In Arthur C. Clarke’s “3001: The Final Odyssey,” the human population lives in ring-shaped “habitats” in a geostationary orbit around the planet. Earth’s surface, in Clarke’s futuristic vision, is essentially uninhabitable, the air being too foul and the land too barren to sustain the species.
When I first envisioned life in that next millennial scenario, on reading the book some fifteen years ago, I thought little of the idea of an uninhabitable planet, instead focusing on the concept of life continuing in a giant geodome thousands of feet above Earth’s surface. (In the novel, the dome is connected to the planet by four gigantic towers at equidistant locations on the equator.) But what Clarke had envisioned was a distant time when the only way for the species to survive was to escape the hell-on-Earth reality that the planet would have become.
The irony of Clarke’s sci-fi prophecy is that he also envisioned that the species would have found ways to exist in this artificial habitat. In other words, humanity survived by figuring out that evacuation from terra firma was necessary and by having the technical and scientific ability to create a wholly new living environment that could supply the air and water and food and shelter necessary to sustain human life. And it would have done those miraculous things over the current millennium and yet still not been able to save the planet.
How could that dichotomy of results occur? How would it be possible for the most brilliant, life-sustaining advances to take place at the same time that the most obvious degradation and destruction of the planet was happening right before our collective noses?
One possible answer (and let’s remember here that we’re hypothecating off of a tale of science fiction) would be that the debates never reached a point of resolution. Think about the current standoffs between those who believe human activity is a significant factor in the climate change that is occurring and those who deny the scientific evidence of either of those conclusions (that human activity is a factor, let alone that climate change is really taking place). That debate has been ongoing now for over thirty years and it still rages in the halls of Congress, if not in the legislatures and executive offices of most of the other countries in the civilized world.
It isn’t at all inconceivable that debates like that one will continue in perpetuity, with divergent ideological beliefs and selfish economic motivations leaving the opposing forces in stasis, stuck, if you will, in a form of a death dance. And yet, even as the political debates continue unabated, scientific discoveries and technological advances might allow human existence to transform itself completely, even, perhaps, to the point of finding new habitats wherein it can sustain itself and survive and thrive in wholly new environments like the one envisioned by Mr. Clarke.
But of course, we are talking science fiction, and Mr. Clarke may have taken poetic license in creating a future existence where things turn out so well. The reality of the ongoing debate and what it portends for the future of human existence might not be anywhere near as comforting or reassuring.
Instead, we might just be headed to a future without anything akin to habitats in heavenly geodomes wherein all of human civilization will thrive while the Earth below rots and burns. We might be on an entirely different road, a road to ruin.
And it is happening all around us; in fact, it’s happening right before our eyes.
While sitting in our local movie theater, in between the commercials for this and that, we are shown a public service announcement that warns of exposure to polluted air. The warning is of the health risks for the elderly, the young, and the sick if pollution readings reach a certain point. “Stay inside,” the commercial warns, when you are informed that the readings get to that point. The very next little video is some kind of an offer to join in the fight to make our fish “happy.” Its message is to help clean up our rivers and lakes so that, implicitly, the things that live in them can survive.
Or look at the shocking photos in last week’s New York Times Magazine of the giant holes in the ground that have been created by copper mining in Morenci, Arizona and Silver City, New Mexico. It took nature millions of years to create the Grand Canyon. Human activity is creating mini-versions of it in mere decades.
Or view the satellite photos of rain forests like those of the Amazon taken twenty years ago and today, and note how much less green there is than there used to be just two decades ago. The examples are all around us, and you have to be almost unwilling to look to miss them. Whole species of animal-life are disappearing, unable to sustain themselves as their habitats are destroyed. And if the honeybees are one of those on the path to extinction, much of the food we eat will quickly be gone with them.
The course of human history is remarkably clear on several points, and if you add the nature of the human condition, you don’t get a pretty picture. We are quick to engage in wars, relatively incapable of sustaining peace. We are innately selfish, inherently unable to reduce our appetites. We learn the lessons from past mistakes poorly, often repeating them in succeeding generations, and, only after we have erred yet another time, promising of ourselves never to so err again.
In short, we care too much for our current well-being and too little for the well-being of those to follow us. We do love our children, but their children’s children are beyond our capacity to envision, let alone care for.
And so, Arthur C. Clarke’s vision may well turn out to be half true. The planet may well become uninhabitable, humanity unable to sustain itself on its surface. As for those geodomes that provide refuge for our species, well, those may only be science fiction.