Q&A with an astrobiologist - David Grinspoon

Q&A with an astrobiologist - David Grinspoon

Q&A with an astrobiologist - David Grinspoon


What possible futures lay ahead for Earth and humanity? David Grinspoon, author of "Earth in Human Hands," shares his thoughts with Project Coordinator Kathryn Ford.  

Tell us about how you ended up as an astrobiologist and a science writer. As a child, did you wonder about the Universe and our place in it?

I was captivated with the romance of space from a very young age. One of my earliest vivid memories is of the Apollo moon landings. As a kid I became enthralled with the early interplanetary spacecraft missions and also obsessed with science fiction and utopian visions of a future where humanity had transcended many of our current problems, learned to live on other planets and contacted alien life. When I got to college I was able to get summer research jobs working with data from the Viking lander on Mars and the Pioneer Venus orbiter. From there it was a natural progression to grad school in planetary science and research career doing comparative planetology, focusing on planetary evolution and the ways in which planets can gain, or lose habitable conditions. As far as the writing, I was inspired by so many popular science writers when I was young: Carl Sagan, Lewis Thomas, Rachel Carson, Isaac Asimov, etc. I always thought it would be cool to work in that genre. I took writing classes in both college and grad school and worked at the craft. Also I think teaching undergraduates and working both as a musician and as a museum curator for many years all helped me learn more to communicate with different kinds of people.

What made you decide to write this book? Was there an "aha!" moment where you knew this was the topic you wanted to unpack?

I've always been interested in the ways that planetary exploration, and our growing knowledge of other planets, has fed back into increased understanding of our home planet.  As the subject of climate change and human influence on Earth has become more heated in recent years, I began realizing that this interplanetary view gave me a somewhat different perspective on these issues and one that might be useful and help people move beyond some of the current arguments. I have been thinking about the Anthropocene for more than a decade, long before I had ever heard that word. Once I started to hear it a lot, in 2012, I thought "I need to write that book, about the Anthropocene from an Astrobiology perspective". Around that time I learned about a new position at the Library of Congress - the Chair of Astrobiology - that was being established for people to work on research projects at the intersection of Astrobiology and the humanities.  In my application I described working on an accessible but deep book on this topic. I was offered the position and that gave me the opportunity to start this book.

In Earth in Human Hands you talk about the need for us to be a constructive planetary force rather than a destructive one. What are the actions we will need to take to ensure we positively impact the planet?        

First and foremost is transforming our energy and agricultural systems into ones that do not wreck the natural systems upon which we depend. Along with this we need to stabilize and reduce our population.
The good news is that we are moving in the right direction on many fronts. The problem is we are not doing so quickly enough to avoid some serious damage. Ultimately we will be more successful if we propagate a world view that is intergenerational and global.  This change is actually happening. Many young people are growing up as global citizens. At the same time there is a sort of fragmenting right now, in reaction to these globalizing forces. I think that simple self-preservation, on a global scale, will ultimately win out and we will make the transformation to being a globally coherent species and civilization. Then we will have a chance to ensure survival of not just our own civilization but many other species as well.  We'll stop that asteroid and prevent that next ice age.  But first we have to get a handle on our carbon emissions and our runaway growth of consumption and extraction.  This next century is going to be very challenging.

You talk about the need to collaborate with future generations and to keep our eye on the big picture for our species. What possible futures lay ahead for Earth and humanity?  Is there hope for us?

Yes there is lots of hope. As I said the 21st century may be very rough, however. I think our challenge is to make this century better than the 20th century. When I say this people think "What are you talking about, the 20th century was great!"  But of course it was not for the 100 million who died in famines and wars. If we don't navigate the 21st century well, we are looking - with all the potential displacement and loss from climate change - at tragedies of that same magnitude.  But we can do much better I believe.  Certainly by the 22nd century we will be completely off fossil fuels and have a stable, lower population. At that time we'll marvel that there was ever a time when we were so short-sighted as to drive around in primitive devices that were destabilizing the planet. Our task is to get from here to there with as little damage as possible. Then our task will be to start repairing the damage. I do believe that by the 22nd century we'll be removing carbon from the atmosphere. We can't count on that now. We have to move forward with the tools we have, exercise foresight and restraint. But I think we will get to a much better place and the real question is what path we will take to get there.

What is the one message you hope readers will take away from your book?

That while we focus on our immediate struggles we need to do so with the big picture in mind, with a vision not just of what we want to avoid, but what kind of future we want to create. That the human race is not evil, just young and confused, and that our history shows that we have the capacity for self-reinvention.

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