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It's hard to assess the sustainability of our civilization when climate scientists and ecologists have nothing to compare ourselves to. Which is why we need to learn from the success — and potential failures — of distant alien civilizations.

It's an open question as to whether or not climate change poses an existential risk to the human species, but it's not looking good. We are poised to enter into the Anthropocene Era — an epoch in which our species becomes a powerful force of nature unto itself. Regrettably, we appear to be a force that's imposing more environmental harm than good.

Detrimental changes to the planetary system include the depletion of natural fisheries, the loss of freshwater and rain forest habitat, and the continuing acidification of the oceans. Frighteningly, ongoing climate change could result in problematic disruptions to ocean currents, leading to superstorms and megadroughts. Worse, there's the potential for atmospheric feedbacks to occur and the onset of a runaway greenhouse effect.

Taken together, it could all trigger the collapse of human civilization. Trouble is, we're not entire sure how to resolve the situation. Some call for international treaties, while others say industrial and technological development should continue apace.

But what if we could study other civilizations — alien civilizations — who have already dealt with these problems? This is the proposal of two astrophysicists who say such questions could be answered by studying emerging data about Earth and other planets in our galaxy — and by combining the earth-based science of sustainability with the space-oriented field of astrobiology.

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