Carl Sagan & Human Survival

In the final episode of Cosmos (Who Speaks for Earth?) Carl Sagan wonders whether our species will survive.

In our tenure on this planet we’ve accumulated dangerous evolutionary baggage: Propensities for aggression and ritual submission to leaders, hostility to outsiders. All of which puts our survival in some doubt. But we’ve also acquired compassion for others, love for our children, a desire to learn from history and experience and a great, soaring, passionate intelligence. The clear tools for our continued survival and prosperity. Which aspects of our nature will prevail is uncertain.

Sagan argues that the problem arises because our vision is too small. We lack a cosmic perspective from which national, ethnic and religious fanaticism are difficult to maintain. Perhaps such fanaticism has destroyed the civilizations on other worlds, as the Spanish destroyed those of the new world. Perhaps other civilizations have destroyed themselves with their technology, as we will do to our own in the near future. Or perhaps we will poison our air, earth, and water, fall victim to viruses and bacteria, or change our fragile climate so as to bring out our extinction. Then “There would be no more big questions. No more answers. Never again a love or a child. No descendants to remember us and be proud. No more voyages to the stars. No more songs from the Earth.” We would have ceased to listen to our compassion and reason, heeding instead to the reptilian voice of fear, territoriality and aggression.

From an extraterrestrial perspective, our global civilization is clearly on the edge of failure in the most important task it faces: Preserving the lives and well-being of its citizens and the future habitability of the planet …  Shouldn’t we consider … A fundamental restructuring of economic, political, social and religious institutions?

And while change is often labeled impractical, Sagan reminds us that changes have been made. We have reduced significantly slavery since ancient times, women have been partially liberated, aggression has been somewhat curtailed, and we have begun to see the earth as an organism in need of our stewardship. We can now see the earth from a cosmic perspective “finite and lonely somehow vulnerable, bearing the entire human species through the oceans of space and time.” We can change; and we have survived. After a 14 billion year cosmic journey carbon has become people, starstuff has been animated, and the cosmos is becoming conscious of itself.

Still, we do not know our place in the vastness of space and time. It will be found only after a long and arduous journey made by sojourners unafraid of the truth when they encounter it. As the video above so movingly concludes.

And we we who embody the local eyes and ears and thoughts and feelings of the cosmos we’ve begun, at last, to wonder about our origins. Star stuff, contemplating the stars, organized collections of 10 billion- billion-billion atoms contemplating the evolution of matter tracing that long path by which it arrived at consciousness here on the planet Earth and perhaps, throughout the cosmos. Our loyalties are to the species and the planet. We speak for Earth. Our obligation to survive and flourish is owed not just to ourselves but also to that cosmos, ancient and vast from which we spring.

If only our vision could be as large as Carl Sagan’s.

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