A video for Carl Sagan Day

I showed this video to my daughter, and was startled when her immediate response to its title was: “We humans are also capable of destroying the world.”

This is true, of course. These days — with terrorism, wars, global warming, oil spills, mass extinctions, and other man-made disasters dominating the headlines — our talent for self-destruction is surely never far from anyone’s mind. And with the foundering economy, the apathy (or downright hostility) toward science in much of society, and NASA’s priorities shifting away from manned exploration, it’s hard to envision us (or America, at least) making any serious progress in space travel anytime soon.

Carl Sagan understood all this. “We have a choice,” he said, in an update to his landmark television series Cosmos. “We can enhance life and come to know the universe that made us, or we can squander our 15 billion-year heritage in meaningless self-destruction. What happens in the first second of the next cosmic year depends on what we do, here and now, with our intelligence and our knowledge of the cosmos.” He was never a Pollyanna about the benefits of science or the general progress of society; he was thoroughly aware of the dangers of misusing technology, as well as of the forces of ignorance and anti-science against which he so fiercely fought; and he always hedged his most positive predictions of the human future with caveats: if we do not destroy ourselves; if we survive our technological adolescence.

But he never wrote off the human race. He gazed clear-eyed at the abyss into which we seem in danger of falling; yet he never let us forget that the outcome of our story is not predestined, but a choice — and that the choice to back away from destruction, and embrace the best of who we are, is still available to us. “If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity,” he said in Cosmos, “we could plunge our world into a time of darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilization and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet.”

And he was never shy about celebrating humanity’s feats:

We gaze across billions of light-years of space to view the Universe shortly after the Big Bang, and plumb the fine structure of matter. We peer down into the core of our planet, and the blazing interior of our star. We read the genetic language in which is written the diverse skills and propensities of every being on Earth. We uncover hidden chapters in the record of our origins, and with some anguish better understand our nature and prospects. We invent and refine agriculture, without which almost all of us would starve to death. We create medicines and vaccines that save the lives of billions. We communicate at the speed of light, and whip around the Earth in an hour and a half. We have sent dozens of ships to more than seventy worlds, and four spacecraft to the stars. We are right to rejoice in our accomplishments, to be proud that our species has been able to see so far, and to judge our merit in part by the very science that has so deflated our pretensions.

— from Pale Blue Dot

This is what I told my daughter, and what I wish more of us would remember: We are, indeed, a deeply flawed species; but despite all our blunders, we have within us the intelligence to recognize and fix our mistakes. “Where humans make problems,” Sagan wrote in his last book, “humans can make solutions.”

And we have within us, as well, the potential to do truly great things, perhaps even things beyond what we can today imagine. Neil deGrasse Tyson has said that he believes interstellar travel to be impossible; but perhaps it’s only impossible to us as we currently are. As Sagan speculates in the video, perhaps the solution to traversing those vast distances will be discovered not by us, but by our distant descendants, a species far smarter and wiser than we. And perhaps the task that falls to us is simply to survive long enough for that to happen.

No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And we’ve been here for only about a million years, we, the first species that has devised means for its self-destruction. We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think as well as we can. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth — not just for ourselves, but for all those, humans and others, who came before us, and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after. There is no cause more urgent, no dedication more fitting than to protect the future of our species. Nearly all our problems are made by humans and can be solved by humans. No social convention, no political system, no economic hypothesis, no religious dogma is more important.

— from Billions and Billions

I really miss this man. We could use more of his spirit today: his unceasing wonder and joy at the workings of the universe; his profound humanism; his clear-eyed view of human potential and human failings; his keen awareness of the knife-edge we walk between saving and ruining the planet; and his deep and enduring faith in the future.

Happy Carl Sagan Day.

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