TCS Daily

Environmental Impact

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - May 22, 2002 12:00 AM

Last week I wrote about environmental issues growing out of human missions to Mars, and the obligation of the United States (and other space powers) under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty to prevent "harmful contamination" of Mars. But what about beneficial contamination?

Mars, as far as we can tell, is a dead world. Even if it turns out to host some forms of life, they are almost certain to be limited to bacteria, akin to the extremophiles that populate places like volcanoes, undersea thermal vents, and deep subsurface rock formations, and their distribution is likely to be similarly circumscribed. Algae would be big, big news.

But Mars needn't remain dead (or near-dead). For several decades people have been looking at "terraforming" Mars by giving it an earthlike - or at least more earthlike - climate. (For the technically inclined, there is a superb engineering textbook on the subject, Martyn Fogg's Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments, a thoroughly practical book published by the thoroughly practical SAE). In essence, the process would involve setting up factories that would produce artificial greenhouse gases (Bob Zubrin and Chris McKay suggest perfluoromethane (CF4)). In his recent book Entering Space, Zubrin notes:
If CF4 were produced and released on Mars at the same rate as chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases are currently being produced on Earth (about 1000 tonnes per hour), the average global temperature of the Red Planet would be increased by 10 degrees C within a few decades. This temperature rise would cause vast amounts of carbon dioxide to outgas from the regolith, which would warm the planet further, since CO2 is a greenhouse gas. The water vapor content of the atmosphere would vastly increase as a result, which would warm the planet still more. These effects could then be further amplified by releasing methanogenic and ammonia-creating bacteria into the now-livable environment, as methane and ammonia are very strong greenhouse gases. The net result of such a program could be the creation of a Mars with acceptable atmospheric pressure and temperature, and liquid water on its surface within fifty years of the start of the program.
The resultant atmosphere wouldn't be breathable by humans yet, but it would support crops, and allow people to walk around outside with no more than an oxygen mask in the years before a fully breathable atmosphere could be established.

Mars currently has a dry-land area approximating that of the Earth. A terraformed Mars would have a smaller dry-land area, of course, because it would have oceans, or at least seas. Nonetheless, we are talking about a huge new area for human settlement, and a way of spreading humanity, and other earth life, to new places, making the species, and human civilization, less vulnerable to natural or artificial calamity. We would also derive the protection from social, cultural, and political stagnation that a frontier provides.

Naturally, this will make some people unhappy. Though terraforming would not, in my opinion, violate the Outer Space Treaty - which prohibits only "harmful," not beneficial, contamination - there are sure to be vigorous objections raised from certain quarters of the environmental movement. Indeed, such objections have already appeared in a few scattered locations. The character of these objections is likely to reveal much about the environmental movement, or at least about those making them.

Objections to terraforming can be roughly categorized as follows: (1) The Peter Sellers objection ("now is not the time"); (2) The scientific objection; (3) The theological objection; and (4) The human-cancer objection.

The Peter Sellers objection is that terraforming efforts should not begin until we have extensive knowledge of the Martian geology and climate. Efforts that are begun too soon may not work as anticipated, and might conceivably interfere with better thought-out efforts later.

There is little to argue with here. Though of course experts may disagree as to when we know enough, and undoubtedly people opposed to terraforming on other grounds may for political reasons raise this objection rather than reveal their true motives, the basic principle is sound. Martian terraforming efforts should not go off half-cocked. The good news is that the need for a solid database on Martian climate and geology makes today's unmanned missions - which space settlement enthusiasts view as unexciting - quite valuable. We're simply not in a position to begin terraforming efforts on Mars now, but by advancing our knowledge of important factors we nonetheless hasten the day when it will take place. Think of the robotic probes visiting Mars as the latter-day equivalents of Lewis and Clark or Zebulon Pike.

The scientific objection may be viewed as a near-cousin of the Sellers objection. Once terraforming efforts begin in earnest, information about the primeval Mars will be lost. Scientists can thus be expected to protest that terraforming should not begin until all interesting data about Mars in its current state have been extracted. Unfortunately, that is a task that will never be entirely completed, meaning that we will have to weigh the value of additional scientific data (which is likely to be significant) against the value of an entire new world for settlement, which is likely to be colossal.

The theological objection involves no such tradeoffs, but rather an assertion that human beings simply are not meant to settle other planets - a variation on the old "if man were meant to fly he'd have wings," argument from the 19th Century. Variants of this argument, in keeping with strands of thought among today's quasi-religious Deep Ecology adherents, might say that the "pristine" character of an "unspoiled" Mars is of such enormous, even "sacred," value that no development - or perhaps even human exploration - should be permitted.

As the use of words like "unspoiled" and "pristine" suggests, this is fundamentally an aesthetic view masquerading as a religious one. (And, indeed, the world's major religions offer precious little support to such a view). One might plausibly prefer an empty, dead Mars over a living, vibrant one, just as one might plausibly prefer the Backstreet Boys to the Beatles. But, since such views are founded in taste, and de gustibus non disputandum est, such views do not lend themselves well to rational debate, nor are they likely to prove persuasive to those who do not already hold the predisposition to share them.

The human-cancer objection is essentially a stronger version of the theological objection: humanity is so awful, such a blight on the face of the Earth, that the last thing we should want to see is for people to spread everywhere else, carrying their nastiness with them and polluting everything they contact. (If you think I'm exaggerating, see this column by FoxNews space columnist Rand Simberg, who quotes extensively from emails he has received by the bushel expressing just such a view).

It is always a surprise to me that people who view humanity as a cancer somehow continue to live, and even to raise children, rather than committing the honorable suicide that self-diagnosis as a cancer cell would seem to call for, but the human mind is entirely capable of holding contradictory views as it operates. And this view does describe a certain part of the environmental movement: the part that seems to be motivated more by a view of human works as evil than by a desire to preserve nature.

I believe that it is this aspect of the environmental movement that will play the biggest role in opposing terraforming efforts, and that - by speaking out against the terraforming of a dead Mars, or even a Mars inhabited by bacteria and lichens - those people will be forced to show their true colors. After all, one may be motivated to protect a sequoia forest either by hatred of loggers or by love of trees. But when one opposes development of rocks and sand, it is pretty obviously not action in the cause of life. So pay attention to who denounces proposals for Martian terraforming as they begin to appear more frequently in mainstream discourse. It will not only be of interest in itself, but will tell you something about how you ought to view the denouncers' other positions.

NOTE: As evidence that these sorts of questions are spreading beyond the space and science-fiction communities, I should note that this piece is influenced by a paper written by Robert Pinson, a student in my Fall, 2001 Space Law seminar at the University of Tennessee College of Law, on the environmental law and ethics of terraforming. Pinson's paper has just been accepted for publication in the prestigious, and decidedly mainstream, Environmental Law Reporter, where it will appear in late August.


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