However you look at it, the recent discovery that insect life on earth seems to have declined by eighty percent over the last thirty years is bad news. It fits in with all the other things we read about the mass extinction that seems to be quietly underway on planet earth. (It’s not long since I read that seabird populations have plummeted by seventy percent over the last sixty years).
I don’t need to be convinced that we are contributing in a big way to the catastrophe we’re facing. There are things we should be doing but either we’re not doing them or we’re not doing them enough. We also -and this perhaps applies more to some cultural traditions than others- are not well equipped to see the nature of the crisis we’re facing for what it is. Many traditions have taught people to see humans as set apart from and superior to other species and to think of the earth as being specially created for their benefit. Although these views hold less sway than they once did, the attitudes they fostered can still be ingrained in our outlooks, even if we decide to reject them. We tend to treat the rest of life on this planet as a resource, a source of food, clothing and raw materials. We sentimentalise animals – just as we tend to sentimentalise all that we subjugate. One minute we’re stroking them and taking them for walks, the next we’re eating them or turning them into coats or -literally, here in the UK- into five pound notes.
As our concern for the future of life on earth has grown, so has our desire to find extraterrestrial life and planets orbiting other stars. We need to know we’re not alone and we’re intrigued to discover if there are other planets in the universe humanity might inhabit. Steven Hawking is currently working on a scheme to send a probe to observe an exoplanet and has said that humanity should seriously consider emigrating from earth.
Although I tend to be in favour of our efforts to get into space and explore exoplanets, I have one or two misgivings about us attempting to emigrate. If conscious, intelligent life is to be found throughout the universe, why should we? What are we seeking to preserve? There is no conscious continuity from one generation to another. It may be, as someone famously said, that death is the one thing in life we don’t experience: when I die, for all I know, the rest of life on earth might have died with me. On the other hand, Blake might have been right when he wrote
How do you know but ev’ry Bird that cuts the airy way,
Is an immense world of delight, clos’d by your senses five?
Blake: The Marriage of Heaven and Hell
What we prize as individual consciousness might prove to be perennial.
Either way, it could be that we underestimate our connectedness to the earth. We like to think we might survive wherever our ingenuity makes it possible for us to survive but if our descendants were to populate another planet would they be truly human? If this sounds an odd question, consider the idea that the first humans on earth might themselves have been immigrants from another planet. The idea seems crazy to us. However, we’re free to imagine and we might reflect on the hubris of their alien ancestors if they thought that by sending frozen embryos, perhaps, to the early earth they were preserving the species that inhabited Planet X. Planet X? We are Earthlings!
Also, if consciousness is perennial and evolution of complex intelligent life more-or-less-as-we-know-it relatively common, why do we need to emigrate at all? It strikes me that to do so in such circumstances is to be thinking not unlike the historical Europeans who thought they’d “discovered” America. We talked for centuries about “discovering” America before it was commonly realised that the people who already lived there had “discovered” it at least thousands of years before. If someone light years from here is sat writing a post on his, her or its blog (for example), I might as well sit here and accept the fate of my species with equanimity, safe in the knowledge that what I am is just a part of the rich complexity of everything.
That’s not to say we shouldn’t do whatever we can to maintain the earth as a habitable place; we certainly, obviously, should – and for all the life that lives on it. It is no bad thing, too, to explore and search for extra-terrestrial life. Knowledge of it would bring a reassurance with it. We would know that if life were to end on earth one day, it might be the end of the world but it wouldn’t be the end of the universe.