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We know that Earth That Was became difficult to live on, so humanity spread out to terraform and colonize other worlds. Was Earth TOTALLY abandoned, or is it just a difficult environment?

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There are a couple of canon descriptions of the ultimate fate of "Earth-That-Was", neither of them it must be admitted, from especially reliable sources

Earth That Was

The first is contained within the episode Our Mrs Reynolds. The original shooting script has a bit more detail than was contained in the episode;

"SAFFRON : That when she was born, she had no sky, and she was open, inviting and the stars would rush into her, through the skin of her, making the oceans boil with sensation, and when she could endure no more ecstasy, she puffed up her cheeks and blew out the sky, to womb her and keep them at bay, 'til she had rest some, and that we had to leave 'cause she was strong enough to suck them in once more."

The implication is clearly that the Earth's atmosphere became uninhabitable and may have been on the verge of being lost entirely.

The second canon reference is seen in the film "Serenity" and is from an even more dubious source, an Alliance teacher;

Teacher (Voiceover) : Earth-That-Was could no longer sustain our numbers, we were so many.

We see a solar system; a sun like our own, surrounded by many more planets than ours, they in turn surrounded by moons.

Teacher: (continuing) We found a new galaxy: dozens of planets and hundreds of moons. Each one terraformed - - a process taking decades - - to support human life, to be new Earths"

While she is speaking, we see the image above. The Earth appears to be in very bad shape. The atmosphere is visibly brown, the seas are almost black and the landmasses no longer seem to be capable of supporting vegetation. There is visible sea-level rise and there are columns of reddish clouds.

Although I'd bow to the judgement of an actual climate scientist (and taking into account that the Alliance teacher might simply be lying or the graphic faked), I find it hard to believe that an atmosphere with that much contamination could actually sustain human life.

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Overpopulation doesn't seem very far-fetched though. –  11684 Jan 23 at 20:27
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Why would overpopulation result in apocalyptic pollution? –  Richard Jan 23 at 20:39
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I actually assumed that when she says "new galaxy", she's referring to the multiplicity of worlds available, rather than literally a new galaxy. –  Richard Jan 23 at 20:43
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It is definitely not set in another galaxy; the central star is only supposed to be about 40 light years from Earth, the next nearest galaxy is something on the order of 25,000 light years away. –  Michael Edenfield Jan 24 at 0:22
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At the point that humanity is able to travel to another galaxy, it's entirely possible for humanity to ruin the atmosphere. Keep in mind that there are all kinds of things that might have ruined the atmosphere. "Could no longer support our numbers," is a generalization that may be glossing over all kinds of wars, terraforming attempts, failed global air-cleaning projects, industrial pollution, orbital industry, etc. Also, that's unrelated to my original question ;-) The fact that Earth-That-Was is (arguably) in a different galaxy from the setting for Firefly is the salient detail. –  Matt Feb 6 at 16:13
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I don't recall this being settled on-screen one way or the other.

On the one hand, it would be odd if Earth was completely abandoned because of environmental degradation. It is humanity's original home, after all. Even if people needed artificial environments to survive, you would expect a few people to hold on there. And if they can terraform other worlds, surely they could use the same technology to fix Earth's environment, even if it took a long time.

Then again, there is absolutely no mention of ongoing contact with Earth. If anyone was still there, you would expect them to be able to send radio signals back and forth. And they always refer to "Earth-That-Was", not "Earth-That-Is-Far-Away".

It could be that the school lesson we see at the beginning of the film Serenity was just sanitised Alliance propaganda, and the real reason for leaving Earth was more alarming. Perhaps the planet was made uninhabitable by out-of-control nanotechnology, a robot uprising, or the like. Or maybe the settlers in the Firefly universe were deliberately exiled as criminals, religious or political dissidents.

We can speculate but I don't think we really know.

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You could also allude to the theme song "burn the land and boil the sea, you can't take the sky from me" being a metaphor for the ruination of Earth that Was. –  JohnP Jan 24 at 14:52
    
Maybe Earth-That-Was is also the world of the Matrix? :-D Someone (not me) can start writing the crossover fanfic. –  Royal Canadian Bandit Jan 24 at 15:08
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What little knowledge of Earth That Was seems to be summed up here.

The important part being:

Creation myth
As told by Saffron to Wash:
"When she was born she had no sky. She was open, inviting, and the stars would rush into her, through the skin of her, making the oceans boil with sensation. When she could endure no more ecstasy, she puffed up her cheeks and blew out the sky."

There might be some apocryphal stuff from other sources like the RPG game.

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Whoa. Good legend. :-) But this just a poetic story told by Saffron in an attempt to seduce Wash. I don't think she or anyone else in the Firefly universe believes it to be fact. –  Royal Canadian Bandit Jan 23 at 16:21
    
@RoyalCanadianBandit Indeed (and well played). Still, we can imagine this sort of means Earth's atmosphere became unbreathable (if there was one at all). Or that there's the belief that it became thus. –  MPelletier Jan 23 at 16:24
    
In fact, I think she claims and (Wash? I thought it was Mal?) seems to confirm (or at least not dispute) that it's from the/a bible. It's also entirely possible that Yosafbrig completely made it up on the spot, purely for her own nefarious purposes. That being said, legends are often based in reality, so if it is a widely regarded legend in the known 'Verse, it may be because it's at least related to the way Earth-That-Is was "born" from Earth-That-Was. –  Matt Jan 23 at 16:28
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@Matt The one time she quotes the Verse bible to Mal (that I can remember) is when she's seducing him: "On the night of their betrothal, the wife shall open to the man as the furrow to the plow and he shall work in her, in and again, 'til she bring him to his fall and rest him then upon the sweat of her breast." To which Mal replies his famous "Woah. Good bible." –  MPelletier Jan 23 at 16:36
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@Matt The quote in the answer is probably a few seconds away from Wash being knocked unconscious, if I remember correctly. –  MPelletier Jan 23 at 16:38
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The only other relevant information I could recall from the show not already posted here pertains to the Lassiter, one of the first laser pistols built on Earth-That-Was. Saffron and Serenity's crew set out to steal it in the episode "Trash" (more info about the Lassiter and this episode here), and its previous owner is a renowned collector of ETW artifacts. There's some implication in this episode that artifacts like the Lassiter were passed down through generations and not recently recovered from ETW. However, this is just more speculation. To my memory, the crew encountered no empirical evidence of the fate of ETW.

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