August 20, 2009

XKCD's Asteroid

Here. First pane: an asteroid heads toward Earth. Second pane: NASA dispatches a spacecraft to nuke it. Third pane: jubilation at NASA as the spacecraft lands successfully. Fourth panel: standing between a blooming flower and the spacecraft, a humanoid inhabitant of the asteroid watches as the countdown concludes.

My, isn't that intelligent, sensitive, caring and ethical? And, unspoken but above all, superior.

Let's assume the inhabitants of the asteroid are more or less like us. They aren't evil invaders, and they aren't gentle benevolent sages. And let's assume that our only recourse is to blow the asteroid up.

What would the enlightened cartoonists at XKCD have us do? If we had the ruthlessness to kill to survive, would they condemn us or would they decline to do so?
I view the situation as a potential metaphor for our civilization. Note also that, in the cartoon, the alternative to blowing up the asteroid is letting it crash into our planet, annihilating life on both. That, too, may be a metaphor for the predicament into which our civilization is heading. Hopefully not, but I'm not ruling it out.

The truly challenging dilemma is a them-or-us scenario in which only one civilization must destroy the other in order to survive. XKCD doesn't even try to examine that. Too traumatic for their delicate sensibilities?

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