If so, maybe you could turn your sights down from the heavens to the ground beneath your feet. Use your Boring company to tunnel into the earth and there build an actual salvation city.

Fermi’s Paradox: Gaia, life begets life

In my continuing pursuit of Fermi’s Paradox, we have yet another theory: The Gaia Hypothesis.

As simply as I can… The early formation and saturation of microbial life on Earth allowed for the stabilization of the conditions that supported life. Life begat life. Without life assisting in the stabilization of the carbon cycle, the atmospheric conditions would have swung to extremes. Extremes which, like Mars and Venus, too cold or too hot, would have extinguished life.

If microbial life doesn’t form quickly enough, stick around long enough, and permeate the ecosphere then any planet (in the Goldilocks zone) will drift into uninhabitable conditions. Biological life has had 3.8 billion years to transform the planet’s surface. And it has. Without early life, the theory goes, Earth would have succumbed to runaway greenhouse conditions like Venus, boiling off its water, rendering it inhospitable. Or, would have froze up—permanently, like Mars.

Now, I have trouble with this theory as it ignores the impact of the other features that, among many others, are unique to Earth, namely, a massive Moon, active tectonic plates and just enough radiation to retain the perfect balance of volcanism and carbon weathering and biotic sequestration. But, it cannot be denied that early life DID have an impact and DID assist in the creation of conditions ripe for multicellular life’s burgeoning explosion in the last 600 million years or so.

(Besides, if it weren’t for the Carboniferous period and the surrounding ±50 millions years, the gigatons of carbon (coal and crude oil) would never have been deposited and made available to humans for exploitation. This is yet another future series topic that we’ll explore regarding Fermi’s Paradox.)

The Gaian Bottleneck, as it’s called, undoubtedly had an impact. Is it the sole reason for the dearth of aliens we expect to see in the night sky? No. But it can be added to the coin-flip probability equation we’ve been building. 2^70 Unique.

Boom!
ET, where for art thou?

 

Fermi’s Paradox: Radioactivity

Premise: The collision of Theia, approximately 4.4 billion years ago, resulted in the transfer of just the right amount of radioactive elements (Uranium & Thorium, mostly) to provide for the perfectly balanced Carbon cycle we enjoy today.

Theia striking primordial Earth

Theia’s impact produced, not only the Moon (which is instrumental to Earth’s stability among other things) and not only gave Earth a much larger Iron/Nickel core (resulting in an oversized and critically necessary magnetosphere), but also transferred a Goldilocks amount of Uranium and Thorium to the Earth’s core to allow the Carbon cycle to exist.

Plate tectonics and vulcanism allow for sequestered Carbon (the sediment of billions of years of photosynthetic death and deposition) to be recycled into the atmosphere providing the perfect amount of CO2, turning Earth into the greenhouse paradise we enjoy today.

It is the core of the Earth that warms our planet and not the atmospheric  greenhouse effect - Matière et Révolution
The perfect amount of radioactivity to maintain a molten mantel.

Without just the right amount of radioactivity, Earth’s core would either cool, ending the Carbon cycle (in addition to collapsing the magnetosphere) or boil the surface causing far too much vulcanism for life to exist on the planet.

This is just one more reason to accept that Earth is unique in the Universe and that Fermi’s Paradox is not a paradox at all.

We are probabilistically alone. 2^70 alone.

Dear Mudge, Shitty Odds

Dear Mudge,

I think we mortals spend far too much time contemplating The End.

It seems as soon as our consciousness settles in, at about thirteen or fourteen, we begin to visualize, explore and worry about our final moments and the fraction of a nano-second thereafter. Here we go again with having brains far-too-big-for-our-own-good.

Dogs don’t contemplate death. Parrots, pandas, and porcupines live for the moment and the moment only. Maybe elephants and dolphins consider their future expiration, but I doubt it.

Why us? Why are we morbidly enthralled with The End?

I don’t know. But since we’re here, talking about our collective demise, I’m gonna bore you again with more big-picture pontificating… Namely: Fermi’s Paradox and how humanity’s end, or at least its technological collapse, is preordained.

The Holocene is ending. The window for humanity’s bloom was brief and frankly anomalous in the epoch-spanning scheme of things: CO2vsTemp_Holocene

That blue squiggle up there at the right, hovering around 0C, is the Holocene—an unusually long (for us), warm period in Earth’s history. During that tiny window of geological time civilization came to be.

Whether the Holocene ends and temperatures begin to drop, or the anthropogenic CO2 humanity continues to pump into the atmosphere overrides it and we head into a new PETM (Paleocene/Eocene Thermal Maxima) the Holocene is toast, in a manner of speaking. But while it lasted, the Holocene was one of a long line of fortuitous accidents benefiting—us.

There are so many serendipitous events that undergird the existence of life, first of all, and secondly, humanity and humanity’s technological position in the Universe, that, just being here is a fucking miracle. The factors that make up our “luck” are mind-blowingly extensive. Here’s my go-to mind-trick for explaining this miraculous streak of good fortune: Imagine flipping a coin 70 times and every flip lands up heads.

