#5: Stephen Hawking's Warning: Abandon Earth—Or Face Extinction

Let's face it: The planet is heating up, Earth's population is expanding at an exponential rate, and the the natural resources vital to our survival are running out faster than we can replace them with sustainable alternatives. Even if the human race manages not to push itself to the brink of nuclear extinction, it is still a foregone conclusion that our aging sun will expand and swallow the Earth in roughly 7.6 billion years.


So, according to famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, it's time to free ourselves from Mother Earth. "I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space," Hawking tells Big Think. "It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn't have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let's hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load."

Hawking says he is an optimist, but his outlook for the future of man's existence is fairly bleak. In the recent past, humankind's survival has been nothing short of "a question of touch and go" he says, citing the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1963 as just one example of how man has narrowly escaped extinction. According to the Federation of American Scientists there are still about 22,600 stockpiled nuclear weapons scattered around the planet, 7,770 of which are still operational. In light of the inability of nuclear states to commit to a global nuclear non-proliferation treaty, the threat of a nuclear holocaust has not subsided.

In fact, "the frequency of such occasions is likely to increase in the future," says Hawking, "We shall need great care and judgment to negotiate them all successfully."



Even if humans manage to avoid a nuclear stand-off over the next thousand years, our fate on this planet is still pretty much certain. University of Sussex astrophysicist Dr. Robert Smith says eventually the aging Sun will accelerate global warming to a point where all of Earth's water will simply evaporate.

"Life on Earth will have disappeared long before 7.6 billion years," says Smith, "Scientists have shown that the Sun's slow expansion will cause the temperature at the surface of the Earth to rise. Oceans will evaporate, and the atmosphere will become laden with water vapor, which (like carbon dioxide) is a very effective greenhouse gas. Eventually, the oceans will boil dry and the water vapor will escape into space. In a billion years from now the Earth will be a very hot, dry and uninhabitable ball."

Finally, between the next thousand years or so that Hawking says it will take man to make the planet uninhabitable and the billion years it will take for the sun to turn our planet into an arid wasteland, there is always the chance that a nearby supernova, an asteroid, or a quick and painless black hole could do us in.

Takeaway

One way or another, the life on Earth will likely become uninhabitable for mankind in the future. We need to start seriously thinking about how we will free ourselves from the constraints of this dying planet.   


Why We Should Reject This Idea

Despite what Hawking describes as humankind's "selfish and aggressive instinct," there may be some biological impediments to finding another planet to inhabit.

"The nearest star [to Earth] is Proxima Centauri which is 4.2 light years away," says University of Michigan astrophysicist Katherine Freese, "That means that, if you were traveling at the speed of light the whole time, it would take 4.2 years to get there."

Unfortunately, at the moment we can only travel at about ten thousandth of light speed, which means if man were to use chemical fuel rockets similar to the those used during the Apollo mission to the moon, the journey would take about 50,000 years. Without the use of a science-fiction-like warp drive or cryogenic freezing technology, no human would live long enough to survive the journey. In addition, "the radiation you would encounter alone would kill you, even if you could get a rocket to go anywhere near that fast," says Freese.

On the upside, if man ever develops the technology to travel at the speed of light while remaining shielded from cosmic radiation, he could effectively travel into the future. "A five year trip at light speed could push an astronaut forward by 1000 earth years," says Freese, "If he wanted to see if any humans were still around by then."

More Resources

Stephen Hawking's homepage.

Dr. Katherine Freese's homepage.

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Best case: redrawing borders leads to peace, prosperity and EU membership. But there's also a worst case

Image: SRF
Strange Maps
  • The Yugoslav Wars started in 1991, but never really ended
  • Kosovo and Serbia are still enemies, and they're getting worse
  • A proposed land swap could create peace - or reignite the conflict

The death of Old Yugoslavia

Image: public domain

United Yugoslavia on a CIA map from 1990.

Wars are harder to finish than to start. Take for instance the Yugoslav Wars, which raged through most of the 1990s.

The first shot was fired at 2.30 pm on June 27th, 1991, when an officer in the Yugoslav People's Army took aim at Slovenian separatists. When the YPA retreated on July 7th, Slovenia was the first of Yugoslavia's republics to have won its independence.

After the wars

Image: Ijanderson977, CC BY-SA 3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

Map of former Yugoslavia in 2008, when Kosovo declared its independence. The geopolitical situation remains the same today.

