The notion of humans visiting other worlds beyond Earth has quite rapidly shifted from distant dream into near-future possibility. At the rate agencies like NASA and companies like SpaceX are moving, we might seriously see human boots touch the surface of Mars sometime in the next decade. Moreover, the plan isn’t simply to stop by the Red Planet for a short visit. When we finally get to Mars, we’re planning to stick around — permanently.
And that begs the question: How much are we looking to make Mars feel like home? The only habitat humans have ever known is Earth, and billions of years of evolution have fine-tuned our physiologies to its size, environment, atmosphere, and chemical and geological composition, among many other things. If humans really plan to make Mars into a second home, it would behoove the species to really think about how to transform the Red Planet into a second Blue Planet. That means terraforming Mars and turning it from a cold wasteland into a green, water-filled world.
Is this really the right way to go? In a new essay on Nautilus, Robert Sparrow, a philosophy professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, argues that we should leave Mars alone and drop any and all ideas about terraforming the red landscape. He’s not tackling this issue from a technical or scientific point of view. His reasons are ethical and aesthetic.
Sparrow leans heavily on the teachings of Aristotle, and his views on virtue ethics. “According to virtue ethics,” Sparrow writes, “what makes someone a good person is that they possess various virtues, such as kindness, courage, and wisdom. What makes someone a bad person is that they possess various vices, such as cruelty, cowardliness, and naivety.”
It’s perhaps a bit strange to see what this has to do with terraforming, but Sparrow gets to it soon enough, saying that terraforming Mars would not be a virtuous act, but rather a vicious one. The two major reasons are that terraforming would constitute an destruction of the natural beauty of Mars.
“A failure to respond appropriately to beauty is a vice because it makes living a characteristically human life impossible. One thing that distinguishes us from mere brutes is our appreciation of beauty. A person who can wander through the Grand Canyon without being appropriately moved by its beauty is missing something in their make up as well as in the world. Such a person will also struggle to realize characteristically human goods like the development of skills, such as artistic and musical skills, and relationships, such as love, that are premised on the recognition of aesthetic qualities. Only someone insensitive to beauty would not recognize the destruction of the Martian landscape as a tragedy.”
The other point Sparrow makes is that terraforming is a basically a manifestation of hubris, driven by by pride and arrogance that leads humans to believe we could — and should — transform planets as we see fit.
“If we think of our home as a place which nurtures us and in which we grow to maturity, then a case could be made that until we learn to treat our own planet better, any attempt to reshape another planet and call it our ‘home’ would be hubristic.”
Sparrow’s arguments are worth entertaining. Leaving Earth is bound to change the human species and affect human nature as whole. Yet, Sparrow’s arguments about ethics and aesthetics fail to take into account exactly why it is we are searching for another home for human beings. The fragility of our planet means we need a backup plan. Climate change is one existential threat, but there are a myriad of others as well. People like SpaceX CEO Elon Musk are banking on making Mars the second Earth that could allow the human species to live on.
Terraforming Mars, therefore, is a moral imperative. To ensure the survival of the human race, we’ll need to do everything we can to make sure the backup home for the species is in the best shape for colonists to thrive.
Moreover, it’s something of a moot point to expect that we can visit and live on Mars and leave it in a pristine state.
“By the decision to go to Mars and having human settlements on Mars, people have already made the decision that they’re going to, just by default, change things. There’s no other way around that,” former astronaut Mae Jemison told Inverse earlier this year. “As soon as you say we’re going to have settlements, whether you want to admit it or not, one has already said ‘I’m willing to change things.’ It’s not a happy answer, but I’m a realist.”
What Jemison means is that when we settle Mars, we’re going to be bringing plants, animals, and microbes that are essential for making day-to-day life work. Not to mention there will almost certainly be stowaway organisms that manage to hitch a ride to the Red Planet as well. All of these things will irrevocably alter Mars and make it more like Earth in a “terraform-lite” process. Actively thinking about terraforming Mars would at least allow humans to consider how to control the process and minimize the negative effects to the ecology and landscape, and allow Mars to retain spaces that preserve the natural beauty.
Sparrow is right about one thing: we need to make sure we’re not recklessly trudging off into an alien world and tearing things up without considering the consequences. That’s exactly how we’ve ended up with an Earth that feels increasingly like its teetering on the brink of cataclysm. But rejecting the terraformation of other worlds doesn’t save our ethics from crumbling. It just makes it more likely the human species won’t into the next millennium.