The arms race against pathogens is a losing proposition.
What if all the effort we put into killing bacteria, fungi and viruses only serves to evolve those microbes into variants that will eventually kill us off?
“Kills 99.9% of germs — Woo-hoo! Ninety-nine point nine percent, that’s great.”
“Uh, what about the other 0.1%?”
“Bah, they don’t count.”
Humanity has been fighting a war-on-microbes for more than a century now. And it’s been a boon to the eradication of illness. What used to kill us, infection, poor sanitation no longer does. I realize that not all of us have benefited, though. Lack of proper sanitation is still one of the top killers in economically challenged nations. Education and enablement of good hygiene and public health remains a top issue there.
Yet, I wonder what one hundred plus years of killing *nearly* all the microbes—leaving their most robust, heartiest brethren to evolve, repopulate and spread—has accomplished.
Wouldn’t it be ironic to learn that all of our germ-o-phobe behavior has actually been developing superior strains of super bugs. Wash your hands with soap and warm water (leaving the strongest bugs to live another day.) Wear deodorant that kills almost all of the odor causing bacteria (leaving only the smelliest to persist). “Kills 99.9% of germs on contact” — mouthwash, sanitizers, wipes…
99.9 percent reduction is the EPA’s arbitrary cutoff for sanitizer performance.
What if our efforts, for a century, has been creating an army of Killer Pathogens Set On Humanity’s Destruction!
Sure enough, the list of antibiotic resistant pathogens grows yearly. The more we fight the stronger they become.
Is this a war we can never win?
A war we will eventually lose, ending human civilization.
If it happens to us, this desire to protect ourselves by eradicating pathogens—which only escalates their evolution—might it not happen to most intelligent alien races? Killing them off, thereby solving Fermi’s Paradox?
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?
Super volcano eruption
Narrow beam gamma ray burst
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.
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.
I’ve posted about Albert Camus’ philosophy regarding Sisyphus and how imagining him happy is a way to look at one’s own mundane, plodding life.
And I’ve also mentioned how Groundhog Day’s Phil Connors embodies Sisyphus.
Well, I recently watched a campy, but fairly endearing story that takes both of those themes and includes them in the script.
“The Map of Tiny, Perfect Things” (Amazon Prime) does a pretty good job of depicting the trope of being stuck in the same day for eternity. It may not be worth watching more than once (like Bill Murray’s film), but it’s worth at least one viewing.
What struck me, of course, is that this connection I’d made between Phil Connors being Sisyphus was one I’d shared prolly four years ago. And it was cool to see the theme exposed in a film.
By morning, a dusting of snow had softened winter’s dark lines and sharp angles. Throughout the day, the storm sifted down a deafening silence of eyelash soft flurries. When we awoke the next day we reveled in the blurry white embrace of a rounded world. Fence posts topped with mushroom perfection. Cedars and firs bowing with their pillowed gifts. All things flat had gained marshmallow hats and the unbroken smoothness of the streets and yards beckoned for footprints. We obliged them.
By the third morning, with the plows having somehow missed our street, if not our town, and the snow never quitting its powdered sugar descent, worry snuck in. By week’s end we began to plan our escape. When we ventured to trench our way beyond our side door, we got as far as the street before turning back. Too much to shovel, too soft to wade through, exhaustion overwhelmed us. We’d hoped to break through to some gap, some sign of rescue. Only the occasional hallo from a neighbor, no, we’ve neither seen nor heard from anyone but you and us.
Twelve days now and our homemade snowshoes are ready. We’re leaving out the second story window over the garage. We wear our ski clothes and goggles as the blizzard conditions have scarcely let up. The power has been out for days, but the gas stove has kept us alive. We boiled snow and ate down our stores, cans and sacks we never imagined we’d use but are grateful for their presence. Thank god for our ancestors’ habits. Whoever thought lima beans could taste so good?
It took all day, but we’re finally to the grocery store. There’s a ramp down to the entrance and there are lanterns burning inside. National Guard soldiers keep the peace, they nod to us as we traipse into the dimly lit entry way. We can buy only so much, and the selection is limited, but we’re relieved there’s anything at all.
We’re told to head to the high school where most of the town has gathered for warmth and food. Generators are running and the place is ready for us.
We spend the night, and the next. The snow never quits. We stay until supplies, the Guard says, that should have arrived, never show up. You might be better off fending for yourselves, they tell us. We take what they offer, and the remaining supplies we didn’t share and head back toward home. We have trouble navigating as the snow covers the street signs and what looks like a road is just an open patch without trees. But we make it.
A few neighbors have candles burning in third story windows, their second stories are mostly buried. We, ourselves, only have an attic. We have to dig down to reenter our window. With the stove fired up and warm porridge in our bellies we sit on cushions and blankets in the attic and stare out the circular window at the snow that continues to fall.
During the first half of my life I valued experiences far more than things. Get out into the world and engage. Hike the mountains, run the rivers, drive the highways, swim the oceans and eat, drink and dance the cultures of the country.
Fatherhood supplanted that trend, but only in practice not in spirit. Now it was my kids who needed the experiences: beach combing, berry picking, lizard catching, exploring, experimenting, creating.
And then that phase, too, passed.
Sure, I watched my share of TV, enjoyed a movie now and then and read a ton of novels. But time spent passively consuming life paled in comparison to actual participation.
This is no longer the case.
Even without a pandemic constricting real-life involvement, the trend has been to fill one’s time with other’s experiences. Binging episodic entertainment has replaced empirical existence, hands-on living. I find myself turned into a submissive slug, my mind filled with inane garbage pumped from the likes of my media masters.
Years ago I predicted that humanity would never reach the stars, never travel to other worlds. Why? Because a virtual life was so much easier to endure. Let the “influencers” (organic or AI) risk life and limb. I’ll just jack in and let my mind be fooled into thinking I’m actually living a life well lived.
This morning I woke up, not thinking of my own existence, but that of the characters I’d been mainlining—an insidious entertainment epidural—my mind filled with crap, no room for my own thoughts.