Exploring Space, Sustaining Earth

The Israeli space lander Beresheet crashed last week, dashing the $100 million hopes for a moon landing. But the main funder announced that a group of donors will try to build a second spacecraft. This makes it among the largest philanthropy projects in Israel. The same week, the first-ever photo of a black hole was released, also to much publicity and praise. And the next day, a dust storm blanketed Israel, exacerbated by climate change.

Photo credit: Beresheet2_SpaceIL/Israel Aerospace Industries

If you had to choose between a thriving and sustainable humanity on planet earth or a well-developed space program to the moon, Mars and other galaxies, which would you choose? We are simultaneously exploring outer space and degrading our only home, earth. The danger of space research isn’t that missions will crash and burn, but that our fixation with the world beyond will distract us from our central challenges on planet earth.

There is a zero sum issue of deploying spacecrafts versus deploying solar panels on earth. Since human greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow, we have not succeeded in both space exploration and a renewable energy revolution on earth. Since we are at risk of losing everything, the prudent path would be to focus on our most essential priorities, and curtail other efforts. A transition to ecological sustainability will require great wisdom in how humanity allocates money and scientific research.

Our ability to live sustainably on this planet comes down to a matter of will, and of being able to prioritize effectively. We may want to have it all, but if we spend only a tiny fraction of our efforts and resources on sustainability causes, we’re not sufficiently prioritizing what’s most important. Research on a black hole may be a black hole for research dollars. If our enthusiasm for science and technology and power leads us into the black hole of extinction, then it’s not worth it.

What drives space exploration? Does it lead us in the  right direction?

First, it has to do with national glory. The Beresheet spacecraft orbited the moon, which had been done by only six space agencies. This boosted national pride in Israel. Second, there is scientific motivation. Prof. Oded Aharonson of the Weizmann Institute of Science explains that “the main scientific goal [of this mission] will be measuring the magnetic field of the Moon. This will help us understand its source,” i.e. whether it came from an asteroid.

A third reason governments invest is to be able to find rare earth minerals with the hope that in the future we can extract them from planets and bring them back to earth.  The Chinese space mission that landed in early 2019 on the back side of the moon was partially focused on “probing the structure and mineral composition of the terrain.” A fourth reason behind space exploration is for military purposes, in order to launch satellites and anti-satellite weapons. Trump announced a new U.S. Space Force two months ago.

The global space budget in 2017 was $383 billion. The budget of NASA in the past 60 years has totaled $1.3 trillion (adjusted for inflation), and if you add the programs of other governments, the total global space budget has likely been $2 trillion.

Politicians and philanthropists choose how to spend vast sums of money, and I believe it is time to reconsider funding space research in the Age of the Anthropence (the sixth great extinction event, this time caused by us). With everything at stake for humanity and all 15 million species on earth, the money that nations, companies, and individuals devote to space exploration would be better spent on sustainability here on planet earth. One pressing challenge in particular is how to move rapidly to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels.

We go into space, but we forget that space is coming to us – in the form of sunlight! The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe said in 1981: “Very soon, the entire country [of the U.S.] should switch, first of all, to energy that can be generated from the sun’s rays in the south, which should be supplied to the entire country… The entire country will benefit. It is plainly ungrateful to G-d who endowed this country with abundant resources…”

As the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, we have a religious obligation to convert the sun’s light to electricity because it is plainly ungrateful to God to use be using fossil fuels that contribute to terrorism, climate change, and air pollution when we could be using this fresh, clean, dynamic source of energy bestowed upon us.

Israel, suddenly among the top ten countries with space programs, outfitted its spacecraft with solar panels. Yet back in Israel, about 97% of the electricity and 99% of the vehicles are still powered by fossil fuels. Why is this? In the past decade, the coalition government led by Benjamin Netanyahu has made a consistent effort to expand extraction of fossil fuels from the gas deposits in the Mediterranean, while also burning coal imported from Indonesia. Due to a lack of will, Israel keeps missing – by a wide margin – the unambitious renewable energy targets it sets for itself: 5% by 2014 and 10% by 2020 (renewables currently stand at 2.6% of electricity generation, as the Arava Power Company built Israel’s first commercial solar field in 2006).

Let’s compare Israel, a member of the OECD, to Denmark, another member. The short-term goal for The City of Copenhagen is a Co2 neutral energy supply by the 2025, and the long-term vision for Denmark is a 100% renewable energy supply by 2050.  In 2014, Denmark produced 57.4% of its net electricity generation from renewable energy sources. The renewables share is expected to be 42.0% in 2020. (Denmark invests a modest $24 million a year in space activities.)

The International Energy Agency estimates that renewable energy will require $20 trillion of investment up until 2050, with $40 trillion needed for investments in energy efficiency in buildings, industry and transport. But in 2017, IEA countries invested toward renewable energy research only 18.1% of their $20 billion budget for energy research and development. The private sector is the largest source of funding for energy research, investing $88 billion, with a fraction of that going toward clean, renewable energy. So humanity is investing much more on space research than on renewable energy research at a time when the very future of humanity is threatened by our addiction to fossil fuels.

There is a part of us that celebrates space research because it shows the power of human science and technology.  That same part of us is what enables our dominance of nature and drives the ecological crisis. Exploring space and degrading earth are actually quite connected. We need fewer spacecraft and air forces and more clean air forces. It is high time that the religious public wake up and realize how solar energy is about how we practice our spirituality.

My father-in-law tells a story that on May 1967, there was a big campaign in the United States to raise emergency funds for Israel.  The State of Israel was being threatened, and some Jews attended fundraising events in the U.S. and wrote a check giving everything they owned. That’s how essential they felt this cause was.

We’re in a similar time today. People should be giving in major ways to change the direction of how we’re living, to change the consciousness and actions of humanity toward greater sustainability. The glacial pace of action to curb climate change contrasts with the rapid rate at which the glaciers are melting.

We relate to climate change as if it is a long-term issue. Many scientists agree that while the most drastic effects will be long term, what we do in the coming few years will likely lock in those effects and potentially doom civilization. We need to relate to it now as if we’re in the bottom of the ninth and put all of our spiritual and physical resources to addressing this spiritual and ecological crisis.

In the coming years, Israel may well plant its flag on the moon. But the more significant question is, will it enable a sustainable, thriving, and spiritually aware humanity for current and future generations? We still have a fighting chance of enabling the next generation to inherit a sustainable earth. Will we make it happen?

Share your comments and questions below!

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. He completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He is the lead author and general editor of two publications on Jewish environmental ethics, speaks on faith and ecology, and was a Dorot and PresenTense Fellow. He lives with his wife, Shana, and two children in Jerusalem.
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