This Astrobiologist Feels Pretty Good About the Planet's Future

CU Boulder adjunct professor David Grinspoon talks about climate change, environmental trends, and his new book, Earth in Human Hands

December 13 2016, 1:30 PM

Photo courtesy of David Grinspoon

Since president-elect Donald Trump has questioned the existence of climate change—and recently appointed climate change denialist Scott Pruitt as the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—it's not unlikely that legislation to protect the earth could be rolled back over the course of the next four years, potentially accelerating the effects of global warming. Translation: Many doomsday-sayers are predicting catastrophe by the next century.

(Read our special report about climate change’s effect on Colorado.)

But David Grinspoon has a different theory. Last week, the University of Colorado Boulder adjunct professor of astrophysical and planetary sciences came out with a new book, Earth in Human Hands: Shaping Our Planet’s Future. The surprisingly humorous read, while blunt about the way humans have negatively impacted the Earth, outlines a more positive view of the future. We sat down with Grinspoon to talk about his book, his hopeful attitude, and his ties to Colorado.

5280: What exactly does an astrobiologist do?

David Grinspoon: Astrobiology is concerned with the question of where in the universe life can exist; just like it sounds, it’s a hybrid of astronomy and biology. A lot of it does involve studying life on Earth but also understanding Earth’s requirements and limits so we can study other planets and understand how to search for the possibility of life elsewhere.

What brought you to Colorado?*

Boulder is a hub of space science and astrobiology research. I don’t know if everyone realizes it. It’s one of the great things about Colorado. I moved there for space and fell in love with the mountains. I’m still in love with the place; I get back every chance I get.

*After living in Colorado for more than 20 years, Grinspoon moved away in 2013 when he was appointed the first chair of astrobiology at the Library of Congress.

A main insight of your book is that the events of the long-gone past can help guide our future decisions. How?

We are now—whether we like it or not—a planet-altering force. That means we’re obligated to understand how the planet works, so we can do a better job at being a planet-altering force than we have been. We need to understand what Earth does on its own in order to really understand our interactions with it and to guide them intelligently. I’m advocating a deep-time view not because it’s cool and interesting to learn about the science, which it is, but it’s also essential for us to do a good job with this role.

What compelled you to write the book?

I was the curator of astrobiology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science for many years, and I found myself giving talks to the public on comparative planetology and how it affects the way we see ourselves. I saw that people resonated with that point of view; it’s a somewhat more hopeful perspective on the challenging problems we have in our society. Part of my message is that right now is a blip. We have to take this longer view about our current decisions and moments as embedded in this much longer sequence of changes.

Why is your book particularly relevant right now?

When you say right now, do you mean this millennium or century or…? [laughing] But I’m not going to duck the question. This has been a surprising and, to many people, alarming election. Many of us think we’re in danger of going off course. But there are a lot of trends that are inevitably going in the right direction. I don’t want to minimize the challenges we face right now, but I encourage people to keep the big picture in mind. It’ll help us rise to the occasion, to deal with challenges with courage and vision and optimism. I acknowledge we’re in for some difficult decades, but at the end of those, there’s every reason to think that the 22nd century and 23rd centuries are going to be brighter times for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

You mentioned positive trends; what trends are you talking about?

We’re going to be off fossil fuels completely by the 22nd century. Even if we were really, really stupid and said, “The heck with global warming; let’s just use oil and gas forever,” it’s going to run out, and it’s going to get harder and harder and more expensive to extract. And the coal industry is dying as an energy source. I care about the workers in that industry, and I want them to find jobs, but it’s not going to be in coal mining. It doesn’t matter what the administration says on the campaign trail; coal’s going away because of competitive, economic sources. That’s a wonderful thing because it’s damaging. And solar and wind are getting cheaper and cheaper. So we’re going to transition our energy supply, it’s just a question of how fast and what level of damage we’re going to do along the way.

By the end of the century, not only will we have transitioned our energy system, we’ll be actively moving carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. There are ways to do that; they’re just expensive. Right now, we have to use the tools we have. Our main obligation is to curtail our emissions drastically and find other energy sources. But in the long run, I believe we’ll have technical breakthroughs to repair a lot of the damage.

There are other [positive] trends as well. The population is going to level out this century and then start to decline. Fertility is declining around the world because poverty is declining. Women in particular are getting more educated. Look at the long-term trends of infant mortality, extreme poverty, levels of education in the world, even of levels of violent conflict; the long-term trends of all these are going the right direction.

How would you characterize your book?

I would say that it’s a page-turner. Even though it’s about this serious subject—humans on earth and what are we going to do—my approach is light-hearted. I love the science so much and I love the planets and I love humanity. I hope people will find it captivating and maybe even kind of an antidote to some of the current despair.

Catch the author: Grinspoon will discuss his book Earth in Human Hands on December 13 at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s Gates Planetarium (immersive visuals in the dome will illustrate his points). (The 7 p.m. show is sold out, but the 5:15 p.m. one still has tickets available.) Or catch him at the Boulder Book Store on January 17 at 7:30 p.m.

Follow assistant editor Mary Clare Fischer on Twitter at @mc_fischer.