The Peculiar Case of Asteroids and Elephants

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The Peculiar Case of Asteroids and Elephants: A Rationale for a Global Defense Strategy for People and the Planet

By Denny Taylor

Asteroids

Don’t worry about asteroids[1]. Fictional emergency response scenarios are taking place to ensure millions of people are not annihilated if an asteroid is detected on a collision course with the planet. An impact scenario has been playing out at the May 2019 International Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Maryland. This scenario created by NASA and FEMA is designed to help key decision makers practice for a real asteroid impact.

But here’s a caveat. There is no known asteroid or comet with a significant probability of impacting Earth in the next century. We know this for a fact from advancements in planetary defense astronautics. NASA and its international partners are continually scanning the skies for NEOs (near Earth objects) -- which are asteroids and comets that orbit the Sun and come within 30 million miles (50 million kilometers) of Earth’s orbit. International groups, such as NASA’s Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO), the European Space Agency’s Space Situational Awareness-NEO Segment, and the International Asteroid Warning Network (IAWN) have made better communication of the hazards posed by NEOs a top priority.

The advancement of Earth’s asteroid defense was on show at the 2019 Planetary Defense Conference through the enactment of a realistic but fictional asteroid on an impact trajectory with Earth. The five-day exercise can be viewed here.

On Day 3 of the impact scenario the collision location is revealed. On Day 4 a fragment of the fictional asteroid hurtles towards Earth. Here is the description:

EXERCISE ONLY—Today’s update of the hypothetical impact scenario puts us in September of 2024, when NASA announces that although the kinetic impactors have collided with the asteroid 2019 PDC, a 50-80 meter fragment (165-260 feet) has broken off and is on a certain collision course with Earth. The orbiting observation spacecraft was also lost during the kinetic impactor engagement. Although the International Asteroid Warning Network isn’t certain where the asteroid will strike, they’ve narrowed down possible locations to the Eastern United States or somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean on April 29, 2027. A ground-based observation campaign is underway to learn more about the asteroid and where exactly it will strike Earth.

This impact scenario is more compelling than the MarVista movie Asteroid: Final Impact, which strains credulity. The science of kinetic impactor engagement is authentic and the scenario excites the senses and quickens breathing. The language of the asteroid exercise pumps blood: position uncertainty, deflection and disruption, impact and consequences. The descriptions are intense.

Additional space-based infrared observations from the NEOWISE spacecraft, allow experts to estimate the size of the asteroid at about 140-260 meters (460-850 feet). If an asteroid of this size should impact, it could release 100-800 megatons of energy, devastating a large region, but not enough to cause a global catastrophe, according to experts. The international forum for space agencies called the Space Mission Planning Advisory Group (SMPAG) recommends that space-capable nations should prepare for space-based reconnaissance missions and mitigation activities. 

Many aspects of the scenario are familiar to us. We get it. We have experienced or witnessed catastrophes and understand what is meant by disaster response, impact risk assessment and decision to act, and with the need for public education and communication.  

The take-away from the enactment of the impact scenario is that, even though no asteroid or comet is on a collision course with Earth for at least the next 100 years, the research on the deflection of hypothetical flying objects hitting the planet is hurtling forwards at breakneck speed. Parenthetically, this circumstance is somewhat irrational, given that the technology developed now will be obsolete and considered archaic and of no use at all if there is an asteroid event in a hundred years.

Quixotically, governments tilt at asteroids and vast sums of money are allocated in billions and spent to develop systems to deflect flying objects that might collide with Earth in the next century, while scientists conducting research on the global catastrophes that will actually occur in this century have had their government-funding cut. Even more concerning, vital accounts of their research have been systematically expunged from government websites, and scientists whose research provides solid evidence of the devastating impact of climate change and ecological disasters have lost their jobs, are being harassed, and some have had their lives threatened.

Make no mistake, the redaction of scientific knowledge is an existential risk, reducing human understanding and civil society’s capacity to respond to disasters, impacting risk assessment and the decision to act.

Elephants

The contrast between the hyper-preparations to repel asteroids that might collide with Earth more than 100 years hence, and the dangerous absurdity of denying the existential risks that we face now, is illustrated by the plight of the African elephant. The largest remaining land mammal on the planet is facing a crisis in survival due to climate change, the ecological destruction of habitats, and mass killings.

