In February 2017 there was news that a team of Astronomers, led by Michaël Gillon (fr) at the University of Liège using NASA’s Spitzer telescope has discovered seven Earth-like planets orbiting the ultra-cool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1, in the constellation Aquarius. This is about 40 light years away.
So, even if any of these planets happen to be “habitable”, then we are not going to go there any time soon. A light year is the distance that light travels in a year. Light travels at 300,000 Km/sec. and so a light year is 9,500,000,000,000 kilometres. I put the word habitable in quotes as that also opens up a whole other ball game, what does “habitable” actually mean? It could have all the necessary life supporting properties, for Earth-like, plants and animals, but have some sort of nasty disease or unpredictable volcanic activity that means someone disappears down some molten crack every once in a while.
But lets assume that we can get to an Earth-like planet somewhere that is going to be pretty OK for us to live on. Well, if it is OK to live on then something is already going to be living there. So, predictably, I come to the subject of the dodo. The dodo lived in Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean but was hunted from the late sixteenth century, to its extinction in the 1660’s. So without controls, sailors visiting the island, and other predators, dogs and cats and rats, etc, killed them all off in the space of around 70 years. They where very easy to catch. They were large birds and one could probably cook one in a charcoal fire with the minimum of preparation, in just a couple of hours. Much better than hard-tack biscuits and very stale lime juice, I would imagine. But that is the point, if there are little or no other resources then one will be inclined to exploit what is available. In the case of the dodo, obviously to the total detriment of the local fauna.
More serious than the plight of the dodo is the Genocide of indigenous peoples. Prof Roberto Guzmán, speaking at TEDxUPR – Universidad de Puerto Rico, in March 2016, says that Christopher Columbus put in motion the worst genocide that the world has ever known, more than 100 million people were killed. I guess that is over the time span of the colonisation, from Columbus’s time to the Indian Wars, five hundred years, and probably in both Americas.
So could Earth-like planets have intelligent life forms? We, human beings, seem perfectly capable of killing our own species. We also kill wales and dolphins. Bowhead wales can live over 200 years and have brains the size of ours. Yet they are still hunted for exploitation. I think that if we encountered an intelligent species on a habitable planet, especially if they were found to be hostile, then we would war with them.
Is this morally wrong? During the time of the English Civil Wars, in the 1640’s, the population of the United Kingdom was five million. When I was going to school in the early 1970’s it was 52 million. Today it is over 65 million. In 1800 the world poplulation was around one billion. Today it is around 7 billion. The rise in human populations is exponential. By the time we are capable of inter-stellar space travel for the masses, will the population of the Earth be so burgeoning that it would be morally defensible to war with indigenous populations on other worlds?
How will we, human beings, best exploit extra terrestrial planets?