[Note: I wrote this article 5 years ago for a private newsletter I send only to my clients. I’m republishing it here today because a message of hope and inspiration seems appropriate, given the ignorance and stupidity of the current war-mongering in Europe. And yes, I know Stephen Hawking is now dead.]
In 2016, physicist Stephen Hawking suggested that the human race should get busy finding another planet to colonize, because our time on Earth is limited – to maybe less than 1,000 years.
An Earth unable to sustain human life could be the result of our own environmental negligence, epidemic disease, nuclear war, artificial intelligence, overpopulation, or an asteroid strike, according to Hawking.
To some, Hawking’s message sounds like an omen of doom, but it could also be a call to a journey of hope and adventure.
Spreading humanity to other planets, and eventually, to the stars, seems inevitable, not only to escape a dying Earth (if Hawking is correct) but also because humans love big challenges. There’s no reason to think we’re limited to life only on this planet any more than our ancestors were limited to life between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.
Our challenges are technology and courage – and we’ve already made great progress on both. Mars One, a Dutch company, has signed up 100 brave people for a one-way colonization trip to Mars, with the first crew scheduled to depart in 2031. More than 200,000 people applied.
And Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is already building a rocket for a cargo mission to Mars, targeted for 2024. That’s just six years away.
That makes Hawking’s ominous warning sound a bit melodramatic, because it looks like we’re likely to make human life interplanetary long before another millennium has slipped away.
The idea that humans might soon colonize the moon, or Mars, or somewhere further away, seemed like a science fiction fantasy just a few years ago. But as is so often the case, we’re notoriously bad at guessing our own future, and always woefully underestimate the speed at which our technologies advance.
Maybe that’s in our DNA, because until very, very, recently, our technologies moved very, very slowly.
Sailing ships, for example, were the height of technology for most of our history. Humans were still hugging the coastlines of Europe and Asia on wind-powered ships 1,000 years ago, much as they’d been doing since the invention of the sailboat 4,000 years before. It would take another 500 years before Columbus and later, Magellan, would dare use one to cross the Atlantic Ocean. That’s 5,500 years of almost no technological advancement.
In our time, however, technological advancement suddenly took off, and is moving along at dizzying speed.
There were just sixty-six years, for example, between the first powered flight of 120 feet and man walking on the moon – using technology that was unimaginable to the Wright brothers, but that to us is already laughably obsolete.
Advancements in computer science – from the 30-ton, room-sized Eniac to the handheld ipad – took all of 64 years, but the ipad has an estimated 153 million percent more processing performance than Eniac did.
For a long time, our imaginations of space colonization far exceeded our technological abilities, but those days are suddenly in the past. We’ve learned more about how to use science and technology to achieve our goals in the past 60 years than humans did in the preceding 5,000 years of recorded history.
Self-driving cars. Quantum Mechanics. Drones. Gene Therapy. Artificial Intelligence. Our world is changing in profound ways faster than we can comprehend. So how accurately can we (or Stephen Hawking) imagine what humans are capable of in the next 1,000 years?
One thousand years is about 40 human generations. The technological society we live in today would be unrecognizable to people from 1,000 years ago, five hundred years before the voyages of Columbus and Magellan. Back then, half of the planet wasn’t even aware that the other half existed.
40 generations from now, our current way of life will seem unfathomably primitive. Looking back, we probably won’t seem much different from our ancestors – we still group ourselves into tribes; we still fight each other over ideology and the little bit of land we share; we still construct our buildings of sticks and stones.
But hopefully, our descendants will also see us as the generations that took the first courageous steps toward living on other worlds, imagining an unlimited future for the human race.
You and I and Stephen Hawking probably won’t be around to see it happen, but we’re already seeing it begin. A journey of hope and adventure – count me in.