Updated: Jul 14, 2022
tl;dr: Fix this planet instead of wondering about options beyond it.
One of my most cherished childhood memories goes all the way back to when I was about 6 years old. If you were to ask the college kids that I work with at Greenheart Partners how long ago that was, I'm pretty sure they would talk about when Prohibition ended, or the battle of Gettysburg was fought, or the Magna Carta was signed. I'm fairly convinced for them, that all events before the year 2000 are just classified as "ancient history." So, somewhere between the second Peloponnesian War and the Sydney 2000 Olympics, 6-year-old me was soundly sleeping in bed when my father woke me up late at night to watch something he thought was really interesting.
I shuffled into my parents' bedroom and was introduced to a show called Cosmos featuring Carl Sagan. Someone will invariably try to correct me and say that I am referring to the Cosmos series produced by Seth McFarland starring Neil deGrasse Tyson. Nope, I am most certainly not. I am definitely referring to one of the most widely viewed PBS broadcasts of all time, made all the way back in 1980. What I remember most about the series, in my sleepy state, was Mr. Sagan saying in his distinctive manner "the billions and billions of galaxies that exist in our universe." He stipulated that there were more galaxies than there were grains of sand on Earth. I spent much of my childhood considering what that number could possibly be, and I don't want to say that I invented the term shitload, but that ultimately became the only number that I could really fathom. Needless to say, it's a number beyond most of our comprehension.
The vivid photos that NASA has recently released from its James Webb Space Telescope are astounding. The Washington Post has breathlessly declared that these images represent humanity - and government- at its best. The pictures are incredible. Sadly, almost immediately after being amazed by the revelations displayed by the telescope, I became concerned that this would inspire people to a disastrous conclusion regarding this planet and sustainability work.
There are many science fiction works that discuss colonization of other locations and worlds. Many of these stories originate from humans doing irreparable damage to the planet resulting in forced relocation to the moon, Mars, and other locations beyond our solar system. At this point in time, this concept resides exactly where it should be, in science fiction. At some point, our irresistible basic human characteristic of curiosity will compel us to explore and habitat worlds beyond ours. That point is farther away than we might think. While we may see a permanently inhabited colony on the moon before 2050, if you think that it will hold more than 100 residents, you seriously underestimate the staggering cost and resources needed to send even a selfie stick to the moon. Does anyone have a rough idea of how long it will take to get to the moon? Well, it's 240,000 miles to get there, so you're looking at a three-day trip. Mars is even further away and less realistic. Estimates vary, but NASA believes it would take 7 months to reach the red planet. And you thought that 4-hour delay at LaGuardia was terrible!
We cannot depend on the fantasy of simply leaving the planet. There are soon to be 8 billion people on Earth. Even if we took just 10% of the population to ease the demands, consumption, and emissions, that's still a task that an infinite number of Hercules could not perform with the current technical abilities. Instead, what we have to do is become better stewards of the planet we are on. This one.
Space exploration is a vital and wonderful pursuit. We should get to know our universe better. In a perfect scenario, we are able to prioritize space research AND sustainability and conservation efforts. However, if there must be a choice between the two, the sensible decision is to fix the problems we have here. The good news is that it isn't an impossible challenge. Yes, it is a daunting task in some very inhospitable conditions of selfishness, skepticism, and subterfuge. However, if we can't handle those obstacles, what makes us think that we can be successful in interstellar expansion? Meeting difficult tasks here will actually better prepare us for the monumental challenge of colonizing other worlds. Success in that endeavour depends on success in preserving the world we are currently on. Do not get distracted by the possibilities. Instead, focus on the problems immediately facing us so that we can depart for other worlds while ideally leaving this one in a better condition than how we came into it. Isn't that the goal that many of us already have? Ultimately, space travel does not have to occur at the expense of preserving this world. Saving our planet will actually make space exploration that much easier.