image credit: Earthrise, taken on December 24, 1968, by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders.
- Jul 17, 2019 1:03 pm GMT
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In December 1968 the astronaut William Anders on board Apollo 8 took the "Earthrise" photograph that represents a shift in human consciousness, in fulfillment of what one of my great heroes, Fred Hoyle, said in 1948: "Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available, we shall, in an emotional sense, acquire an additional dimension [...] Once we let the sheer isolation of the Earth become plain to every man, whatever his nationality or creed, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose."
We celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moon Landing this month. Of course, we should also remember what Fred Hoyle said in 1965: "I do not believe that anything really worthwhile will come out of the exploration of the slag heap that constitutes the surface of the Moon [...] Nobody should imagine that the enormous financial budget of NASA implies that astronomy is now well supported".
What we are engaged in now, 50 years later, is "making a go of things on Earth". Returning to what Fred Hoyle said in 1964, "It has often been said that, if the human species fails to make a go of it here on the Earth, some other species will take over the running. In the sense of developing intelligence this is not correct. We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned."
We landed people on the Moon six times. Right now we are attempting, not a Moonshot, but an Earthshot, and we only have one chance to get this right.
Although the Apollo Program was in itself a massively impressive collaborative effort, the key endeavour we now face, 50 years on, is what I like to call "Kardashev 1," after the Kardashev scale for measuring a civilisation's technological development. Where Apollo 11 may be seen as the culmination of the effort of 400,000 people over the space of a decade, to deliver a few men to the surface of the Moon to survive there for a few days, we now need to render human civilisation itself sustainable on an indefinite basis here on Earth, by developing energy systems that consume energy at the rate it is provided by the sun, rather than by the reckless exploitation of energy accumulated in fossil fuels over hundreds of millions of years, and our collaborators are all of the 7.53 billion human individuals currently living.
We have similar timescales to the Apollo Program: a decade to deliver at least 10 terawatts of new renewables, plant over a trillion trees, and reform our infrastructure so that clean energy permeates all sectors of our emerging circular economies. In 2006 the Stern Review estimated we need to spend 1% of global GDP per annum to stabilise CO2e between 500 and 550 ppm. In 2008 Nicholas Stern revised this estimate to 2%. Currently we spend over 5% of global GDP on direct and indirect subsidies for the consumption of fossil fuels. If this was redirected towards the Kardashev 1 program its objectives would be achievable. If we consider the surface of the Earth as our source of energy, rather than subterranean strata that were exposed to sunlight hundreds of millions of years ago, the lowest cost methods of generating energy are renewables: solar and wind, onshore and offshore.
Mauna Loa measured 412.46 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide on July 15 this year, on the eve of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launch. This compares to the same station recording 325.88 ppm in July 1969, the month of the Moonshot launch. So, in the 50 years since the Apollo 11 crew landed on the Moon, the inhabitants of Earth have been on a longer and more uncertain journey, fraught with far greater hazards. The last time levels were over 400 ppm was during the mid-Plieocene. In the five decades since the Moonshot the Earth has travelled 3.3 million years. We have embarked upon a more consequential Earthshot, with little attention to navigation and no regard for our final destination.
It is time we set our hand upon the tiller.