Don’t Terraform Mars

Yesterday, Elon Musk unveiled SpaceX’s spectacular vision of interstellar space travel and the colonization of Mars. Their video, while dazzling, is scant on details (which as visions go, is fine), but it’s the detail at the very end of the video which leaves me unsettled: the terraforming of Mars.

I think terraforming Mars (the act of altering a planet’s climate to be similar to Earth’s, with breathable air and bodies of open water) would be a huge mistake. Yet if you look around much of the tech world, nobody is even questioning it.

SpaceX’s vision is suggesting, without displaying even a cursory amount of thought, that we should dramatically and irreversibly alter the fundamental climate dynamics on an entire other planet. Mars has plenty of water locked in ice, we just need to warm the planet up and bingo bango, we’ll have lots of liquid water to splash around in.

This is bad for two reasons:

First, we don’t yet have a very good track record of building an advanced technical civilization that doesn’t totally ruin the environment of a planet (e.g., Earth). I’m thrilled Elon Musk works on electric cars and solar cell technology. Both technologies are necessary for an environmentally friendly technological civilization, but neither are sufficient for one. We need much more: a strong fundamental indoctrination of environment respect and preservation, new systems of government and (crucially) education to help populations thrive in new frontiers. There’s probably a lot more I can’t even think of, which brings me to…

Second: hubris. It’s incomprehensibly hubristic to think terraforming another world is a mere technological detail to be glossed over and figured out later. We can build space-faring rockets, what’s so hard about radically overhauling a climate? The hard part isn’t so much the physical alteration of a planet (we’ve managed to do that quite well on Earth, and we didn’t have to think about it!), but how to think about altering a planet. We’re not enlightened enough to deal with that, yet.

I am in full support of exploration of our Solar system. I think it’s crucial to our learning as a species, as representatives of Earth. We stand to gain so much by exploring new worlds, like where we came from, like if we have siblings among the stars. And eventually, yes, I hope that we’re ready to one day thrive on new worlds, but we have so many questions to answer first.

While we do have some international law governing what nation states can do in space:

outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means

We don’t have much precedent for companies attempting to claim ownership of celestial bodies.

What makes us entitled to the rest of the solar system? Is it ours to do with it what we please? Is it our manifest destiny? To let our capitalism, which has thus far ravaged our home planet, extend endlessly into the vastness of space, pillaging ever more worlds?

As usual, Carl Sagan implores us:

What shall we do with Mars?

There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing this question chills me. If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if the Martians are only microbes. The existence of an independent biology on a nearby planet is a treasure beyond assessing, and the preservation of that life must, I think, supersede any other possible use of Mars.

I don’t have answers to these questions, but we desperately need to explore them before we start fucking up other planets. They are not a technical detail to be figured out later, they are among the most important questions our species will ever ask.

Further reading:

Speed of Light