The future of our species has never seemed so daunting. Alongside the looming threat of climate change, the scope for geopolitical conflict and a rapidly increasing global population, the spread of a new killer virus has made our presence on the “blue planet” feel more precarious than ever.
Is this the moment to rethink and reset our relationship with the planet? Some environmentalists have used this period to highlight the positive impact that the “lockdown” is having on the natural world. Thanks to a drop in air pollution, the Himalayas are visible in parts of India where they weren’t before. Blue skies have emerged over China, where the air was once thick with smog. Animals are roaming free in urban jungles.
It’s a superficially compelling argument. By pressing “stop” on the clock, we have given the planet a breather after continuous and ever-increasing abuse. But at what cost?
As the coronavirus crisis has shown, the scale of measures needed long-term to keep our planet in this protected state would upend our social and economic ways of life as we know it, not to mention civil liberties.
Seven weeks in, we are already bitterly familiar with the individual cost of being separated from our friends and loved ones. The threat to our societies and economies of continuing in this fugue state is even greater. Innovation could be stifled by the regulations placed on industry, connectivity restricted to the online-sphere only, and the human urge to explore curtailed beyond recognition.
It is a bleak, uninspiring future to contemplate – and it is not sustainable. In truth, the environmental debate is unimaginative and one-dimensional. It is focused on a single central objective: saving the planet at all costs, even if it means destroying everything that makes us human.
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But what if we shifted our focus towards saving humanity instead?
No matter what efforts we make today, the Earth will eventually expire – through war, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, devastating pandemics, climate change, a stray meteor, or other natural means billions of years from now. The choice we face is to either sit around and wait for the inevitable, or pursue an alternative.
That alternative is to become a space-bearing civilisation and multi-planetary species, enabling us to spread and preserve the ingenuity, compassion and curiosity of the human race.
Beyond the ambition of billionaire entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, governments around the world are doing worryingly little to preserve humanity’s existence. This is a missed opportunity.
It won’t be easy – indeed it may not even be possible – but without big and bold thinking about our relationship with planets beyond Earth, our successors face inheriting a once beautiful planet battered and bruised beyond repair, with no way out.
The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a vulnerability in our life as we know it. When we emerge from this crisis, it is incumbent upon those in power to find answers to the big existential questions before it’s too late.
The human race depends on it.
Leon Emirali is an entrepreneur and adviser.