The Economist has a leader “For life, not for an afterlife“, where it argues that Elon Musk’s stated motivation to settle Mars – making humanity a multi-planetary species less likely to go extinct – is misguided: “Seeking to make Earth expendable is not a good reason to settle other planets”. Is it misguided, or is The Economist‘s reasoning misguided?
The article, after cheering on Musk for being visionary, says:
How odd, then, that Mr Musk’s motivation is born in part of a fear as misplaced as it is striking. He portrays a Mars colony as a hedge against Earth-bound extinction. Science-fiction fans have long been familiar with this sort of angst about existential risks—in the 1950s Arthur C. Clarke told them that, confined to Earth “humanity had too many eggs in one rather fragile basket.” Others agree. Stephen Hawking, a noted physicist, is one of those given to such fits of the collywobbles. If humans stick to a single planet, he warns, they will be sitting ducks for a supervirus, a malevolent artificial intelligence or a nuclear war that could finish off the whole lot of them at any time.
Claptrap. It is true that, in the long run, Earth will become uninhabitable. But that long run is about a billion years. To concern oneself with such eventualities is to take an aversion to short-termism beyond the salutary. (For comparison, a billion years ago the most complex creature on the planet was a very simple seaweed.) Yes, a natural or maliciously designed pandemic might kill billions.