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Shaping the Future of the Earth: From Inside the Library of Congress

By Jason Steinhauer, Program Specialist, The John W. Kluge Center
reprinted from The Gazette, November 1, 2013

David Grinspoon this year led a seminar on the longevity of human civilization.

David Grinspoon this year led a seminar on the longevity of human civilization.
Photo by Shealah Craighead.

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David Grinspoon expected an office inside the Library of Congress to be a great opportunity to write and do research. How it would enable him to shape the debate on the future of our planet – that he did not anticipate.

“It’s been incredible. A dream come true. Unbelievable,” the outgoing Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology said recently, when asked about his yearlong residence at the John W. Kluge Center.

“The community of scholars at the Kluge Center has surprised me,” said Grinspoon, whose tenure ended Oct. 31. “You want to hide in your office and write, but in the center people are work­ing on fascinating projects that have unexpected synergies with yours.

“A scholar says, ‘Have you read this?’ and it turns out to be invaluable to your research. The contact with other scholars has been so stimulating and so fruitful.”

The Library collections and staff proved another surprise.

“The Library has everything a scholar could want,” Grinspoon said. “But the people who navigate that – they perform wizardry, digging things out that I didn’t know existed.”

Grinspoon cited as an example the philosophical writings of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Soviet rocket scientist and pioneer of astronautic theory – and an important source in Grinspoon’s research.

“Tsiolkovsky had writings related to how we would evolve and transcend Earth,” Grinspoon said. “But everyone I contacted said the writings were only in Russian. I mentioned this to Peg Clif­ton, one of the science librarians, and a week later English translations, books, pamphlets and theses started showing up in my office.

“I now have a half a shelf in my office of Tsiolkovsky philosophy in English. That seemed miraculous and encapsu­lates what’s so great about working here.”

Into the Anthropocene

Grinspoon’s research has been astro­biological investigation into the Anthro­pocene Era, the name given by some scientists to the current era in the Earth’s history wherein humans are the key driv­ers of geological and climatic change. It’s a controversial topic, involving issues of climate change, evolution and the future of human life on the planet.

Astrobiology, Grinspoon said, brings an important perspective to the debate.

“Astrobiology is the scientific study of life in the universe,” Grinspoon said. “Another way to say it is that astrobiol­ogy is about the relationship between life and planets. If you look at it that way, the Anthropocene is an interest­ing phase. It’s a fundamental change in the relationship between life and Earth. Life has always perturbed Earth, but are we now fundamentally transforming it? Studying the Anthropocene helps us answer what happens to complex life on planets, and what challenges life faces if it is to continue.”

The longevity of human life has been a central theme of discussion at the Kluge Center during Grinspoon’s tenure.

Meetings of Minds

Throughout the year, he invited scien­tists and scholars to the center to confer on the Anthropocene. As astrobiology chair, he lectured at the Library of Con­gress NASA headquarters, NASA God­dard Research Center, the Philosophical Society of Washington, the Carnegie Institute, the National Academy of Sci­ences and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

David Grinspoon and panelist Odile Madden of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute at the September symposium.

David Grinspoon and panelist Odile Madden of the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute at the September symposium. Photo by Shealah Craighead.

His research at the center was cited by the New Yorker Elements, New York Times DotEarth blog, Air & Space Smith­sonian Magazine, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Slate and Astrobiology magazine

And, on Sept.12, he convened scien­tists, scholars, science-fiction authors and journalists in a daylong symposium to discuss the longevity of human civi­lization. The event was attended by 150 people and live-tweeted more than 700 times around the world.

Grinspoon also met with U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

“It’s been enlightening,” Grinspoon said of the conversations. “I’m working on a perspective, not policy, which I think makes it easier to converse. I’m working on ideas about humanity and how we need to engage with our planet and fellow humans. We as scholars can engage in a less-threatening way on the big-picture questions facing members of Congress. I like to think that can per­colate down into the kinds of decisions policymakers have to make.”

Managing a Planet

The big-picture questions are where Grinspoon is turning his focus.
“We’ve entered a new era in the geo­logical evolution of the Earth,” he said. “We’re not just another species. Our presence is a significant perturbation, a fundamental change in the way the planet is operating. We’re managing this planet. But we don’t really know how to manage a planet.”

Grinspoon said it’s analogous to waking up and realizing you’re at the wheel of a truck you don’t know how to drive. “We better learn, or we’ll drive ourselves off the road,” he said.

His ideas include fostering more global decision-making and encouraging more long-term thinking. But he stressed he’s advocating a mindset, not policy.

“I’m trying to express an informed perspective on how the human race needs to see itself,” he said. “I’ve become more optimistic during this year. There’s a global community that is slowly evolv­ing that may bring us to be where we need to be. I’m eager to see where we go from here.”
And where does Grinspoon go from here?

“I want to keep doing space research and comparative climatology,” he said. “But the year here has made me more focused on Earth and how to solve our problems. I want to try to be helpful in a more direct way. I want to align space and planetary science to ensure human survival.”

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