The Ten-Day War cost less than 100 casualties. The other wars – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo (1) – lasted much longer and were a lot bloodier. By early 1999, when NATO had forced Serbia to concede defeat in Kosovo, close to 140,000 people had been killed and four million civilians displaced.

So when was the last shot fired? Perhaps it never was: it's debatable whether the Yugoslav Wars are actually over. That's because Kosovo is a special case. Although inhabited by an overwhelming ethnic-Albanian majority, Kosovo is of extreme historical and symbolic significance for Serbians. More importantly, from a legalistic point of view: Kosovo was never a separate republic within Yugoslavia but rather a (nominally) autonomous province within Serbia.

Kosovo divides the world

Image: public domain

In red: states that have recognised the independence of Kosovo (most EU member states – with the notable exceptions of Spain, Greece, Romania and Slovakia; and the U.S., Japan, Turkey and Egypt, among many others). In blue: states that continue to recognise Serbia's sovereignty over Kosovo (most notably Russia and China, but also other major countries such as India, Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and Iran).

The government of Serbia has made its peace and established diplomatic relations with all other former Yugoslav countries, but not with Kosovo. In Serbian eyes, Kosovo's declaration of independence in 2008 was a unilateral and therefore legally invalid change of state borders. Belgrade officially still considers Kosovo a 'renegade province', and it has a lot of international support for that position (2). Not just from its historical protector Russia, but also from other states that face separatist movements (e.g. Spain and India).

Despite their current conflict, Kosovo and Serbia have the same long-term objective: membership of the European Union. Ironically, that wish could lead to Yugoslav reunification some years down the road – within the EU. Slovenia and Croatia have already joined, and all other ex-Yugoslav states would like to follow their example. Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia have already submitted an official application. The EU considers Bosnia and Kosovo 'potential candidates'.

Kosovo is the main stumbling block on Serbia's road to EU membership. Even after the end of hostilities, skirmishes continued between the ethnically Albanian majority and the ethnically Serbian minority within Kosovo, and vice versa in Serbian territories directly adjacent. Tensions are dormant at best. A renewed outbreak of armed conflict is not unthinkable.

Land for peace?

Image: BBC

Mitrovica isn't the only area majority-Serb area in Kosovo, but the others are enclaved and fear being abandoned in a land swap.

In fact, relations between Kosovo and Serbia have deteriorated spectacularly in the past few months. At the end of November, Kosovo was refused membership of Interpol, mainly on the insistence of Serbia. In retaliation, Kosovo imposed a 100% tariff on all imports from Serbia. After which Serbia's prime minister Ana Brnabic refused to exclude her country's "option" to intervene militarily in Kosovo. Upon which Kosovo's government decided to start setting up its own army – despite its prohibition to do so as one of the conditions of its continued NATO-protected independence.

The protracted death of Yugoslavia will be over only when this simmering conflict is finally resolved. The best way to do that, politicians on both sides have suggested, is for the borders reflect the ethnic makeup of the frontier between Kosovo and Serbia.

The biggest and most obvious pieces of the puzzle are the Serbian-majority district of Mitrovica in northern Kosovo, and the Albanian-majority Presevo Valley, in southwestern Serbia. That land swap was suggested previous summer by no less than Hashim Thaci and Aleksandar Vucic, presidents of Kosovo and Serbia respectively. Best-case scenario: that would eliminate the main obstacle to mutual recognition, joint EU membership and future prosperity.

If others can do it...

Image: Ruland Kolen

Belgium and the Netherlands recently adjusted out their common border to conform to the straightened Meuse River.

Sceptics - and more than a few locals - warn that there also is a worst-case scenario: the swap could rekindle animosities and restart the war. A deal along those lines would almost certainly exclude six Serbian-majority municipalities enclaved deep within Kosovo. While Serbian Mitrovica, which borders Serbia proper, is home to some 40,000 inhabitants, those enclaves represent a further 80,000 ethnic Serbs – who fear being totally abandoned in a land swap, and eventually forced out of their homes.

Western powers, which sponsored Kosovo's independence, are divided over the plan. U.S. officials back the idea, as do some within the EU. But the Germans are against – they are concerned about the plan's potential to fire up regional tensions rather than eliminate them.

Borders are the Holy Grail of modern nationhood. Countries consider their borders inviolate and unchanging. Nevertheless, land swaps are not unheard of. Quite recently, Belgium and the Netherlands exchanged territories so their joint border would again match up with the straightened course of the River Meuse (3). But those bits of land were tiny and uninhabited. And as the past has amply shown, borders pack a lot more baggage in the Balkans.

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