Looking at the Anthropocene through the lens of astrobiology could help us move on with the planet — so it doesn’t move on without us, says physicist Adam Frank.
These studies show us that Earth has been many planets in its past: a potential water world before major continents grew; a totally glaciated snowball world; a hothouse jungle planet. In understanding these transformations, we’ve gotten to see one example of life and a planet co-evolving over billions of years.
Astrobiology is fundamentally a study of planets and their “habitability” for life. But sustainability is really just a concern over the habitability of one planet (Earth) for a certain kind of species (homo sapiens) with a certain kind of organization (modern civilization). That means our urgent questions about sustainability are a subset of questions about habitability. The key point, here, is the planets in our own solar system, like Mars, show us that habitability is not forever. It will likely be a moving target over time. The same idea is likely true for sustainability — and we are going to need a plan for that.
We’re not a plague on the planet. Instead, 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.