Every night lately, out walking the dog I’m drawn in to gazing up at Mars. Much to her frustration I stop every couple of minutes and look up. While I contemplate the celestial, her preference is to sniff the gutter—I guess it’s not so different when you really think about it. The truth is, when I was in college, if I made it just a little further down the alphabetized list of majors, I may have ended up studying Astronomy rather than Anthropology. People (and dogs) might be stardust, but people tend to get mad and uncomfortable when you stare at them all night, and it’s often a different kind of wonder they generate, for example I wonder how the same universe that produced John Coltrane, could produce Donald Trump. It doesn’t make any sense.
As I look at Mars, occasionally Elon Musk obnoxiously rings in my ears with exhortations about how humans need to get to Mars—the hope for the propagation of the species. I’m amazed with what humans are capable of with their pea sized brains. The physics and engineering and possibilities—it is all really something. And as an adventurer, the notion of space travel and exploration is always filled with intrigue. But as Musk in a gesture of farcical proportions launches human detritus in space, I can’t help but think the thinking is ultimately wrongheaded.
Earlier this year I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora. In it, humans have engaged in a multigenerational effort to find a habitable place to occupy and colonize outside of our solar system. They arrive and orbit a potentially habitable planet. But when they send the landing party it is almost entirely wiped out by an unidentified and mysterious pathogen and it begins to be clear that ultimately the only hope may be to return to earth.
Of course it is fiction, but it raises an important point: maybe earth is all we get. Maybe we are of earth. While science has made clear that we are not the center of the universe, I’m not sure that people are generally comfortable with this. People are also often uncomfortable with the notion of impermanence. Buddhist philosophy teaches the concept of Anitya, which I think reflects today’s cosmology, that we exist in an impermanent condition. Our home is fragile and our condition in it is tenuous. Instead of worrying about and imagining ways finding for the rich to escape increasingly inevitable climate crises to spread their genes throughout the solar system and maybe even across interstellar space, we should work harder to build a more sustainable system where we are. We are social creatures but unmitigated capitalism reduces our sociability and our chances for a future here. But I believe the future is here, even with the knowledge that ultimately humanity, and the earth and sun are all transient.
Maybe we can find meaning in engaging the altruism and empathy that we evolved to have a capacity for and use it to replace our proclivity to manifest destiny. We can admit that it is okay that humanity will not last forever and that there is no imperative for us to spread throughout the universe. But at the same time we should be stewards for and love the world that brought us into existence. We should think about future generations and not get wrapped up in the myopia of short term profits. We should look for ways to be better—to each other and our home.
I’ll always be filled with wonder as I look up at the sky and as cosmological concepts fly right over my altitude addled head. But down on the street with the dog I can see it is all connected, that if the sky is filled with wonder so is my home. Maybe tonight the dog and I'll sniff a pee post together, after saying hello to Mars of course.