And yet in 2018, Trump reinstated the importation into the U.S. of the ivory tusks of elephants, while one of his sons has been photographed hunting them and cutting off the tails of elephants he has killed. The importation of tusks and other elephant and lion body parts is one of a million similar scenarios that are now occurring. It is being called “the great dying.” Right now one million species face extinction as a result of human action and inaction -- 100 years before there is a remote possibility that an asteroid will come close to colliding with planet Earth.

The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) released a summary of a report in May 2019 that underscores the gravity of the crisis, and underscores that the consequences of the asteroid impact scenario are nothing more than a pebble dropped in a bucket compared with the myriad of deadly manmade impact scenarios here on Earth.

“Nature is declining globally at rates unprecedented in human history,” the IPBES states at the April 2019 meeting in Paris. “The rate of species extinctions is accelerating, with grave impacts on people around the world now likely.”

The IPBES stress that current negative trends in biodiversity and ecosystems will undermine progress towards 80% of the assessed targets of the U.N. SDGs, related to poverty, hunger, health, water, cities, climate, oceans and land.

“The loss of biodiversity is therefore shown to be not only an environmental issue,” the IPBES states in a media release, “but also a developmental, economic, security, social and moral issue as well.”

A Comparative Analysis of Global Leaders’ Response to Asteroids and Elephants

This sums-up the peculiar case of asteroids and elephants, and raises profound questions with regard to why governments and global leaders in the private sector are so focused on planetary defense astronautics, while there are no international emergency plans to save a million species from extinction, and when the death of so many animals and plants places in jeopardy the continuation of human existence? Stated succinctly:

Why are governments and powerful elites focused on asteroids that might hit Earth 100 years from now, but intent on obfuscating the life threatening catastrophes occurring right now?

By juxtaposing asteroids and elephants, a comparative analysis can be conducted of: 1) the reasons global leaders are eager to repel fictional asteroids and comets that might collide with the planet sometime in the distant future, and 2) the reasons these same global leaders are reluctant to respond to the extinction of a million species and the degradation of our life sustaining biosphere which is occurring now.

First, an asteroid colliding with Earth is not a manmade danger. Governments and powerful elites are not culpable. This single fact frames the points that follow:

  • Asteroids are in a special class because of the singularity of the risk and because asteroids are not caused by human activity.

  • Preparations for an asteroid event in the next century maintain the dominance of Global Super Powers, increasing their power and wealth.

  • Developing first response initiatives to respond to an asteroid on a collision course with Earth enhances the opportunity to develop advanced weapon systems, with breakthroughs in machine learning and approaches to AI engineering that enable the development of increasingly capable AI applications and autonomous systems.

  • Planetary defense astronautics strengthens governmental and private sector collaboration, increasing wealth and power. S.1281 - National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2005 states, “In carrying out the programs of NASA, the Administrator shall encourage commercial use and development of space to the greatest extent practicable”.

  • “Practical” preparations for an asteroid event create opportunities to bypass ethical, legal, operational and strategic concerns with regard to unregulated AI and the development and employment of advanced weapon systems.

  • Preparations for an asteroid event provide justification for the militarization of space and the development of the U.S. “Space Force” proposed by the President.

  • Asteroid preparation excludes most U.N. Member States, civil society organizations, academia and actors from non-military industries who are not invited to participate in monitoring the trajectory of technology or to participate in discussions of the associated global risks to humanity.

  • The ramifications of developing an asteroid defense system are not problematized by the mainstream media or by civil society. Space defense is almost universally embedded in cultural identity. People in many countries have seen Star Wars and Star Trek, know about NASA’s Apollo moonwalks, and the advanced rockets and spacecraft launched by SpaceX. The use of “hypothetical” and “fictional” encourages people to “fit” the asteroid impact scenario into their cultural schema.

In contrast, the elephant scenario and the extinction of one million species is a manmade crisis. This fact frames the points that follow:

  • Governments and powerful elites in the private sector are culpable. Acknowledging their responsibility, especially by the fossil energy industries, could diminish their power and be cripplingly expensive.

  • Doing a mea culpa and taking responsibility has the potential to topple governments, bankrupt companies, lead to the redistribution of wealth, and the establishment of more inclusive societies.

