Adam Frank has a recent article called Climate change and the astrobiology of the anthropocene. The premise of the article is that we should think of climate change in terms of astrobiology and, in particular, the habitabilty of planets and the sustainability of civilisations that may evolve. Given that my own research interests are in exoplanets, and how planets form and evolve, I do find the it interesting to think of climate change in a broader context.
The article made some interesting points. Current exoplanet statistics suggests that it’s extremely unlikely that we are the only technologically advanced civilisation to have ever developed. The article also discusses work that considers how advanced civilisations may evolve and influence the planets on which they exist – in our case moving us from the Holocene to the Anthropocene, an entirely new geological epoch dominated by our activity. Using large amounts of energy for civilisation building has to influence the planetary habitat and the issue is if this can be sustained or ultimately leads to collapse.
However, I thought the framing at the end of the article was rather unfortunate. The article ends with
we are simply another thing the Earth has done in its long history. We’re an “expression of the planet,” as Kim Stanley Robinson puts it. It’s also quite possible that we are not the first civilization is cosmic history to go through something like this. From that perspective, climate change and the sustainability crises may best be seen as our “final exam” (as Raymond PierreHumbert calls it). Better yet, it’s our coming of age as a true planetary species.
We will either make it across to the other side with the maturity to “think like a planet” or the planet will just move on without us. That, I believe, is the real meaning of what’s happening to us now. It’s a perspective we can’t afford to miss.
I agree that we’re not a plague, that we should think about ourselves as an integral part of the planet, and that the planet will carry on with, or without, us. However, overall, the above makes it seem as though the whole process is simply natural and, hence, something that we cannot control. If we were simply observers watching the evolution of many different advanced civilisations, this might be a reasonable way in which to think of this, but we’re not; we are the civilisation that is fundamentally changing the planet on which we depend. We are not only aware of the implications of our actions, but can also make decisions about what we do and can actively try to influence the outcome; we can aim for sustainability rather than collapse.
I don’t know if the intent was to make it sound like a natural process over which we have no control (my impression is that it was not), but I think that that is one way in which this argument could be perceived. So, although I have some sympathy with the idea of thinking in terms of us being a planetary species, I do think that we should be careful of framing it in a way that makes it seem as though we’re just observers watching as our civilisation either collapses or attains sustainability.