Should We Terraform?

terraform_debate
Science Fiction Meets Science Fact. ‘What are the real possibilities, as well as the potential ramifications, of transforming Mars?’ Terraform debaters left to right, Greg Bear , author of such books as "Moving Mars" and "Darwin’s Radio."; David Grinspoon , planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute; James Kasting , geoscientist at Pennsylvania State University; Christopher McKay , planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center.; Lisa Pratt , biogeochemist at Indiana University; Kim Stanley Robinson , author of the "Mars Trilogy" ("Red Mars," "Green Mars" and "Blue Mars"); John Rummel , planetary protection officer for NASA; moderator Donna Shirley , former manager of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

The Mars Terraforming Debate is co-sponsored by NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine, the SciFi Museum (Seattle), and Breakpoint Media.


Donna Shirley: Greg, what are the ethics of exploring Mars?

Greg Bear: You usually talk about ethics within your own social group. And if you define someone as being outside your social group, they’re also outside your ethical system, and that’s what’s caused so much trauma, as we seem to be unable to recognize people who look an awful lot like us as being human beings.

When we go to Mars, we’re actually dealing with a problem that’s outside the realm of ethics and more in the realm of enlightened self-interest. We have a number of reasons for preserving Mars as it is. If there’s life there, it’s evolved over the last several billion years, it’s got incredible solutions to incredible problems. If we just go there and willy-nilly ramp it up or tamp it down or try to remold it somehow, we’re going to lose that information. So that’s not to our best interest.

We were talking earlier about having a pharmaceutical expedition to Mars, not just that but a chemical expedition to Mars, people coming and looking for solutions to incredible problems that could occur here on Earth and finding them on Mars. That could generate income unforeseen.

If we talk about ethical issues on a larger scale of how are other beings in the universe going to regard how we treat Mars, that’s a question for Arthur C. Clarke to answer, I think. That’s been more his purview: the large, sometimes sympathetic eye staring at us and judging what we do.

We really have to look within our own goals and our own heart here. And that means we have to stick within our social group, which at this point includes the entire planet. If we decide that Mars is, in a sense, a fellow being, that the life on Mars, if we discover them – and I think that we will discover that Mars is alive – is worthy of protection, then we have to deal with our own variations in ethical judgment.

earth
"I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Why should we go to Mars, because look at what human beings have done to Earth.’" -David Grinspoon
Image Credit: NASA

The question is, if it’s an economic reality that Mars is extraordinarily valuable, will we do what we did in North America and Africa and South America and just go there and wreak havoc? And we have to control our baser interests, which is, as many of us have found out recently, very hard to do in this country. So we have a lot of problems to deal with here, internal problems. Because not everyone will agree on an ethical decision and that’s the real problem with making ethical decisions.

Donna Shirley: David, you want to comment on the ethics of terraforming Mars?


David Grinspoon:
Well, one comment I’ve heard about recently, partly in response to the fact that the president has recently proposed new human missions to Mars – of course, that’s not terraforming, but it is human activities on Mars – and I’ve heard a lot of people say, "Why should we go to Mars, because look at what human beings have done to Earth. Look at how badly we’re screwing it up. Look at the human role on Earth. Why should we take our presence and go screw up other places?"

It’s an interesting question, and it causes me to think about the ethics of the human role elsewhere. What are we doing in the solar system, what should we be doing? But, it’s very hard for me to give up on the idea. Maybe because I read too much science fiction when I was a kid, I do have, I have to admit, this utopian view of a long-term human future in space. I think that if we find life on Mars, the ethical question’s going to be much more complicated.

But in my view, I think we’re going to find that Mars does not have life. We may have fossils there. I think it’s the best place in the solar system to find fossils. Of course, I could be wrong about this and I’d love to be wrong about it, and that’s why we need to explore. If the methane observation is borne out, it would be, to me, the first sign that I really have to rethink this, that maybe there is something living there under the ice.

mars_ice
"If the methane observation is borne out, maybe there is something living there under the ice." -David Grinspoon
Image Credit: NASA

But let’s assume for a second that Mars really is dead, and we’ve explored Mars very carefully – and this is not a determination we’ll be able to make without a lot more exploration – but assuming it was, then what about this question. Should human beings go to Mars, because do we deserve to, given what we’ve done to Earth? And to me, the analogy is of a vacant lot versus planting a garden. If Mars is really dead, then to me it’s like a vacant lot, where we have the opportunity to plant a garden. I think, in the long run, that we should.

