Why is there no Planet B?
Updated: May 4, 2021
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” - Aristotle
Climate change and nuclear war are existential risks – for now.
Because humans share but one planet and, as climate activists are saying, "there is no Planet B", we currently face species-level dangers. We should fix that.
This is not to say we should scrap Earth and start messing up a new planet. We can't escape all the hard work we have here. But this is a matter of mitigating the risk of human extinction. We need planetary redundancy. We love Earth so much, why would we not want a second one?
Other existential risks like climate change and nuclear war are, in a sense, subsumed in this larger problem. We could somehow get rid of all nuclear weapons, halt climate change and keep the planet healthy with a Doughnut Economy, and could still see society collapse following a pandemic, a cyberattack on the electric grid or other critical infrastructure, an asteroid-strike, the eruption of a supervolcano, or exponential technology. These things will always be threats to whole planets. So we must live on as many planets as we can, knowing that at least one of our homes could be gone at any time. People first went to space less than a century ago and we are at the very early stages of this. We need to keep Earth alive and thriving, as well as focus at least some attention on expanding through the universe to ensure our long-term survival.
The fact is, there is a reservoir of possibilities when it comes to life beyond our home planet. Not all of those possibilities would be mirror versions of Earth, but any type of existential safety net would be better than what we have now, which is functionally nothing. Having a few astronauts on the International Space Station isn't sufficient.
It’s possible that as few as one hundred people are needed to start a new civilization, in terms of having healthy offspring. But we are not a lab experiment. Intuitively, a new civilization should start out with at least the population of a modest city – in the tens or hundreds of thousands.
It seems much more plausible that with that number of people, we would have an acceptable amount of choice when it comes to friends and romantic partners. Furthermore, a society of this size would have much better diversity in every sense. We want the founders of our new home to bring along different skills and cultures.
So, instead of listing every possible kind of space settlement, these are just our best possibilities for the near future. Later in your life you might know someone who moves to one of these off-world homes, or do it yourself. Let's talk about what Planet B might look like.
“From the moon, the Earth is so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in
that Universe, that you can block it out with your thumb. Then you realize that on that
spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you – all of
history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games,
all of it right there on that little spot that you can cover with your thumb. And you
realize from that perspective that you’ve changed forever.” - Rusty Schweickart
Governments and private companies are already putting an enormous amount of money into space exploration. And the people of Planet A (also known as Earth) are not ready to become a multi-planetary civilization.
Companies like Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Bigelow Aerospace, as well as governmental bodies like NASA, have a mixture of worthwhile goals and perverse incentives. It’s not entirely right or wrong to say that some of these programs are “escape hatches” for billionaires.
Space travel is exciting, and having more than one planetary home is an indescribably important things. But achieving a higher level of flourishing for everyone on Earth should be a prerequisite accomplishment. And as long as we are unable or unwilling to live in balance with the environment of Earth, we will only be kicking the can down the road by settling new planets. If we can’t manage this one responsibly, what will stop us from ruining every planet we reach? If we can’t develop antifragile and omni-win systems here on Earth, every new civilization born will inherent our self-destruction gene. A metarevolution on Earth is one which we do not make gains on the backs of any Other, but also does not ignore that planetary fragility is part of the metacrisis.
The counterpoint is that if one of the organizations mentioned above is successful in setting up a self-sufficient space settlement and something completely destroys Earth, well then deus ex machina. Jeff Bezos or Elon Musk could be responsible for saving us from extinction. God help up.
The counter-counterpoint is that if a handful of billionaires control the train to space, they get to decide who boards. Or rather, they get to decide how much it costs. This brings to mind a sort of “Elysium” scenario. In the 2013 film, the rich live decadently on an enormous space station above Earth, while a poor working-class stays behind on the polluted, broken planet.
The work of Yuval Noah Harari flashes warning lights for a similar future. In his telling of the story, most of us poor folks will remain Homo Sapiens, while the rich monopolize exponential technology and eventually become Homo Deus. The upgraded humans will enjoy AI-augmented brains, much longer lives and perfect health, and superhuman features we can’t currently imagine.
The core problem is only resolved if we democratize and decentralize the control of space exploration. We must be the masters of our own data, our infrastructure, our technology, our innovation, and our governments. And our space kayaks. Or whatever you’re supposed to use to travel through space.
