I haven't read Stephen Hawking's famous book, A Brief History of Time, though it's been sitting on my bookshelf for years.

And after Hawking's recent musings I'm probably less inclined. He reckons the earth will be an overheated hell-hole within 600 years and we must build spaceships to take humanity (or at least some lucky representatives) to a new planet.

While we have some extraordinarily major problems, which Hawking points to, like the potential for catastrophic climate change, I don't believe all is yet lost.

Read more: Vaughan Gunson: Re-establishing housing as a human right is legacy worth pursuing
Vaughan Gunson: The joys of spring are upon us

Advertisement

Hawking is making a mistake that intellectuals, philosophers, and theoretical physicists, can be prone to, which is to discount the messy business of politics and the everyday practical people who make history happen.

Earth rising over the moon's horizon, taken by the crew of Apollo 11. NASA
Earth rising over the moon's horizon, taken by the crew of Apollo 11. NASA

In Hawking's vision of the future, there's no room for us to change our behaviour, or create laws and institutions, both locally and globally, to address the issues we face.

Undoubtedly the changes required, like ditching the irrationality of continued economic growth on a finite planet, are massive. We'll need political movements and leaders to represent us. And there'll be hypocrisy, compromise and conflict all along the way.

But to suggest, as Hawking does, that we give up on earth and put our energies into space travel, is incredibly lazy thinking.

It's the kind of thinking that requires little of us; we don't have to change our actions today. Like maybe consuming less, travelling less, or being willing to accept restrictions on our personal freedoms for the long-term good.

There's no thought given to reforming our economic system or considering new ways that humanity might sustainably live and work on this planet.

Hawking's drift into la-la land means he also ignores the fact that even the United States, the biggest economy in the world, can hardly maintain a space programme.

That's because, in an increasingly energy constrained world, it's damned expensive building rockets capable of carrying humans into space. Diverting resources and money into space travel means a country has to forgo other things, like infrastructure on earth that enables our complex civilisation to function.

Which is why space travel has become the plaything of billionaires. They're the only ones with the discretionary money to spend as they wish. Governments are subject to the rules of politics, like delivering a decent standard of living to their earth-bound citizens or facing the possibility of angry rebellion.

It seems, then, that Hawking is primarily pitching his ideas to the world's 2000 billionaires. It's they who'll "save" humanity through financing private space travel. Planet-hopping on the Bill Gates Starship, the Mark Zuckerberg Enterprise, all aboard the Richard Branson Star Express!

Hawking's dichotomy of Armageddon on earth and our saviour in far-off space has too much of the biblical narrative for my liking. With billionaires taking the role of archangels, technology as God, and a few privileged believers as the saved, dreaming of some vague future existence on a planet in the Alpha Centauri star system.

It's a nice story, and I'm a big sci-fi fan, but I'm just not buying it.