We’ve heard a lot different possible motivations, economic motivations, or curiosity, but I think ultimately the motivation should be out of love for life, and wanting there to be more life where there’s only death and desolation. And so I think that ethically, in the long run, if we really learn enough to say that Mars is dead, then the ethical imperative is to spread life and bring a dead world to life.

Donna Shirley: Jim, we can’t prove a negative, so how do we know if there’s life or not, if we keep looking and looking and looking. How long should we look? How would we make that decision?

James Kasting: I think Lisa put us on the right track initially. She’s studying subsurface life on Earth. If there’s life on Mars today, it’s subsurface. I think it’s deep subsurface, a kilometer or two down. So I think we do need humans on Mars, because we need them up there building big drilling rigs to drill down kilometers depth and do the type of exploration that Lisa and her group is doing on Earth here. I think that’s going to take not just decades, but probably a couple of centuries before we can really get a good feel for that.

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Lake Vostok.
Image Credit: NASA

Donna Shirley: Well, I know, John, at Lake Vostok, one of the big issues is, if we drill into it, our dirty drilling rigs are going to contaminate whatever’s down there. So how do we drill without worrying about contaminating something if it is there?

John Rummel: Well, you accept a little contamination probabilistically that you can allow operations and still try to prevent it. I mean, basically what we can do is try to prevent that which we don’t want to have happen. We can’t ever have a guarantee. The easiest way to prevent the contamination of Mars is to stay here in this room. Or someplace close by.

Greg Bear: That’s known as abstinence.

John Rummel: [laughs]. I also want to point out it’s not necessarily the case that the first thing you want to do on Mars, even if there’s no life, is to change it. We don’t know the advantages of the martian environment. It’s a little bit like the people who go to Arizona for their allergies and start planting crabgrass right off. They wonder why they get that. And it may be that Mars as it is has many benefits. I started working here at NASA Ames as a postdoc with Bob McElroy on controlled ecological life-support systems. There’s a lot we can do with martian environments inside before we move out to the environment of Mars and try to mess with it. So I would highly recommend that not only do we do a thorough job with robotic spacecraft on Mars, but we do a thorough job living inside and trying to figure out what kind of a puzzle Mars presents.

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The ALH Meteorite.
Image Credit: NASA/ Johnson Space Center

Donna Shirley: Stan, you dealt with this issue in your book with the Reds versus the Greens. What are some of the ethics of making decisions about terraforming Mars?

Kim Stanley Robinson: Ah, the Reds versus the Greens. This is a question in environmental ethics that has been completely obscured by this possibility of life on Mars.

After the Viking mission, and for about a decade or so, up to the findings of the ALH meteorite, where suddenly martian bacteria were postulated again, we thought of Mars as being a dead rock. And yet there were still people who were very offended at the idea of us going there and changing it, even though it was nothing but rock. So this was an interesting kind of limit case in environmental ethics, because this sense of what has standing. People of a certain class had standing, then all the people had standing, then the higher mammals had standing – in each case it’s sort of an evolutionary process where, in an ethical sense, more and more parts of life had standing, and need consideration and ethical treatment from us. They aren’t just there to be used.

When you get to rock, it seemed to me that there would be very few people (wanting to preserve it). And yet, when I talked about my project, when I was writing it, it was an instinctive thing, that Mars has its own, what environment ethicists would call, "intrinsic worth," even as a rock. It’s a pretty interesting position. And I had some sympathy for it, because I like rocky places myself. If somebody proposed irrigating and putting forests in Death Valley, I would think of this as a travesty. I have many favorite rockscapes, and a lot of people do.

So, back and forth between Red and Green, and one of the reasons I think that my book was so long was that it was just possible to imagine both sides of this argument for a very long time. And I never really did reconcile it in my own mind except that it seemed to me that Mars offered the solution itself. If you think of Mars as a dead rock and you think it has intrinsic worth, it should not be changed, then you look at the vertical scale of Mars and you think about terraforming, and there’s a 31-kilometer difference between the highest points on Mars and the lowest. I reckoned about 30 percent of the martian surface would stay well above an atmosphere that people could live in, in the lower elevations. So maybe you could have it both ways. I go back and forth on this teeter-totter. But of course now it’s a kind of an older teeter-totter because we have a different problem now.


Related Web Pages

Great Terraforming Debate: Part I
Great Terraforming Debate: Part II
Great Terraforming Debate: Part III
Great Terraforming Debate: Part IV
Great Terraforming Debate: Part V
Great Terraforming Debate: Part VI
Great Terraforming Debate: Part VII
Mars Exploration Rover Mission: Home
NASA Mars Exploration Program
The Great Debate Series

Astrobiology Magazine: Mars Articles