by Paul York
York is an information systems architect. He has an MA
in philosophy and is working on a PhD on the ethics of
terraforming, at the University of Queensland,
Terraforming is the artificial transformation of other
planets into places suitable for human habitation.
A good thing, surely?
Paul York argues
that terraforming isn't as ethically straightforward as you might
"Terraforming is a
process of planetary engineering, specifically directed at
enhancing the capacity of an extraterrestrial planetary
environment to support life.
The ultimate in
terraforming would be to create an uncontained planetary
biosphere emulating all the functions of the biosphere of the
Earth - one that would be fully habitable for human beings".
Terraforming, 1995, pp.89-90).
essentially 'eco-engineering' on a planetary scale.
One takes, for example,
a 'dead', airless, dry, frigid, planet like
Mars and takes steps to generate and retain a breathable
atmosphere, produce liquid water, and raise the temperature to an
Plants can then be grown,
animals and human beings will be able to live there and eventually
the planet will become self-sufficient with its own habitations and
In practical terms, terraforming Mars would involve at least the
melting of the Martian polar caps and/or the permafrost to
produce liquid water and gaseous carbon dioxide, in the
process increasing the surface temperature of the planet
production of gases to raise atmospheric pressure and
temperature and to protect introduced life forms from UV
By any standards, this
would be a massive undertaking, greater by many orders of magnitude
than any engineering effort ever undertaken by human beings.
One particular approach to terraforming Mars, known as the
Runaway Greenhouse Effect, is
described by Martyn Fogg (1995, p.5) as,
climatic instability caused by the release of greenhouse gases
(e.g. water vapor and CO2) from artificially heated
surface reservoirs into a planetary atmosphere.
This heats the
planetary surface, releasing more gas and so on until the
climate 'runs away' in a positive feedback cycle to some stable,
This approach raises a
number of interesting points.
methods employed for releasing greenhouse gases from the
Martian crust will depend on the quantity of gases locked in
or near the surface and also on the manner of their chemical
combination with or storage in the rocks of the crust.
whilst it may be possible to release water vapor and gases
from surface rocks and permafrost through the direct
application of heat focused by huge solar mirrors positioned
nearby in space, it may be necessary to detonate nuclear
devices to directly release water stored in underground
aquifers or to generate sufficient heat to release water
from the permafrost.
terraforming approaches may be more acceptable than others.
'stable, high-temperature regime' referred to had better not
just be any old regime.
For the planet to
be habitable, the mean surface temperature of Mars would
need to be raised from around -56ºC and then stabilized
within some fairly narrow band around 15ºC, which is the
mean surface temperature of the Earth.
this kind are not lightly called 'runaway', as the mean
surface temperature of Venus is of the order of 460ºC, a
situation widely thought to be due to natural greenhouse
desired temperature target would not necessarily be a
It does rather...
In fact, the very first
mention of terraforming was in a story called 'Collision
Orbit' by Jack Williamson (using the pseudonym
Will Stewart), published in the July 1942 issue of Astounding
Science Fiction magazine.
However, terraforming is
potentially more real than you might think…
We currently have the technology to launch astronauts to Mars and
return them safely to Earth. It would appear that we also have the
technology and the capacity to establish a permanent, manned
scientific base on Mars.
Indeed, in 1989 on the 20th
anniversary of Apollo 11, then-President George Bush announced the
Space Exploration Initiative or
SEI, calling it,
"a new vision for
America in the 21st century - a vision that will
return us to the Moon to stay, and onwards to Mars by 2019."
NASA has since cancelled
the SEI, in response to political and funding pressures, and now the
immediate priorities of the Agency are to complete the
International Space Station and to develop next-generation
current priorities are clearly steppingstones along the way to a
manned Mars mission, a mission that could be re-activated at any
time, for example as a means of re-focusing the attention of the
American people (in the wake of September 11) on something other
than the threat of terrorism, and giving them a renewed sense of
purpose in an insecure world.
Many of the supporters of a Mars manned mission see it as a natural
precursor to a permanent human presence on the planet.
Indeed, there is a strong
view that Mars can legitimately be seen as a potential new home for
human kind - a new frontier, and that it is a natural step in human
history and achievement that the planet Mars be colonized (Zubrin,
For settlement to occur
on any significant scale, it is likely that Mars would need to be
While at first sight it might seem as though human beings ought to
be able to do whatever they like with a 'dead' planet, I will argue
that it is by no means a straightforward ethical matter, and may
even be morally wrong - a massive act of vandalism, in fact.