We certainly incur risks every day we have no Planet B, but how we get there and who we include means everything. We are the prototype for future home worlds. Let's be a civilization that deserves to stand as that model.
OUR SOLAR SYSTEM
“Should not these ancient sufferings be finally
fruitful for us? Isn’t it time that, loving,
we freed ourselves from the beloved, and, trembling, endured
as the arrow endures the bow, so as to be, in its flight,
something more than itself? For staying is nowhere.” - Rainer Maria Rilke
When we are truly ready to expand humanity to new worlds, our solar system has some good places for us to start. There are factors such as distance from Earth, surface temperatures, and gravity that make a choice more or less ideal.
It could be that, one day, we will have the technology to make any planet livable and travel through space at unimaginable speed, but it's important to be honest about our current limitations so we can focus on attainable goals.
The fact that our moon is just three days away from us is a huge plus. Though, in the context of space, places like Mars and the moons of Jupiter are still relatively close – taking a few months or years to reach, respectively. It's possible that Planet B could be any one of these. And eventually, we will live on all of them. If we are initially prioritizing speed, let's assume our first move is to our closest neighbor.
“I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” - Terence
It's nice when your home has an atmosphere, and not too much solar radiation, and enough gravity to keep your body healthy. Unfortunately, the moon is a fixer-upper in this regard.
Overcoming the fundamental challenges of living on the moon are mostly parallel to terraforming, but on a much smaller scale. The objective here can be viewed as this: A habitable, self-sufficient home with at least enough capacity for tens of thousands of people.
The good news is that the moon has natural resources that can help us in this process. The even better news is that nobody lives there, so there will be no colonial genocide in pursuit of those resources.
When you think of the moon, you might think of rocks, craters, or maybe the footprints left by astronauts who visited half a century ago. All of these images relate to a material called regolith. It's a fine, rocky substance covering the surface of the moon. It's moon dust.
And NASA has a plan to turn the stuff into bricks or other 3D-printed building components. Imagine that, before humans have a full civilization on the moon, we create a regolith factory that prints building materials for us. It may even be possible for a team of robots to autonomously construct our future homes before we get there.
So we can be here continuing to improve life on Earth, and our benevolent swarm of moon robots will be hard at work constructing buildings, walkways, a town center. By the time we arrive it won’t be quite so spartan.
The next challenges relate to the lack of atmosphere and biodiversity. To address that, we already have a proof of concept we can expand on. Some variant of geodesic dome could be an effective home for a moon civilization.
With the right materials, such a structure could allow for a localized atmosphere, temperature regulation, and protection from radiation. And the exterior of the dome could even serve the purpose of collecting solar energy to power the electrical grid.
The interior would become a lush, Earth-like place. We could then send spaceships carrying settlers and supplies to their new home, and build the size of the civilization over time.
One last challenge, as mentioned at the top, is gravity. As NASA states: “Transitioning from one gravity field to another is trickier than it sounds. It affects your spatial orientation, head-eye and hand-eye coordination, balance, locomotion, and you’re likely to experience motion sickness.” In addition, “… without gravity working on your body, your bones lose minerals, with density dropping at over 1% per month. By comparison, the rate of bone loss for elderly men and women on Earth is from 1% to 1.5% per year.”
Having evolved in Earth’s gravity, our bodies don’t function properly without it. Logically, the solution is that we either need to find another planet with comparable gravity, or incorporate artificial gravity into our new homes.
The Moon’s gravity is about 17% of Earth’s. Mars stands at 38%, and Jupiter’s moon Europa has 13%.
Venus has very similar gravity at 91% and it’s close to Earth! We shouldn’t forget about it completely, but it’s currently a macabre hellscape afflicted with clouds of sulfuric acid. And those are bad for property values.
And we don’t yet have the kind of technology we would need to add Earth-like gravity to an enclosure on the moon. Thinking about the tools we need to survive throughout the universe, this critical piece is still beyond our grasp. We only have one type of artificial gravity right now, and it’s the kind that results from motion.
“Act always so as to increase the number of choices.” - Heinz von Foerster
Given the urgency of safeguarding our existence, it may be too risky to plan on moon or planet-based civilizations if we don’t have an airtight plan to make it work. The wrench in the plan of building on the moon is that we are betting on our future selves advancing artificial gravity technology beyond our current abilities.