  • Responding to climate change and ecological disasters requires transformative societal changes to restore and protect Earth from bad actors whose vested interests are in opposition to the public good.

  • Acceptance of responsibility by ruling elites would necessitate multilateral cooperation, inclusive engagement, transparency, and a level of ethical, legal, operational and strategic action that has never occurred before.

  • A global education and communication initiative would also be essential to inform the public that they have been the target of a massive disinformation campaign waged by the US Congress and paid for by the carbon producing coal, petroleum, natural gas and energy industries.

  • Initiatives would also be essential to encourage the public to re-imagine long-held understandings of the never-ending future of our species. We have been enculturated into believing that humans will be on Earth forever. “Someday the world will end,” is the first sentence in the 1974 book The End of the World by Frankly M. Branley, the Astronomer Emeritus of the Natural History Museum-Hayden Planetarium. Then on the next page he writes, “This is a gloomy forecast but one about which we should not despair. There are consoling factors. The end of the world will not occur in your lifetime, or that of your children’s children. We can be quite sure that doomsday will be billions of years in the future.”

  • The proposition that human life on the planet is finite is challenging, but so is the human capacity for an empathetic response to the extinction of one million species. Empathy in humans often breaks down when the numbers grow too large for us to imagine. The catastrophes, disasters, and extreme events associated with the impact of climate change and ecological degradation are too vast for humans to get their heads around.

  • The global super powers would have to accept responsibility for the great disparities between rich and poor, wealth and poverty. Transformative change would require every effort be made to meet the U.N. SDGs, eradicating poverty, eliminating hunger, ensuring clean drinking water and universal health care, as well as a rapid response to environmental issues that are turning oceans and land into toxic garbage dumps.

Four Lessons on Human Survival Learned from the Peculiar Case of Asteroids and Elephants

Lesson One

The hypothetical asteroid scenario provides definitive proof that governments can act if the rapid response initiatives required also enhance global dominance. Essentially, the U.S. planetary defense system was enacted into law to “preserve the role of the United States as a global leader in aeronautical technologies and in their application” including “military and commercial needs” (S.1281 — 109th Congress 2005-2006).

Lesson Two

The very real scenario of elephants and the death of a million species provide definitive proof that governments do not act if rapid response initiatives threaten global dominance and jeopardize their military and commercial advantage. In fact governments are prepared to obfuscate the life threatening catastrophes occurring right now that create the conditions for the demise of a million species to protect their self-interests.

Inger Andersen, Director General of International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) used the power of story to make this point when she raised concern for the extinction of species that is taking place in a statement she made on the International Day for Biological Diversity, May 22, 2019. She writes:

Few are not familiar with the story of a unique goose and the golden eggs that made its master rich, until greed drove him to kill the bird. This ancient fable of Aesop’s has many equivalents around the world, reaching back millennia. Yet in all this time, we have not fully absorbed the lesson it tries to teach us, certainly not when it comes to biodiversity.

Andersen is right. We have not learned the lesson and we continue to kill the goose, elephants and a million other species including our own, but the fictional asteroid scenario confirms that governments can act to push down the risks.

“It is not too late to act to halt the loss of biodiversity and support its recovery,” writes Carlo Rondinini, head of the Global Mammal Assessment for the IUCN Red List, “but doing so will require transformative changes across the economic, policy and societal sectors, facilitating commitments to action at home and internationally by governments and all sectors of society.”

Lesson Three

The comparative analysis of asteroids and elephants teaches us that the use of language by global leaders is a significant indicator of the future life or death of humanity. As noted at the beginning of this paper, the response to the asteroid impact scenario is framed by the action oriented language position uncertainty, deflection and disruption, impact and consequences, disaster response, impact risk assessment and decision to act,

Contrast this action oriented language with the formulaic language of the U.N. in the a priori “Zero Draft” of the Political Declaration for the High-Level Political Forum (2019/05/17) that will be the basis of the HLPF Political Declaration of the SDG Summit at the U.N. General Assembly in September 2019:

We resolve, between now and 2030, to end poverty and hunger everywhere; to combat inequalities within and among countries; to build peaceful, just and inclusive societies; to protect human rights and promote gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls; and to ensure the lasting protection of the planet and its natural resources. We also resolve conditions for sustainable, inclusive and sustained economic growth, shared prosperity and to create decent work for all, taking into account different levels of national development and capacities.

