Exploration, Exploitation – Extinction?

Will humanity’s exploits in space prove as damaging as our exploitation of the Earth?

We should conduct investigations for the sake of building knowledge, learning more about our place in the Universe, not in search of new environments, or species, to plunder…

David Attenborough’s recent “Extinction: The Facts” (BBC 1) painted a stark picture of the extent to which human irresponsibility has accelerated  the expiration of many animal species. More optimistically, “The Sky at Night” (BBC4) explored how Cardif University Professor Jane Greaves and her team have discovered the existence of a gas possibly indicative of microbial life in the atmosphere of Venus. These two programmes pretty much sum up the nadir and zenith of human capability  – destructiveness, and mind-blowing advancement.

“Extinction” investigates the side-effects of human progress – the impact of habitat loss on biodiversity, the domino-effects of abusing resources, and other animals, the impact of shrinking biodiversity on soil and insects on the food chain, and how loss of trees and wetland can exacerbate flooding and landslides. Kathy Willis, Oxford Professor of Biodiversity, says, “Everything is joined up, from a single pond to a tropical rainforest.”

“Since 1500,” David Attenborough explains, “700 animal species have gone extinct.  Studies suggest extinction is happening 100 times faster than the natural evolution rate, and its acelerating.” We learn similarly grim statistics in relation to plants.

Our empathy for the animal kingdom is sometimes most acutely evoked when faced with the plights of individuals. “Extinction” targets this, with an interview with James Mwenda, keeper of the world’s last two surviving Northern White Rhinos. “We betrayed them,” says Mwenda. Faced with the fact, as Attenborough informs us, that the Northern White Rhino was “once found in the thousands in central Africa, pushed to the brink of extionction by habitat loss and hunting,” it is hard to disagree.

“When Najin (the mother rhino) passes away,” James says, “she will leave the daughter alone forever … their plight awaits one million more species.”

“Extinction” largely focuses on Western consumerism – one contributor laments “many in the private sector making a huge profit at the expense of the natural world,” while overlooking the environmental records of many Communist and Socialist regimes. Humans can be destructive regardless of what systems they live under. Capitalism can be a force for good. Market forces have driven greener energy; studies suggest correlations between a country’s environmental credentials and the freedom of its economy.  Sometimes, the private sector, from eco-friendly start-ups, to established cruelty-free companies like The Body Shop, reflects humans at our best.  The work of Professor Jane Greaves and her fellow scientists also demonstrates the fruits of ambition and ingenuity. While time may reveal that the phosphine they detect is promoted by a source other than biological life, the discovery of gas whose molecules were not thought able to survive the clouds they appear to be present in represents an historic milestone in human achievement.

While many – not least Professor Greaves herself – are keeping an open mind on the possibility of Venusian microbial life, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, hails “the most significant development yet in building the case for life off Earth.”

Professor Lewis Dartmell, astrobiologist at Westminster University, told BBC News, “If life can survive in the upper cloud-decks of Venus … it means maybe life could survive … across the Milky Way.”

While many spent the last few decades pondering the possibility of life on Mars, this development may suggest the reality is more Bananarama than Bowie – it may be time, to quote Bridenstine, “to prioritize Venus.”  But this potential prioritization gives me pause for thought. 

Whenever I hear of an animal discovered here on Earth, I’m caught between wonder and curiosity, and the realization humans will find a way of exploiting it. It seems far-fetched to imagine doing likewise to a life form found in outer space (though if 2020 has taught us anything, it is that the term “far-fetched” may its self be headed for extinction) but, looking into the future, the prospects of interference into worlds beyond our own should not seem unrealistic.  We have already littered our orbit with “space debris”, from the remains of spacecraft, to the remnants of colliding satellites, and those intentionally blown up by missiles.

Says website Pollution Solutions:

“There are satellites upon which we rely for communication, transportation and business operation –  a failure of such hardware brought about by a space collision could bring whole populations to a standstill.”

There is something disturbing about treating our surroundings as a cosmic dustbin, mirroring the Anthropocentric arrogance with which we have erased swathes of our own planet. Could our destructiveness spread to new frontiers

Disease Ecologist Peter Daszak tells “Extinction,” “We’re behind every single pandemic, and human impact on the environment drives emerging diseases.”

“We are destroying the eco-systems on which we depend,” says David Attenborough. 

How long before our impact on other planets becomes pollutive, snuffing out any hint of life before it is discovered? There has long been talk of the posibility of “mining asteroids,” and extracting materials from space for human use. In 2012, Astrophysicist Martin Elvis told the journal Nature “NASA’s goal should not be exploration, but enablement of the commercial development of space resources. Exploration will follow naturally. And once profits from asteroid mining start to flow, scientific exploration will be the winner.” He may be right, but if  “development” of resources on this planet is anything to go by, there maybe little left to explore once our commercial purposes are indulged. “Greed is a powerful motivator to get things done,” Martin assures us.  It is also a powerful motivator for wrecking natural resources and causing irreperable harm.

The achievements of scientists like Prof Jane Greaves showcase the technological heights of which our species is capable; the efforts of conservationists, like James Mwenda, demonstrate the moral good that we can do. Towards the end of his profoundly troubling documentary, David Attenborough reflects on work being undertaken to try and repair ecological damage. “It just shows,” he says, “what we can achieve when we put our mind to it.”

Professor Felicia Keesing, Disease Ecologist at Bard University, NY, tells the programme, “The world has been on pause during the pandemic.  As we begin to move forward … we can change the way we’re running our world, and make it better.” There are undoubted benefits also to space exploration and discovering more about the Universe around us. I feel we should ensure our adventures beyond our planet are conducted in this spirit – investigations for the sake of building knowledge, learning more about our place in the Universe, not in search of new environments, or species, to plunder.

Photo credit: NASA image of Venus

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Simon Zonenblick

Simon Zonenblick is a poet and nature writer also trying his hand at podcasts, radio and journalism. His existing work includes a film about Branwell Bronte, several collections of poetry and fiction. This autumn he is due to publish a collection of poems and an audio CD. He lives in the Calder Valley, Yorkshire.

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