Terraforming Earth Pt. 4: Nowhere to go but up

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Our efforts to intentionally alter our home planet have been unpredictable at best. Can we terraform other planets without making the same mistakes? Should we?

Current plans to terraform another planet generally involve Mars. There are other terraforming targets in our solar system (certain Jovian moons, for instance), but Mars is more conveniently located. So if we're going to transform a barren planet into a thriving Eden where humans can hang out, Mars it is.


The particulars of how we'd terraform Mars are mostly well-known: pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, thickening it and warming the planet, thus releasing frozen water with which to grow plants that would in turn oxygenate the atmosphere. Wait 1,000 years, add colonists, sit back and enjoy.


It's telling though, that under this plan, the very first thing humans would ever build on another planet would be a factory. Better still, in some scenarios it would be a factory that doesn't actually produce anything. It would just grind up chunks of the Martian landscape and churn out carbon monoxide. A factory that makes nothing but pollution. That's like a space program based on some kind of grotesque Gilliamesque satire.

When I first started writing this series of articles, I had the more or less default position on terraforming Mars that people who like science, science-fiction and futurism hold: of course we should terraform it, it's just a barren rock. Bringing lush, green life to such a place can only be a good thing. Now, I'm not so sure.


It turns out this reticence toward transforming another planet is not uncommon. Terrestrial environmentalism holds that we have no inherent right to go to Mars or anywhere else and start mucking around. Even if there are no Martian microbes to be disturbed, and even if many people see no intrinsic value in that red desert, this school of thought suggests it is not our place to write all over the solar system's blank pages. And if all that sounds like a little too much hippie dippie bullshit for you to swallow, let me put it to you this way: do you want to be the first human who violates the Prime Directive?


At the other end of the spectrum you'll find people like Bob Zubrin, co-founder of the Mars Society. At the group's 1998 founding convention, Zubrin spoke of terraforming Mars in terms of Manifest Destiny, and that it was specifically the western world that should do it, since, "this is the only system of values that has created a society worth living in." I'm not going to weigh in on the merit of that statement other than to suggest that it is probably open to debate.

In the middle is a more utilitarian point of view: preserve what is worth preserving, make the rest as good as it can be. Who makes that judgment? The only beings we've met thus far capable of making it at all: humans. Will we make mistakes? Certainly. Will some things be irrevocably changed for the worse? If the past is any guide, yes. In the end, the benefits of progress, carefully weighed, outrace the costs and losses.


This is probably the kind of late-night college coffee shop discussion that can never be truly resolved. How will governments ever make these kinds of decisions? Probably they won't, considering the cost and lengthy waiting period before the profits start rolling in. If it ever somehow becomes economically feasible in the short term to terraform Mars, I have no doubt that it will happen. I personally can't help but thrill to the vision of a shining green gem of a planet, transformed by the ingenuity and perseverance of humanity into a second home, maybe even a second chance.

But then I imagine the strip mines. Or worse, the strip malls.

Read the rest of the articles in this series on Terraforming Earth.


Grinspoon, David. "Is Mars Ours?" Slate, Jan. 8, 2004.

McKnight, John Carter. "The Intrinsic Rights Of Martian Bugs." Space Daily, Aug. 1, 2003.