That’s 1 / 2^70 = 2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·
2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2·2 =
1,180,591,620,717,411,303,424 = 1 SEXTILLION

The odds of us (technologically existing) are 1 out of 1 sextillion.

I’ll not bore you further with the source of all these coin flips, but things like: Goldilocks zone, distance from galactic center, our G2V sun, Theia/Moon, rocky planet, ice comet bombardment, 3 billion years of biological life cleansing the seas and depositing vast stores of carbon (oil/coal/nat.gas), trees, grass, livestock—are all factors from which these flips are derived.

Now that I’ve got you crying for The End…

Given all the “luck” we’ve had getting here, and it’s been a stunning chain of events, that luck can’t possibly hold. The party is most definitely coming to an end.

As we know, there are a couple of dozen excellent ways for that to happen. Will it end in an instant or a tortuous dwindling of resources; a massive calamitous extinguishing BANG! Or a crippling thwack against our infrastructure leaving ragged remnants to piddle along for millennia? Who’s to know?

But, the odds are against us. So, toot your horn, raise a glass, sing a song, love the one you’re with…

Then again, who fuckin’ cares how it all ends? None of us make it out of here alive.

Stewie the Stoic would remind us however, that…

[Addendum: The Fermi Paradox tie-in? Humanity enjoyed a string of incredible luck. Any other intelligent life, arising in the Universe, would require an equally improbable run of happy coincidences. Therefore, the question regarding the absence of life we see in the Universe (Fermi’s Paradox) can be answered by our own improbable existence. We are a most outrageous cosmic accident.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fermi’s Paradox: Theia & the Volcano

Olympus Mons, the largest known volcano in the solar system sits atop a tectonically dead Mars.

OlympusMons

Mars is tectonically dead as it’s not as large as Earth, has a much smaller molten core and did not get hit by a Theia-like planet early in its formation. Eventually its electro-magneto engine slowed to a near stop, its core cooled, its volcanoes froze up.

Theia was the Mars sized planet that is theorized to have hit Earth early in the history of the solar system.

Theia

When Theia hit, much of its own iron & nickel core was transferred to Earth. The remainder of that planet was strewn around Earth in a massive debris disk that eventually formed the Moon.

Moon

This rare incident is most likely the prime reason life exists on Earth.

What did this impact contribute toward our humanly existence?

Firstly, this impact added an extra large iron/nickel core which provides the massive molten dynamo which drives the Magnetosphere. The Magnetosphere protects Earth from both solar and galactic winds (radiation). Winds that would blow our atmosphere away just as they did on Mars. This extra iron/nickel core also continues to contribute to the amount of magma on which the tectonic plates float.

Secondly, this impact gave us the Moon — the largest moon in the solar system (in comparison to its host planet). And most likely a very rare sized moon for most of the galaxy/universe—especially for Goldilocks distance, rocky planets like Earth.

The existence of the Moon may actually be more important to our health and well being than we think.

The moon is like a shield that has obviously absorbed thousands of asteroid impacts in its history, many which would have struck Earth.

The Moon’s size means that it adds to tectonic flexing of Earth’s inner molten core thereby stress-heating the mantel (which is important, more on this later).

The Moon’s size also induces the tidal movement of Earth’s vast water system, a thing that probably aided the formation and rapid evolution of coastal life.

But back to the extra heavy iron/nickel core donated by Theia…

Earth’s tectonic plates and their constant movement–pulling and crushing together–contributes in multiple dimensions to the recycling of critical life sustaining elements. Vulcanism allows buried carbon, sequestered by hundreds of millions of years of plant growth and death, to be blasted back into the atmosphere as CO2. Which is a good thing. Without Carbon recycling the Earth would have froze and never emerged from its deep freeze.

Plate tectonics create mountain ranges—mineral-rich rock lifted into the sky where weathering erodes the rock and all the elements of life, allowing these minerals to drain into streams, rivers and the oceans where algae and zooplankton can consume them and thrive.

Continental plates and volcanoes keep the planet alive by recycling nutrients and green house gasses. There is the water cycle, the carbon cycle and the nutrients cycle—two of which would not happen without active tectonic plates and volcanoes.

However, this activity comes at a cost. Volcanoes and massive lava flows have destroyed millions of square kilometers of plant and animal life most likely contributing to if not causing most of the past extinction events. Even relatively small eruptions: Toba, Yellowstone, Krakatoa, Taupo, and hundreds of others cooled the planet, sometimes five to ten degrees Centigrade. A decades long volcanic winter would be no fun for a young technologically burgeoning species.

Theia and her contribution helped produce the environment where humanity could exist and thrive. But it also doomed us to live on a dangerous planet that has proven it regards life not at all.

We’re here because of Theia. A rare incident in the Cosmos. Fermi’s Paradox is not a paradox at all. We are unique in the Universe. But if Earth’s volcanoes have anything say in the matter, being unique may mean being dead.

[A note on anthropogenic CO2: Although volcanoes recycle CO2 which helps keep the planet warm, humans have been acting like their own world-wide volcano. We’ve been taking ancient, buried carbon (oil, coal and natural gas) and releasing it at impossible rates as CO2 back into the atmosphere. We are our own volcano. Will our actions result in causing another extinction event?]