OK, So What's Wrong
Most people would probably think there is nothing wrong with
terraforming, and they are in good company, as lots of philosophers
would agree with them.
The commonsense view is
that terraforming an extraterrestrial planet would be a perfectly
ethical thing to do, social and economic considerations permitting.
This is actually in complete accord with our orthodox ethical
framework. A widespread view among ethicists today is that the moral
community consists of rational 'moral agents' (persons) and 'moral
patients', those members of the moral community who can be affected
by moral agents.
Note that people can be
both moral agents and moral patients simultaneously. Ethics seeks to
clarify the sorts of actions that are permissible, obligatory, or
prohibited on the part of moral agents.
For a long time, the set of moral patients was coextensive with the
set of moral agents (persons).
More recently, there has
been an expansion of the moral community to acknowledge the 'moral
considerability' of other entities beside persons:
animals, then all sentient beings, and then (according to some
philosophers, at least) all living things.
Note that in this
expanded moral community, persons are still the only moral agents.
There are three things to notice about this framework:
firstly, if you
are a member of the moral community, then you are considered
in the process of ethical decision-making according to your
secondly, if you
are not part of the moral community, then you are simply not
considered in the process of ethical decision-making
overwhelming majority of entities in the universe are not,
in fact, regarded as part of the moral community - they are
not 'morally considerable'
Mountains, rivers, rocks,
planets, stars, galaxies and all manner of artifacts are excluded.
Only if they are
implicated in some biota (a biota is a habitat for life such as a
river or a coral reef) are they regarded as morally significant,
because of their instrumental value in supporting life.
In particular, this means
that Mars (being 'lifeless'...)
is not regarded as being 'morally considerable', and so, according
to our orthodox ethical framework, there would be nothing wrong with
We have been able to get by with such an impoverished ethical
framework because, as Christopher McKay (1990, p.186) says,
up until now,
"virtually all of the
serious considerations of environmental ethics have been
embedded within the context of the Earth…" with its
The recognized global
interconnection of life through the biogeochemical cycles
prevents one from rigorously treating any single object or
collection of inanimate objects independently from the
Thus the extension of
rights from life to 'mere things' may have no practical
implications on Earth.
(McKay, 1990, p.195)
In other words, because
virtually all non-biological entities on Earth are implicated in the
biota somehow, we simply have never had to consider their value
apart from their biological supporting role.
The implications are
there may after all be intrinsic, non-instrumental value in
non-biological entities once we learn to see it
secondly, that in
extraterrestrial environments at least, we may soon have to
begin to acknowledge this
If such entities are to
receive their due, they will need to be included in the moral
In fact, very few philosophers have been prepared to take this
additional step and include non-living entities in the moral
community, but this is precisely what I wish to do in pursuit of a 'cosmocentric
ethics' - an ethics that regards all entities as being morally
considerable, though not necessarily of equal moral significance.
The 'commonsense' view
has a very long history, going back at least as far as Genesis
man in his own image… and God said … 'fill the earth and
subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the
birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the
It is but a small step
from here to the egregious view that humankind is the legitimate
master (or God's steward) of the entire universe.
One argument often used in favor of terraforming is that we should
settle another planet (Mars) so that human civilization has a backup
planet in case something should happen to the Earth.
There are three common
Humanity ruins or
pollutes the Earth so that it is no longer habitable.
Response: I suggest that any species that wrecks its
home environment would also be a very poor long-term
proposition for any new home planet.
Should we settle
Mars soon, two things could well happen.
having a second home on Mars may effectively remove
any incentive for solving Earth's problems - we can
always pollute the Earth, secure in the knowledge
that there is an alternative home, should Earth
since we have not yet learned how to manage the
Earth, there is a good chance that Mars could end up
ruined as well.
destroyed through no fault of ours, for example, as a result
of a major meteorite strike like the one that apparently
wiped out the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago.
Response: Whilst a reasonable argument at first
glance, I suspect that other measures to future-proof the
human race against such an eventuality (for example by
constructing a few self-sustaining, underground colonies on
Earth, or by taking steps to detect and deal with
incoming meteors) would be
orders of magnitude less expensive than colonizing Mars.
