I’ve loved science fiction since I learned the phrase. I tore through the Space Odyssey books in middle school, binged on Vonnegut for months on end and fell deeply in love with Neal Stephenson’s “Anathem.” Of course, I was enthralled by the alien landscapes and fancy weaponry, but what captured me most was the sense of hope present throughout. In every tale of first contact or Martian colonies or hostile alien takeovers, I felt a strong undercurrent of belief in human ability. All the books I read told stories of the efforts made by men and women to advance the cause of knowledge or peace or justice.
This was made better by the fact that a lot of it was real. Science fiction since the “Ramayana” — a Hindu epic that predicted airplanes and spaceships — has foretold our advancements, and living in an age of computers and rockets made it seem like my books were coming to life. Our technology is growing exponentially. The things we can do now were inconceivable 100 years ago — imagine how much the world will be changed a century from now.
That change, however, will not necessarily be positive. Humanity is perched at an uncertain inflection point. The technology we wield could be used for such beauty or such evil. Up until this moment, our species has been like a kid in an infinite candy store, gobbling up resources as fast as our little hands could grab them. Unlike that child’s appetite, though, ours increased as we ate. If we don’t arrest our motion, we’ll strip our planet bare — likely within our lifetimes, if certain forecasts are correct.
This is terrifying. So many people avert their gazes, pretending it isn’t a problem. We’ve been given easy outs — small, beneficial tasks to help the earth. Recycling, vegetarianism and bicycling are admirable and effective methods of reducing one’s impact on the planet. But they’re drops in the ocean of our capability for change. And meaningful change is not going to come from an uptick in carpooling; it’s going to come from a radical shift in our priorities as a species — a shift from preservation to creation, from continuing survival to creating life.
The two options might seem almost equal, but they could not be more different. If we focus solely on the issues of today, we have a chance of overcoming them. There is no guarantee, however, that tomorrow’s problems will be the same as — or even remotely similar to — today’s. When the next threat strikes, whatever it may be, we will be so well-fortified against the last problem that no thought has been spared for other potential outcomes.
You’ve seen this principle in action. Take, for instance, the Transportation Security Agency. Since its inception after the tragedy of 9/11, every move the TSA has made has been reactive. You can read page after page of too-late responses to newly invented threats online. The TSA is very nearly useless: a vestigial appendage of the massive organism that is Homeland Security, existing solely for the purpose of instilling a sense of security — one that was shaken to its core after the events of 2001.
This mentality is deadly. It is running headlong through a minefield, turning to look at every explosion around, blinding us to the dangers ahead. No matter what happens, we must be prepared. The world has shown us, time and again, that life is not stable. Extinction after extinction has razed the world’s population, and global warming is only the latest — if by far the quickest — of these events. In order to survive for any meaningful period of time, we must have plans for all contingencies, from smallpox breakout to solar flare to the sun’s slow, inevitable cooling and expansion. And that means looking at the bigger picture.
The bigger picture is space. Humanity has always flourished through its unquenchable desire for newness. New territory, new technology, new experiences — these led us to innovations from language to the wheel to the Internet. Why do we think that, having spread ourselves over all the available land, we can simply stop our expansion? The universe is bigger than we can imagine, and if we pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, it can be ours. If we stick with the morals in our science fiction, we can become the shining civilizations described in its pages.
And what if we do? What if the human race stops tearing itself apart and starts looking into ways to fix itself? Once we’ve established a presence off Earth, our opportunities are boundless. A network of populated planets, working together to stave off the things that have plagued us since the first sentient human opened its eyes on the African plains, could accomplish feats that we can’t even imagine.
Humanity stands at a precipice. We can either continue our self-destructive momentum, stripping the planet of resources and brutally attacking one another until there’s nothing left, or we can cease our spiral, turn our incredible minds to good use and continue learning, living and growing into the unknown future. The choice is ours.