Last month I reread Carl Sagan's Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the brink of the Millenium. It is Sagan's last book, published in 1997, the year after he died from the rare bone-marrow disease myelodysplasia.
Billions and Billions is a book of essays covering a wide range of topics, including the fact that he never actually said, "billions and billions" on his Cosmos television series, extraterrestrials, abortion, and exoplanets. He also included essays on some pet concerns of his – climate change, and the diminishment of science literacy in American society.
He dealt with our national ignorance in an earlier book (see the quote in the picture below), but in Billions and Billions, he continued his quest to convince his fellow humans that we must take care of the Earth, our home, lest we join the dinosaurs in extinction.
The Earth is an anomaly. In all the Solar System, it is, so far as we know, the only inhabited planet. We humans are one amongst millions of separate species who live in a world burgeoning, overflowing with life. And yet, most species that ever were are no more. After flourishing for 180 million years, the dinosaurs were extinguished. Every last one. There are none left. No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And we’ve been here for only about a million years, we, the first species that has devised means for its self-destruction. We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think as well as we can. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. I believe we have an obligation to fight for life on Earth—not just for ourselves, but for all those, humans and others, who came before us, and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after. There is no cause more urgent, no dedication more fitting than to protect the future of our species.The mid-term elections held earlier this week have reminded us that in order for us to survive as a species, and allow other species to survive, we must extinguish the anti-intellectualism – "a kind of celebration of ignorance", as Sagan put it – that has once again risen to the surface in our society. The only way we can do that is to educate ourselves, our children, and even more importantly, our leaders, so they can understand the issues facing us.
Sagan wrote presciently about a future that one could argue has come to pass...
I have a foreboding of an America...when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what's true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.We have been bamboozled by scientifically illiterate charlatans whose goal is not the health of the Earth or the human species, but the bottom line of their corporate sponsors.
Even though he's been gone more than two decades, we can still learn a lot from Dr. Sagan.