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Ethics of Terraforming

written by Alex Moore on July 29, 2001 | author profile | forum profile | contact me
number of views: 74774 |   printable version (text) (PDF)

Credit: Don Dixon
Ted sat in the back seat of his Mars Trans-Rover, the official name for his 25 million dollar vehicle made by BMW back on Earth. More of a coffin, he thought. The seats were stiff and they hurt his neck as the car bumped along at a slow but steady 25 miles an hour. Looking out his window he watched as the flatlands of Isidis Planitia spread out before him. He was on his way to a conference at Alpha Colony, where the leaders of Earth and Mars were meeting to discuss the future of the Red Planet. This will be the day, he thought proudly, reaching for his prepared speech. They're going to terraform Mars.

A big decision to say the least, but a no-brainer. With a few Mars Activists scattered across both worlds spreading their views of a "red Mars forever", living in harmony with Martian life, it would be an easy victory. They posed little threat to terraformers, having no real basis in science. If we could just terraform Mars, he thought, what could stop us from spreading to the stars!

In his dreaming he just missed hitting the large group of people standing in front of him. He slammed on the breaks. Literally hundreds of activists in Mars suits stood before him, carrying signs reading "Save Mars!", "Keep it Red!". He laughed nervously and turned on the common band of his radio. Hundreds of voices suddenly filled the air with their cries. A few began to pound on the thin walls of his car, and soon more people swarmed around the vehicle and began to rock it from side to side. Ted felt his heart pound thunderously in his chest and jumped out of his seat. "Get off! Get off! I'm on my way to the conference at Alpha! You're messing with International property, I'll have you all arrested! Leave now!" He heard the sound of a drill outside and felt the air pressure in the cabin begin to drop radically. He began to have trouble breathing and screamed in terror.

Another voice cackled on the radio, noticeably louder and calmer than the others. Ted fell to the floor gasping for his last breath as the cabin was ripped wide open. "You are messing with Martian property. You leave now."

While the situation described above is unreal, I just want to point out one thing. As a terraforming supporter myself, I underestimate the large group of people who are already opposed to terraforming. Whenever the day comes, probably more people will be against it rather than for it. With that in mind...

Terraforming is a huge undertaking. When we speak of terraforming we speak of completely changing an entire planet's climate, geology, and life. We speak of destroying land masses and geological features billions of years old, of raising the global temperature tens of degrees, and flooding the surface with huge oceans. We speak of releasing thousands of species from another planet to live and breed, changing Mars' atmospheric composition with every breath. As impossible as this all might sound, scientists are sure it can be done. Ironically, it seems that the only thing holding us back from terraforming is man himself.

Ever since terraforming was envisioned decades ago, people began to ask if it was ethical. Changing an entire planet to fit our needs seemed like a religious power that didn't belong in the hands of man. Science has evolved since then and with it, changes in bioengineering. Man is now "playing God" to an extent that even science fiction couldn't account for. But have our minds really changed? We read in the morning news or watch on television nearly everyday about a group of environmental activists lobbying for conservation of natural resources or protection of the national parks. The vast majority of people believe that the environment deserves our immediate attention, and in larger numbers than years ago.

On Mars it will be no different. There will be those pro-terraforming and those against it. There will be extremists and neutralists. In Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, the sides are designated by colors. "Greens", or terraforming supporters, are in constant conflict with the "Reds". They believe that only one side can triumph; compromise is not an option. Fierce civil wars are fought over the issue of terraforming and millions of people lose their lives.

I believe that things do not have to be black and white. Throughout history there were peace keepers and negotiators. Some of the greatest men and women of our time are people like these. They side-stepped war and compromised to reach a common goal for everyone.

We could heat the planet partially, leaving the greater elevations of Mars untouched for centuries to come. Some have suggested building great domes over craters and terraforming just these regions. This is definitely a cost unfriendly solution, but a compromise. Another idea is to build the same domes over craters and leave those areas untouched. Like nature reserves here on Earth, these domes would be windows into the past and could offer scientists and observers of the future an unscathed window into the past. I believe this idea will surface as the most viable and cost efficient while pleasing both groups.

What are the activists fighting for? What are the terraformers' long term goals? Before we begin terraforming, we must ask ourselves what it is we are looking to accomplish.

From a "Red" point of view, the possibility of life on Mars is extremely likely. No matter what shape or form this life may be in, it deserves the proper research, study, and respect. If we were to destroy life there by terraforming, we would never be able to understand how life developed in the solar system. Study of living Martian life would offer clues to how we developed on Earth and would expand the definition of life beyond its current restrictions. Mars has been untouched for billions of years. The surface of Mars is a time capsule, back to the days before the Earth even contained life. We could discover how the solar system became what it is today and what it could still become.

The terraformers would disagree. One of a hundred things could happen that would make Earth uninhabitable at any moment, and our only sanctuary would be a terraformed Mars. An asteroid collision, volcano eruption, overpopulation explosion, natural resource depletion, ozone layer depletion, nuclear or biological warfare... just a few of the things that could happen leaving the human race with no way out. The survival of the human race is more important than preserving a planet. We must expand from Earth and begin terraforming as soon as possible. We must not put science at a stand-still while we wait for a few laboratory tests to be done on some microscopic life.

If Mars really was once a warm and hospitable planet, terraformers believe that we can restore the planet back to its original state. By doing that, we'd be bringing back to life a world that once flourished with it. And that is, by all means, ethical.

I agree with both views. I would like to study any life that may be on Mars and appreciate the geological knowledge that Mars holds under its surface. I would like to terraform if for no other reason than to expand our presence in the solar system and to the stars. I believe that unless the consumption of resources on Earth is reduced, the planet will no longer be able to support our growing demand. We must learn to develop alternative methods of obtaining energy. Then, I think we will be able to begin terraforming Mars in a reasonable and responsible way.

Works Cited:

3) Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson

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