Shortly before Harvey hit and made the conversation tragically relevant, Fatherly called up Leroy Chiao, a former NASA astronaut and father of ten-year-old twins who makes his home in Houston, to talk about the end of the world as we know it. In 2004, Chiao served as Commander of Expedition 10 on the International Space Station, spending a year orbiting this marvelous blue orb. Like many astronauts before him, Chiao felt the pull of the “Overview Effect,” a psychological phenomena that affects those who see Earth from above, contextualized in seemingly endless nothingness, prompting many to become environmentalists or advocates for conservation. However, unlike many astronauts, Chiao thinks the ultimate salvation of nature will come from the elimination of mankind. He believes the human world will end and he’s raising children in the context of that inevitability.
The fact that Chiao is a cheerful dude is a tribute to his intellectual and emotional fortitude.
As the storm bore down on Houston, and Chiao prepared his family to weather it, he spoke about growing a family during the end times and how being in space changed his outlook. Oh, and he weathered the storm just fine. Thanks for asking.
As you obviously see the world, what’s going in the world around us and you have two kids, do you look to space as somewhere we can all go if this whole planet thing goes to shit?
The problem with going to space or anywhere else other than the Earth is that you need to bring all your resources with you. Space is a tough place to retreat to. It is definitely easier to not mess up your own world, or at least figure out to how live in a world where things aren’t as good as it used to be than to colonize Mars.
Those of us with kids think about the future differently than those without. As an astronaut, you’ve been on the forefront of scientific exploration and the aspirational qualities of mankind in a way. I wonder from your perspective if you think the forces of aspirational mankind will outpace the destructive impulses of our species? Are we or are we not doomed?
Ultimately, humankind is doomed. The question is how quickly. We can talk about climate change, we can talk about this and that. The crux of the problem we have is overpopulation. You look at the world’s population back in the sixties and it was four billion. Now we are up to seven billion. It is projected that by the 2030s, it is going to be much much higher. It’s basically pretty straightforward geometric progression of overpopulation. I don’t see us being able to curb the population growth, which means we are going to run short of resources like clean water and food. Wars are going to be fought over those things.
All wars are fought over resources.
Right. How quickly are all those things going to be coming to a head? It’s hard to say. You have some prominent scientists from places like Stanford and a few other institutions that have predicted drastic shifts in the next hundred years. This is going down fast.
Did you know this ten years ago when you had kids?
I did not. My wife and I have been married 14 years now. I was late to the game getting married and having kids. All through my twenties and thirties I was a confirmed bachelor. It wasn’t until I was in my forties and something changed my mindset. I started to really want to get married and have a family.
You decided that you wanted to destroy mankind?
Well, I didn’t think about it until we already had kids.
If you had known, would you have kids again?
Yes. I think I would. I feel pretty good about being “responsible” in having replacement kids. We’re not contributing to the growth of the population in the long haul.
Well, how much time do we have?
I don’t know because I haven’t done any kind of research. 100 years feels like it’s too soon. But, I don’t know.
To me that’s terrifying. 1917 doesn’t seem that far away. I have two boys and to think they will have to fight at some point in the their life the way I never had to for survival is heartbreaking. And what’s worse is that for millions of other fathers whose families are suffering from famine, climate change, geopolitical instability, and war that dystopian reality is already here.
Correct. You know what? It is kind of interesting because of my experiences. Being in space and looking at the Earth, especially in my long mission, gave me perspective. The ability to go out and get that big picture look.
My view on life and the universe is that I believe there is intelligent life all over the universe. It is just that the distances are so vast we will never find each other. At some point, we are going to run out of resources. There’s going to come a time where there is no human life on Earth. That’s ok. That’s part of the natural process. You look at the whole universe, life is always starting somewhere and life is always ending somewhere.
I don’t really mourn the end of mankind. What does fill me with sadness is the suffering that will precede it.
I agree. The last thing any of us want is for our kids or grandkids to suffer. As you point out, even if it’s 100 years, it’s not going to be our kids. Which is a little comforting.
How has your perspective and expertise affected the way you are raising your kids?
I definitely want them to understand technical things. It’s not that I necessarily want them to become engineers or scientists. If you do understand science and engineering — and fortunately both of them really like science in their school — you understand how the world works. If you understand how physical processes work, it gives you a good base to make judgments about other things. I’m very grateful that I did have the education I have because it allows me to think about things we have been talking about through a scientific standpoint and not so much from an emotional knee jerk point of view.
How do you protect against nihilism?
That’s an interesting question. While I was in orbit, I had time to think about a lot of things. I’ve never been a particularly religious person and I’m still not, but when I was in space, I felt like there was some kind of order to the universe. I don’t by any means equate that to any organized religion or even the concept of a God. There’s just seems to be some kind of order to the universe. It just didn’t seem reasonable to me that everything is totally random. That gives me some kind of, I don’t know if comfort is the right word, but it gave me some kind of feeling. Maybe comfort is the closest word. That things are going to progress the way they are supposed to go. In other words, life will end one day on the Earth, hopefully it won’t be my kids’ generation. Hopefully it will be farther along than that. But life on planet Earth will end and maybe will start up again in few a billion years.
Basically what you are saying is what you realize is fundamentally there is no problem.
Fundamentally there is no problem. There is an order in the universe and things will go the way they are supposed to go. Life will end here one day and maybe will start up in a few billion years. One day our sun is going to turn into a red giant and swallow up the Earth and that will certainly be it for the Earth. In a way what gives me comfort is knowing we don’t understand everything about our universe. We probably understand so little it’s not even funny. So things will happen, life will end, and it’s going to be okay.