This zero draft of the HLPF Political Declaration is aspirational, but there is no plan to make these aspirations actionable. It is a dead document that won’t stop “the great dying”. Year after year U.N. Member States ratify similar platitudinous political declarations, because they are intimidated by the delegations of the dominant super-powers – U.S., Russia, and China – who will not support the inclusion of language on any specifics actions for the transformative changes needed to save a million species from the great dying.

Lesson Four

The fourth lesson from asteroids and elephants is that representatives of civil society must be included in the decisions that are made about the response to the existential risks confronting humanity. It is of vital importance that the global superpowers are held accountable, that greed is no longer acceptable as a motivating factor, and that civil society is at the table to ensure trust and transparency. Only then will transformative action be taken.

In response to the Zero Draft of the HLPF Declaration, CIVICUS has written a letter that many NGOs signed in which concern is expressed about the exclusion of civil society from decisions that impact the future of humanity. The letter states:

Global civil society has been a committed and determined ally of the UN since its inception in 1945 – when delegations worked together with NGO representatives on the text of the Charter. Today, that partnership is even more important – as civil society supports delivery of the Sustainable Development Goals, and plays a key role in policy formulation, innovation and communication of progress to the broader public.

At a time when we are well beyond normalcy and the rapid development of AI technology is outpacing diplomacy, it is of grave concern that there is no coherent strategy for risk reduction within or across governments and agencies. While the language of the zero draft of the HLPF lulls civil society into the belief that actions are taking place to sustain the planet and protect their children, when in truth nothing new is happening to avoid the imminent dangers of life-threatening catastrophe and disasters.

The Establishment of a Global Defense Strategy for People and the Planet

If governments have the capacity to mobilize with a defense strategy to repel an asteroid that might collide with Earth in 100 years, they also have the capacity to establish a global defense strategy to protect people and the planet in 2020. This would mean taking seriously the idea of transformative change on a scale that has never been undertaken before. But if we have an International Asteroid Warning Network and orbiting observation spacecraft with the capacity of kinetic impactor engagement to protect people and the planet from space originating existential risks, we also have the capacity to protect people and the planet from existential risks that originate here on Earth as a result of human activity.

The U.N. has the policy instruments and policy support tools to rapidly establish frameworks with U.N. Member States to operationalize a Global Defense Strategy for People and the Planet that acknowledges the SDGs as aspirational, but establishes actionable categories that cut through the platitudinous rhetoric, and sets in motion a transformative action plan that engages with NGOs who have the capacity to inform and guide the U.N. and civil society.

Here again is Inger Andersen:

We are living a decisive moment in history. Conserving nature is a non-negotiable prerequisite for achieving our broader vision of a more prosperous, healthy and equitable world by 2030. We will never eradicate poverty and hunger when our ailing seas and degraded lands are no longer able to feed a growing population. And we simply cannot expect to live healthy lives on a sick planet.

Based on advanced scientific knowledge of the existential risks, there is no doubt that U.N. Member States have the capacity to establish new priorities that benefit all human societies and that transcend competitive economic and military aggression to achieve the greater goal of sustaining the planet.

It will be tough, but the development of a rapid response action plan is imperative and non-negotiable. To deny a healthy future for young people is an immoral act that should be denounced by every parent and grandparent in civil society. Around the world young people are walking out of their classrooms to protest the lack of action on climate change and the ecological degradation of the planet. Yesterday, at Columbus Circle in Manhattan, hundreds of school children were holding up signs that read “Planet Over Profit” and “Climate Change is Genocide”. They were protesting because they know their lives are in danger. They know U.S. economic and military domination is more important to the powerful elites who are determining their fate, and they know a global defense strategy for people and the planet is the only way to ensure their lives are not lost because of the avarice and greed of global leaders in the public and private sectors.


[1] The analysis presented here is based on: 1) the rapid response asteroid impact exercise which took place at the May 2019 International Planetary Defense Conference in College Park, Maryland; and 2) the report based on ethnographic field notes and associated documentation produced at the 2018 U.N. High Level Political Forum (HLPF), which focused on the U.N. SDGs. The report can be accessed here. The rationale for a global defense strategy for people and the planet is supported by 40 years of continuous engagement in transdisciplinary research crossing the boundaries of the social and physical sciences.