Forget Mars, and focus on the wonder of life on our planet

The idea of relocating to other worlds is a fantasy, distracting us from the tragedy of destroying the one place we know is alive

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 3:50am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 June, 2014, 6:52am

If they found on Mars a single blade of grass there would be ecstasy at mission control, unleashing visions of humanity spreading out across the cosmos. But does the obsession with finding life on other, potentially habitable planets somehow excuse and blind us to the trashing of this one?

News of the discovery of yet another Earth-like planet fuels the fantasy that if we scorch our own, we can always relocate. From Richard Branson to Stephen Hawking, there's a hypnotic fascination with the possibility of escape, which somehow relieves the pressure to look after our own, extraordinary planetary home.

As we tremble with anticipation at the prospect of finding a single microbe on another planet, under our feet we're wilfully executing a mass extinction event. Once a fashionable cause, threats to our forests, cradles to the diversity of life, have been largely forgotten. But this century we've been losing them at the astonishing rate of 50 football pitches per minute. That's an area the size of Greenland since the turn of the millennium.

All attempts to reconcile the industrial-scale exploitation of the biosphere by staying the right side of key environmental thresholds are failing. Forest-certification schemes, for example, have done nothing to slow their degradation. Why do we treat the abundance of life on our doorstep with such disrespect, when it throws up glories like the Namibian fog-basking beetle, which taught us how to build greenhouses in the desert? Or the bark beetle, which can detect a forest fire 10 kilometres away and is showing how to make better fire extinguishers? Even worse, the very people who put their lives on the line to protect land and the environment are being killed at an accelerating pace.

The question of whether there is life "out there" is often asked. But, from a different view of the cosmos, aren't we ourselves already "out there"?

Perhaps the greatest gift of space exploration is enabling us to see ourselves as an island planet, where the greatest wonder is the world around us, the relationships between living things and even within ourselves. A single tablespoon of soil contains more micro-organisms than there are people on the planet.

Right now, the greatest challenge is to offer an irresistible invitation to look differently and afresh at the world, and imagine how we can allow life here to flourish.

We sense we're living through hard times, and that makes the idea of fleeing to other worlds attractive. But times have been harder.

On a cold dark night in prison during the apocalyptic upheaval of Europe of 1917, the revolutionary socialist Rosa Luxemburg found her spirits lifted, despite her perilous situation, by an awareness of the strangeness and beauty of the force of life. Her heart "beats with an inconceivable, unknown inner joy". The secret, she decided, is "nothing but life itself", and even in the sound of sentries' heels grinding in gravel outside "there is the small, lovely song of life - if one knows how to hear it".

A couple of years ago, I saw for the first time at dusk a field of fireflies. They were all around me, pulsing, drifting, lighting up the darkening landscape. I thought of Luxembourg's song of life and of the millions of people around the world who, rather than dreaming of escape, don't accept the world as it is - but use their life's pulsing energy to protect and improve it.

The Guardian