So imagine the moon dome from the previous example is instead built in space. It would wrap around on itself into a complete structure – a sphere or tube, or an O’Neill Cylinder.
A megastructure like this, essentially an artificial planet, has some important advantages over the other options we have. Critically, it gives us a way to tackle the problem of gravity. By rotating in space around its center axis, structures like O’Neill Cylinders can produce gravity similar to Earth’s.
It could also be constructed nearby, orbiting us like a moon. With the advantage of this proximity, and the completeness of the plan in addressing our core needs, this might be our best choice for the near future.
Another exciting and practical aspect of this plan is the expandable nature of megastructures. For example, Bigelow Aerospace is developing modular, inflatable space habitats. Could two or more inflatable O’Neill Cylinders be linked together over time to increase the capacity of the civilization?
Our goal might be a megastructure that can hold one hundred thousand people, but what if we can link ten individual cylinders holding ten thousand people each? Or one hundred holding one thousand each? Our initial goal would then become more imminently achievable. One of our biggest hurdles is cost, so maybe starting small is the way to go.
A disadvantage worth noting is that while a megastructure could be self-sufficient, it would lack the natural resources of planets/moons that allow for in-situ resource utilization.
But survival is key, so if it fits the bill in that way, we can worry about what’s ideal later. Whatever we decide on, though, it needs to be appealing enough that people will want to live there.
“Another victory like that and we are done for.” - Pyrrhus of Epirus
How would you like to go to space AND be on a reality TV show?
This is a good time to mention that companies like Mars One may continue to fill the void if we don’t come up with something better to offer people. The silver lining is that even this house of cards was able to attract 200,000 volunteers. If there is international cooperation with government oversight, it seems like we wouldn’t need to manufacture any incentive to live in space. Some percent of people will be more than happy to go.
But the precise process requires a balancing act. Wanting to live on the Moon shouldn’t be the only criteria. We need people to bring certain skills and help new societies function. But we should also strive for inclusion and diversity.
It would start with a worldwide lottery for space citizenship. If you win a spot and want to opt-in, you would have an in-person screening for final eligibility. The parameters of this screening should be up for discussion. But it would probably need to include a medical screening to make sure it is physically safe for that person to go.
There are about 200 countries in the world right now. If the lottery selects 1000 people from each country, we can kick-off our new home with a respectable population of 200,000.
“By the power of truth, I, while living, have conquered the universe.” - Aleister Crowley
We have already discovered hundreds of Earth-like, potentially habitable planets. But they are very far away. We can begin mapping out our cosmic route to these future homes, but there are many steps along the way to consider.
Some of these planets will be more human-friendly by default than any of the other places described above. That should make us more optimistic about the future we have a hand in shaping. Generations of people thousands of years from now will always have homes. And when we leave our cosmic cradle, the human family will be as close to immortal as we will ever be.
We need to find a Planet B as quickly as possible. And continually afterwards, we can reassess how much of our new wealth should be reinvested in improving what we have versus expanding farther outward. That initial leap beyond Earth should be a collective decision, and we may never know if it is the “right” time to venture into space. But generally speaking, if people are suffering and their basic human rights are not being met, it is not the right time. And when we reach that point of expansion from Planet A to Planet B, we better have first figured out how to jump from a state of competitive Shakespearian Equilibrium, in which two families share an ”ancient grudge”, to a cooperative Aristotelian Equilibrium, in which “a single soul dwells in two bodies”.
Some will argue that we should be relentless in our pursuit of survival as a species. But should we prioritize the lives of people who need help right now or prioritize human life in a more holistic and timeless sense that extends beyond our own lives? There are about 7 billion people alive now, but over time there could be trillions of people who live and die. As such, if we never make it beyond Earth because some cataclysmic event wipes us out, was it an ethical decision? If our choices, based in empathy, result in our extinction, most people who might ever live will never get that chance. And it is better to exist than to not.
This is the longest-term goal we dare imagine: To be the founders of a human future which transcends the planet and star that gave us life. To be the new “cartographers of human purpose”. Our sun can sustain us for a long time, but not forever. When that candle finally goes out, some five billion years from now, humans will need to have long since set sail for new stars – or the light of our consciousness, too, will be extinguished.