Friday, March 16, 2007

The Sky is Falling

Several years ago, I became fascinated with the threat of asteroid and comet impacts on the Earth. As a result of months of research, I gave a set of talks on the subject to various organizations I belonged to, including the Northern Colorado Astronomical Society, and the Mars Society. Some friends thought I was becoming obsessed with the end of the world (and some argue that my latest research into Peak Oil and human-induced species extinction is just another variant of this). My true motivation was a heightened responsibility for the long-term effects of my actions, coming from a spiritual and philosophical awakening that followed my father’s death.

Most of my closest friends came to subscribe to my views about low frequency, high consequence events such as asteroid impacts, and the responsibility to mitigate them (one even generalized it to support the Iraq war, without considering the possibility of worse, unintended consequences, which have since presented themselves). Another friend had a radically different response: If we knew an asteroid was on a collision course with Earth, we should use our resources to live as well as possible until the end, rather than use them to divert the asteroid.

I was horrified that anyone would even consider such an idea, yet I have come to believe that there are an uncomfortably large number of people who do; perhaps even some of our business and government leaders. Suppose, for example, that the president and his closest advisors are not in denial about global warming or Peak Oil, as they appear to be, and likewise are not as incompetent and ignorant as they seem. If so, they have considered the three basic responses to a threat: fight it, retreat from it, or accommodate it. Trained in business as they are, they’ve done a cost-benefit analysis, and perhaps concluded that the problems are too large for any practical and timely response; also, retreat is not an option. The only alternative is accommodation, which in this case means stocking up resources so at least the (few) people you care about live as well as possible until the end. There’s no point in protecting the national treasury if there won’t be a nation to use it, so you plunder it as quickly as possible. In this purely hypothetical scenario, our leaders could be acting quite rationally, while being totally, criminally, irresponsible.

My attitude is that we should recognize what’s facing us, and do everything humanly possible to achieve the best outcome for the most number of people. Fighting a threat, in my view, is the best option, and helping everyone else prepare for the consequences of failure must be done as a backup.

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