12/23/2012 12:50 pm ET | Updated Feb 22, 2013

Defending Spaceship Earth

Watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

One of the main differences between the dinosaurs and us is that 65 million years from now, we won't have our bones collecting dust in museums. Contrary to the dinosaurs, we have a space program and we can vote -- and thus change our future.

In this inspiring talk, Phil Plait explains how we can defend ourselves from asteroids and sheds some light on the consequences earlier asteroids and meteors have had.

When the dinosaurs, 65 million years ago, saw a huge asteroid shooting across the sky, they could only look on passively. When the asteroid -- 10 kilometers across -- finally hit the Yucatan Peninsula, it released a mind-numbing amount of energy and threw up enough dust to block out the sun. Plait describes how if you took every nuclear weapon ever built at the height of the Cold War, lumped them together and blew them up at the same time, that would only account for one-millionth of the energy released when this asteroid hit Earth. Consequently, 75 percent of all species on Earth were wiped out.

However, you don't have to go back millions of years to find examples of meteors hitting Earth. Plait takes us on an exciting trip back to Arizona, where a meteor 50,000 years ago created a huge crater in the desert, to Siberia in 1908 where the shock wave from an exploding rock knocked down trees for hundreds of square miles, and to New York, where a car in 1992 was hit by a rock the size of a football. The point: An asteroid doesn't have to be big to have devastating consequences.

So, are any of the so-called "near-Earth asteroids" heading our way in the not-so-distant future? Yes. The asteroid, Apophis, is actually on its way towards Earth. It won't hit us, but we know it's going to pass by in April of 2029 -- and it's actually going to come underneath our weather satellites. Passing by Earth, the orbit of Apophis will get bended by Earth's gravity and might hit Earth in 2036. However, the odds of this happening are roughly one in a million.

Phil Plait leaves you with a reminder of the obvious truth: We are citizens of Spaceship Earth, which is flying around the Sun at about 67,000 miles per hour, rotating around ourselves at just over 1,000 miles per hour, and at some point, an asteroid will inevitably hit us.

That is why Plait thinks Apophis is a blessing in disguise: because it inspires reflection about the dangers of these things.

The underlying theme of this fascinating speech is of course much more fundamental. The real issue at hand here is governance. How do we, as a species, handle impending catastrophes? How do we allocate resources to initiatives that will benefit us in the long-term?

Plait says the difference between dinosaurs and us is that we can vote. However, there is not a 1:1 relationship between what we should be doing and what we are doing. My prediction is that before we see world governments coming together to solve common challenges, investing in common solution and putting narrow national interests aside, we need a fundamental shift in how we approach these problems. Either in government structures or in our mental models of how we understand the world.

One example of an asteroid-like challenge that is heading our way is climate change -- and with an increasing speed. Even though many scientists believe the that temperature increases of up to 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2100 still would be within the safe zone, world governments decided three years ago to pursue the 2 degree mark by the end of this century. Add to this, that the most recent studies suggest temperature increase of 4-6 degrees Celsius.

To nudge and clear aside asteroids -- or any other fundamental societal challenge -- we need to understand the challenges before coming up with solutions. And a first step is raising awareness of the issues. Global events like Earth Day provide an example of this. Earth Day has been praised for being one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy and its effort to enhance a global mindset. It is therefore no coincidence that the United Nations (U.N.) also celebrates Earth Day.

It is interesting to note, that when the U.N. in 1971 decided to support the Earth Day, U.N. Secretary-General U Thant left this remark "May there only be peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful Spaceship Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life."

It is exactly this kind of awareness, Phil Plait, so captivating, is trying to create.

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