Carl Sagan: users of the universe

Written on 16 April 2015

Professor Carl Sagan was a visionary. In his seminal TV series and accompanying book Cosmos, he sought to teach the general public not only about cosmology and more general science but about the impact we are having on Earth. His ability to take an atemporal perspective on the impact of humanity on the planet was way ahead of its time in the late 1970s, and still has it detractors 40 years later, but is essentially one of user experience. He warns us of the huge damage our desire to ‘improve’ our user experience of the planet will have for hundreds of thousands of years after we (as a race, let alone individuals) are gone. He reminds us of our insignificance in the history of Earth and hopes to teach us to consider more than our own satisfaction in the way we live our lives.

We inhabit a world that is an ordinary planet among what must be… billions and billions of planets… Despite those billions, our planet and its children must be extraordinary. We won the cosmic lottery. We exist, and we get to know it. He drilled us on the notion that we are made of cosmic dust, star stuff. And that we somehow came to be is astonishing. Therefore, fellow citizens, we must be good stewards of our world.

Bill Nye, ‘A Tribute to Carl Sagan: OUR PLACE IN THE UNIVERSE’, volume 13 number 1, Skeptic, The Legacy of Carl Sagan

Users of Earth

As Sagan instills in us, living on this planet is a miracle. We have come so far in the blink of time that we have been evolved enough to measure our success. As the scientific community started to consider the impact humanity’s existence was having in the 1970s, when global warming and planetary environmental changes became increasingly evident, those with a sense of wonder and respect for this miracle started to worry that there was not enough being done to limit our negative impact.

In Cosmos, Sagan warns us that the chances of our species surviving to this level of evolution are infinitesimally minute, and the chances of us surviving just another hundred years (using the Drake equation and the Fermi paradox are frighteningly tiny. He is awestruck at our capacity for learning, at our ability to figure things out with just our minds and the simplest of evidence (he gives the example of Eratosthenes calculations for the size of Earth) and he fears our selfishness. Speaking at the height of the Cold War, Sagan was less concerned with nationalistic bickering and more horrified at how our nuclear ability meant we could destroy ourselves in “an instant of unforgivable neglect.”


In the 13 episodes of Cosmos, filmed in 1978 and 1979, we walk through both human and cosmic history. Sagan mixes the triumphs of the human endeavor with the tragedies. Without invoking blame, he speaks of disasters that demonstrate our naivety, such as the destruction of the library of Alexandria and the nuclear arms race. His disappointment at the inevitability of our propensity to scupper our own efforts is tangible. He wishes us to learn from the past and consider the vast improbability of our own existence, but he knows his pleas are likely in vain. Humanity is only smart enough to destroy itself.

He states repeatedly that we may not feel like our actions could have planet-altering consequences, but we only need to to use the technology we’ve so recently created to see what happens when greenhouse gasses destroy the ozone layer (as on Venus) or global warming dries up all the water (as on Mars). Speaking in 1980, he tells us we’ve already done too much and are unwilling to change enough to reserve the situation. In the 1990 updates, Sagan reiterates his concerns, calling humanity “custodians” and urging us to think of the future.

Balancing our user experience with consideration of the impact

Sagan died in 1996 after we had banned whaling, CFCs, limited fossil fuels emissions in the first world and were beginning to try to control nuclear armament. He was not hopeful for our survival.

If we are to be better than history, we must balance our progress with the impact it has on the planet. Technology is not the limit, it is our individual laziness that prevents us from using the innovation we are capable of to choose better solutions. Electric cars, solar domestic power, and sustainable building materials are all good examples of capabilities that do not cause us greater inconvenience but remain limited in their availability due to our desire to stick to what we know. There is no reason to do so, our resistance is ridiculous in the face of the laughably small amount of time we have existed in this fashion – less than 100 years for most ‘conveniences’ and less than a generation for those that are arguably most damaging – the mining of some of the rarest minerals, methods of extracting fossil fuels to keep up with our demand, and the culture of convenience for foodstuffs and luxuries.

In the user experience design, we seek to balance the delight of the user with the purpose of the tool. We use convenience to encourage adoption, we use conventions to allow for mutual understanding and to avoid duplicating tasks or information, and we seek to avoid risk and liability by building in checks and balances. We do not take so much care in the physical world. Our measure of convenience disregards any living being but humans, allowing us to pillage the environment of other species, even those we rely upon for survival, such as bees. Conventions are dictated by business interests, profitability and political advantage rather than sharing resources in the most efficient or fairways. Our risk mechanisms are fundamentally skewed in favor of humanity; specifically our transient nation states and ways of brief life. They are not built to prevent liability, in fact, most scenarios point to us having already done catastrophic damage to the processes that enable our existence.

The phenomenal power of the human brain, capable of developing space flight and global connectedness cannot comprehend the necessity of restraint. If we were capable of designing a solution to the problem, perhaps the most elegant solution would be to design ourselves out of the decision-making process.

[Hero Image by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash]



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