Ethics and the Conquest of Mars

Post by Nic Quattromani:

I was browsing the internet today, as I do entirely too often, and I came across this gem of an article:

By “gem,” I mean “whiny dumpster fire.” Sheesh. Though perhaps I’m not being charitable enough, because the author, Zahaan Bharmal, is at least hesitantly in favor of space colonization, and he ends with the unassertive conclusion that “We should use this time carefully to make sure that, by the time we can go to Mars, we really should.”

Reminds me of Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Yeah, no. If the Jurassic Park folks had invested just a bit more into security systems, recreating dinosaurs would have turned out just fine. There’s no grand ethical pronouncement against playing God with extinct organisms—and even if there were, grand ethical pronouncements can be pretty tiresome sometimes.

Jurassic Park aside, Bharmal’s article brings up three of the usual complaints: we shouldn’t contaminate Mars, we should send robots instead, and we should solve our problems on Earth first. I won’t linger on these because I’m sure all of you have heard and dismissed them before. Here are some quick rebuttals, before I move on:

  1. Contamination. Frankly, I don’t give a damn about Mars microbes in and of themselves. Ideally we would scout out the planet with robots, learn about the workings of the local biosphere for the sake of our curiosity, and then pave over that biosphere to build our own. It’s a case of the ethical “do no harm” paradigm butting heads with the weight of missed opportunities. Sure, you could keep some single-celled organisms alive and undisturbed, or you could have a whole new planet on which to play out new lives, technologies, and discoveries. Which is more inspiring?
  2. Robots. For exploration, robots are in fact better for most but not necessarily all applications. Colonization, though, requires actual human or post-human populations to settle a place. I am actually somewhat conflicted on the matter—as a human, I support the project of my species to overspread and possess the whole of the galaxy which Providence has given us (minus whatever other sentients claim first), but I’m also aware that AIs and genetically engineered posthumans and whatnot could do the job of overspreading and possessing much more effectively. In biological terms we aren’t at all suited for space travel—I will discuss this in a future post.
  3. Problems on Earth. There’s poverty and starvation across the developing world, and of course we face the imminent catastrophe of climate change. Those are all real and pressing concerns. I believe that humanity currently has the resources to tackle challenges all across the board, especially considering that colonizing Mars will yield technologies vital to fixing our planet, and vice versa (vertical farms, lab-grown meat, high-efficiency solar cells, and innovative thermal systems are no less useful here than they are in space). If we’re going to cut out aspects of our civilization we should start with frivolous things like warfare or televised sports or gambling before we cut spending on space travel. Only in the worst case, if climate change causes disasters all around the globe and the survival of humanity comes under threat, should Mars plans be put on hold until the resolution of the crisis.

Point one worries me the most. All it takes is for some Washington lawmakers to pass a draconian planetary protection bill, and Elon Musk’s schemes are dead in the water (though it won’t stop China. The People’s Republic of China doesn’t give a damn). If certain environmentalists have their way, Mars colonization might be halted for all time due to the slightest possibility of life. Finding real, living creatures there would make the threat even greater.

When we go to Mars, I hope we never see this. Image is public domain.

Here’s an amusing idea I’ve played with: suppose that, sometime in the next couple decades, a billionaire launches a mysterious spacecraft towards Mars using his own private funds. Upon arrival the spacecraft lands safely and then releases an aerosol into the Martian winds, which scatter it far and wide across the planet. Within each droplet are millions of extremophile Earth microbes specifically chosen to thrive in cold and harsh environments. Thus, in one fell swoop Mars is contaminated utterly and irreversibly, and any native biosphere is crowded out to extinction. Any arguments against forestalling colonization to protect local lifeforms are rendered moot. With political obstacles smashed to pieces, the first colony ships soon launch.

Note that AJ Rise, my co-writer on this blog, is a big astrobiology enthusiast, and he will take issue with some of what I just said. Don’t tell him I posted this!

Now, deliberately extinguishing all native Martian life would of course be a major loss to science, to the economy (if the local biota were somehow useful), and maybe to certain aesthetic considerations surrounding biodiversity (let it be clear that nothing else matters—microbes cannot feel pain or value their own existence, so getting rid of them is much like breaking up a scientifically interesting rock).  But if the microbes stand in the way of human development of Mars into an adjunct of terrestrial civilization, the microbes must go.

We could have had this in the 1990s, if we’d elected politicians with some backbone. Image is in the public domain.

So many things could be justified in the pursuit of expanding our civilization into the cosmos. I see a future written across the surfaces of Earth, Mars, Venus, Titan, and other worlds beyond, and it is glorious. Why should we shy away from this future? Why engage in hand-wringing over ethics, when such a wonderful vision hovers on the horizon, beckoning us forward?

That’s why so many anti-progress and anti-space viewpoints fall flat in my eyes. They aren’t inspiring, and they don’t have drive. They’re passive, not active. They don’t recognize that the radiant future won’t come to us if we sit around chastising ourselves—we have to roll up our sleeves, go out there, and build it.



2 thoughts on “Ethics and the Conquest of Mars

Add yours

  1. Not a big fan about holding off colonization over microcrobes but for our own sake, we ought to study them first. The scientific value is immense and while “Andromeda Strain” is unlikely, never hurts to be sure. The “let’s solve our Earth problems first” is another way of saying “never”.

    That said, there are scientific bases and there is colonization. Base sounds good. Colonization seems premature. If you are going to put people on some place other than Earth, there may be better choices. If you ultimately want to terraform Mars, time frames for that are probably immense, assuming the materials on Mars even exist. An atmosphere that protects against radiation and provides Earthling suitable pressure is challenging enough. A breathable one? It took at least 100s of millions of years to soak up all the oxygen sinks on Earth. Maybe there is a faster path but maybe there isn’t.

    Colonization costs will be in the multiple trillions, even with just habitats of some sort. I don’t see any capacity or willingness to fund that. Plus we’ve all seen the Mars revolts movies and books: they are just going to revolt after we spend all those trillions 🙂


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