Astrobiologist David Grinspoon looks ahead
Nationally-renowned scientist, author and sometime-Colorado resident David Grinspoon — now senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Washington, D.C. — is begging us to take the long view of humanity’s stewardship of Planet Earth.
The really long view, as in 10,000 years.
We spoke with Grinspoon, a peer of Neil deGrasse Tyson (and, like Tyson, a protégé of Carl Sagan) over the phone in advance of events promoting his new book “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future” at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science on Dec. 13, followed by a Jan. 17 appearance at the Boulder Book Store.
Q: You’re one of the top planetary scientists in the world. How did your time in Colorado influence your career?
A: I lived in Colorado for more than
two decades and I’m still an adjunct professor at CUBoulder, so I get out there a lot. I came originally to be faculty at CU in astronomy and planetary science, then I was a research scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder. I’ve also been doing NASAfunded research for a number of years, and I was curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science until a couple years ago, so Colorado still feels like home to me. Between CU, the Denver museum and aerospace companies, people in Colorado may not realize they’re living in a mecca for space research.
Q: What do you study these days?
A: I do a lot of work with NASA and am involved in research projects studying planetary evolution, Earthlike planets and potential conditions for life elsewhere. I’ve been involved in a couple of spacecraft projects — Venus is another Colorado connection, because the contractor we’re working with is Lockheed Martin. As a writer (with bylines in The New York Times and Scientific American) I’m also working on another book with Alan Stern from Colorado about Pluto. (Stern) was the lead scientist of the Pluto mission New Horizons, which succeeded against so many odds.
Q: How bad are conditions going to have to get for people to do something drastic about climate change?
A: That’s a fair question, as there’s definitely a lot of anxiety about the future. But the fact that we can even be having this discussion, believe it or not, is a sign of progress. Thirty years ago nobody was thinking or talking about climate change, even though it was already starting to happen. Now it’s on the screen — not just here but worldwide. And of course there’s pushback because it’s very alarming to realize we are now a species that is altering the planet.
Q: As you so eloquently put it in the book: “Never before has a geological force been aware of its own existence.”
A: Some people think the book title is self-aggrandizing, but that’s part of my point: the image of Earth in human hands is not meant to just be comforting, but also alarming. We’ve been thrust into this role of planet-changers, and that’s very disorienting and we don’t really know how to handle it, so why shouldn’t we just throw up our hands? Because we drop the Earth.
Q: What does the long view tell you?
A: If you study human history you see time and time again we’ve faced existential threats much more dire than we’re facing now. We’ve almost been wiped out as a species many times, going back millions of years, and we’ve survived by reinventing ourselves and enlarging our circles of awareness, inventing new technologies and social structures. Now we’re in this phase of rapid transition of the world being knit together, and the reaction to that is fragmentation. But if you look at long-term trends, by any reasonable measure — infant mortality being cut in half in 25 years, average life expectancy going up, the
global decline of extreme poverty, population leveling off this century, education rates rising — there’s reason to be hopeful.
Q: Will it happen quickly enough to avert even more widespread droughts, fires, rising seas and other climate-change predictions that are already starting to happen?
A: We’re going to get off fossil fuels, no question. We may not do it quickly enough to avoid some pain, and I’m quite worried about that. But by the 22nd century there’s no way we’ll be on fossil fuels. Even if we were stupid we’d run out, and by then we’ll be repairing the damage we’re causing now. I’m not saying the 21st century is going to be great… if we really screw it up, it might actually be as bad as the 20th century.
Q: Some might say the 20th century was pretty great. A: It wasn’t. What about the 100 million people who
died in famines and wars? … Our challenge is to make the 21st better than the 20th. But there’s no doubt in my mind the 22nd and 23rd will be better.
Q: That’s cold comfort for the present. How will we get there?
A: We are uniquely gifted with foresight, and we learn through catastrophe and calamity, so when things go horribly wrong we learn to do things differently. We can do this the easy way or the hard way, and it’s probably going to be some combination of the two.
Q: Is there an arrogance or short-sightedness in thinking we’re living in unprecedented times?
A: We’re not the first species to change the world in huge ways, but we are the first ones to say, “Hey, look what we’re doing. Where’s this going? Should we change course?” One example I give is about 2 and 1/2 billion years ago, these creatures called cyanobacteria
oxygenated the atmosphere, which was poison to most species and wiped most of them out. So life had to be able to evolve to handle it. It was a much bigger change than what’s happening now, but what’s different is now we can have this conversation about what it means. Q: What makes you optimistic?
A: Nobody can predict the future because of game changers and non-linearity. Nobody, whether they’re climate modelers, futurologists or economists, has a truly good model. It could be worse than anyone thinks, but anyone convinced of certain doom is also naive. If there’s one thing I tried to do with (this book) it was to think in geologic time and planetary history. In those terms, what’s happening now is a blip. Sometimes blips can become turning points, sometimes not. Q: Where do you see us
going in the next few years?
A: I don’t think the president-elect will do that much that changes the discussion with regards to climate change. We’ve now had a president for 8 years who said the right things about climate but wasn’t able to do that much. There are inexorable economic forces going in the right direction. For example, coal is on its way out. It doesn’t matter what people say, it’s not going to be revived. A lot of the action in climate policy is now at the state and local level. And frankly, the U.S. is not the whole world. China is getting really concerned about climate change because their cities are getting unlivable. The rest of the world has to act. If we don’t lead, that’s too bad, but we can’t halt it.
Author and astrobiologist David Grinspoon will promote his new book, “Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future,” at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science on Dec. 13.