There will be a Virtual Option for this lecture.
TITLE: (Sagan Lecture) Terra Sapiens: The Role of Science in Fostering a Wisely Managed Earth.
ABSTRACT: Carl Sagan was sometimes shunned by the scientific community for his successful popularizations, but another factor was his activism on issues such as nuclear weapons and climate change.
The question of whether Earth has entered a new geological epoch characterized by human influence has gained significance beyond the narrow question of stratigraphic nomenclature. The anthropocene has raised new questions about the “nature of nature”, about the false – or at least fluid – dichotomy between wild and managed environments, about what it is that, in a world already profoundly altered by human activities, we should be trying to conserve, and ultimately about how humanity can learn to live comfortably with world-changing technology. It also raises challenging questions about the role of scientists in the public arena.
Astrobiology is largely a scientific study of the relationship between planets and life. On Earth this relationship has taken a dramatic new turn – a planetary transformation potentially as significant as the origin of life, the great oxygenation or the Cambrian “explosion”. We are not the first species to cause catastrophic change in the quest for a new energy source. The cyanobacteria, in perfecting photosynthesis, liberated vast quantities of free oxygen, wreaking havoc on the global biosphere and climate. And yet, obviously, there seems to be something important differentiating us from cyanobacteria. When we try to describe that difference we use poorly defined (some may even say ironic) words like “intelligence”, “consciousness”, “foresight”, “awareness” and “responsibility.”
Looking at the anthropocene as an event in planetary evolution gives us new perspective on the meaning of these terms. We may also ask if these phenomena could somehow be unique to Earth and if, given the plethora of exponential changes occurring now, they can become part of a stable or long-lived planetary epoch. It can be shown quantitatively that the prospect for successful SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) may hinge on this latter question and is thus linked to our own hopes for developing a sustainable planetary civilization.
Activism makes scientists uncomfortable for good reasons. It doesn’t mesh easily with honest skepticism. And yet, if you discover a house on fire you don’t just measure the infrared emissions and write a paper about it. It’s not up to us to save the world, but we have to play our part. There is a saying about education: “Don’t teach a child what to think, teach them how to think.” To some degree, more than specific policy debates, that is our task. Simply by revealing, in a compelling and accessible way, the truths that we have seen, we can promote global thinking, and long-term thinking. The concept of the anthropocene is an ideal framing device to help people see how we are situated in deep time, and tied intimately to all life on the planet. Carl Sagan often spoke of the need to increase our “identification horizon”, about the historical progression from caring only for one’s self, family, tribe, or nation, to ultimately identifying with global humanity and other species as well, with all of life. Science renders visible the hidden connections between past, present and future life, and the web of cyclic interactions that bind the globe together.
Whatever else we choose to argue for, we can persuasively advocate for this perspective simply by more effectively showing the world what we know.