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SETI and the Environment
by H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D.
Executive Director

The preservation of Earth's environment, and responsibly husbanding her finite resources, are concerns on the minds of every thinking and caring human. We in The SETI League are no exception, though we are not exactly environmental scientists. Or are we? While most believe that the answers to the preservation of our home world must come from the minds of women and men, let me posit the radical notion that some of those answers might come from space.

The long-held conviction of humankind being alone in the cosmos is finally falling into disfavor. Once solely the province of science fiction authors, today the concept of a universe teeming with life is becoming the accepted scientific paradigm. And since even the most skeptical astronomers note that ours is a relatively young planet orbiting a merely middle-aged star, it is generally held that neighboring civilizations, warmed by the fusion fires of distant suns, are likely to be far older than we.

Does older necessary denote wiser? Just possibly, if other worlds have been faced with their own fair share of environmental crises. Because only the wise survive, and those who have answered nature's challenges may well build stable societies that can live for as long as stars burn.

So where does SETI fit into this picture? By adopting a perspective broader than John Lennon's. Imagine a cosmic community of older, wiser civilizations, who have learned to preserve the resources of their home worlds, and live in harmony with nature. Imagine that they have devised means to communicate, and have pooled their collective knowledge into something akin to the fabled Encyclopedia Galactica. Now imagine that our technology will enable us some day to tap into that database. Might we find there the wisdom of the ages, and learn to apply it to planetary protection?

I live on Earth's northern hemisphere, where it is now getting to be spring. Spring is the season of renewal. It is at this time of year that we celebrate Earth Day, and it was on Earth Day just eight years ago that The SETI League launched its Project Argus all-sky survey. We began by seeking mere existence proof, evidence that our cosmic companions choose to communicate by means which we can recognize. We have yet to detect that evidence, but that does not deter us. Because beyond contact lies communication, and the opportunity to avail ourselves of the collective wisdom and knowledge of countless worlds.

Or, perhaps there is no Encyclopedia Galactica. Maybe they aren't there at all, because they squandered their planet's resources as foolishly as we seem to be squandering ours. In which case, we're all alone, and on our own. And if, through lack of evidence, SETI science eventually reaches that pessimistic conclusion, then don't we have an obligation to treat our fragile spaceship Earth with a bit more reverence?

Either way, we SETIzens must become staunch environmentalists, if our quest is to have meaning beyond our brief existence on this sphere.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in editorials are those of the individual authors, and do not necessarily reflect the position of The SETI League, Inc., its Trustees, officers, Advisory Board, members, donors, or commercial sponsors.

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