Indeed, a number
of projects of this kind - for example, NASA's Near-Earth
Asteroid Tracking (NEAT) program - are already in place.
becomes uninhabitable in the natural course of things, as
the Sun evolves into a red giant, expanding in diameter out
towards the Earth's orbit, making the Earth too hot to
support life (eventually the oceans will boil) and possibly
burning it to a cinder.
Response: Consider the timeframes involved.
The Sun is likely
to remain stable for another five billion years
before it begins to seriously 'misbehave'. By contrast Homo
sapiens has occupied the Earth for 'only' 100,000 years or
so - this is only 1/10,000th of the Earth's remaining
Clearly, we have
time on our side and there is absolutely no need to rush to
Mars - some scenarios require as little as 600 years to
achieve a limited habitable environment.
So, these arguments aren't very convincing.
The real motivation for
terraforming, I suspect, is more likely to be along the lines of the
following quote from the chief engineer of Lockheed Martin,
Robert Zubrin (1996, p.248-9):
Mars may someday
provide a home for a dynamic new branch of human civilization, a
new frontier, whose settlement and growth will provide an engine
of progress for all of humanity for generations to come.
Zubrin is clearly
extolling the virtues of pioneering, development, and economic
growth, a set of values that is deeply implicated in the Earth's
current environmental problems.
Later in his book, he
makes no secret of where he stands:
"I would say that
failure to terraform Mars constitutes failure to live up to our
human nature and a betrayal of our responsibility as members of
the community of life itself".
Why I Think
Terraforming is Ethically Questionable…
Mars, the Red Planet, is a beautiful and interesting place in its
It has magnificent
Marineris is longer than any canyon on Earth) and soaring
extinct volcanoes (Olympus
Mons is 26 kilometers high), together with
beautifully-sculpted white polar caps containing frozen water and
carbon dioxide, and a great variety of cratered and
Mars has seasons and its
own weather system:
high white clouds,
ground mists and frosts, and planet-wide dust storms that last
Terraforming would, of
necessity, change or destroy much of this.
Although Mars harbors "no life forms of 'any kind'," as far
as we know, it has significant
intrinsic value - a value that exists irrespective of any value that
humanity may place on it.
Most philosophers would disagree, saying that whilst human beings
have intrinsic value, almost everything else (animals, plants,
insects, geological formations, rocks, ecosystems, the planet Mars)
only has whatever value is placed on it by human beings - in other
words, extrinsic value.
For example, a human
being might regard a particular thing as having value because it
performs some useful function, say a rock that acts as a paperweight
(instrumental value) - such entities have no value of their own.
In the mainstream view,
if a thing is not of value to some person, then it has no value at
J.B. Callicott (1986, p.142) draws a useful distinction
between the source and the locus of values.
So whilst humanity may be
the source of all values, it is not necessarily the locus of all
values, especially that value which resides in the thing itself, of
which particular valuations (by people) merely reflect different
perceptions of the thing (and its intrinsic value):
"intrinsic values are
not imposed by human beings; they merely involve human
recognition of value".
(Marshall, 1993, p.233)
Some thinkers argue that
we should widen the moral community by including entities other than
human beings, for example the 'higher' animals, sentient beings,
living things or perhaps even ecosystems.
Sometimes the rationale
is that these other entities have intrinsic value; at other times it
is argued that these entities deserve inclusion because they are
capable of being harmed or benefited by moral agents, or that they
have instrumental value in supporting life (for example, a coral
Keekok Lee (1994, p.92) argues that we should go further
still, beyond the biocentric view, and,
"develop a conception
of intrinsic value which is not necessarily tied up solely with
the fate of biotic Nature … [and] confront the issue of abiotic
or inanimate nature as a locus of intrinsic value".
His approach is to start
by constructing an 'intrinsic value ethics' for the Earth (with a
view to later extending it to Mars) based on the following
did not come into existence (or continue to exist) for the
benefit of human beings.
although human beings find much of non-biological Nature
useful, it doesn't follow that Nature exists for humanity.
Expanding on this, he
points out that:
the genesis of
the Earth is independent of the arrival of humans
Earth and its
biota would not be extinguished if humanity were to become
of the biota as a systemic whole would be independent of
Earth and its
biosphere are autonomous
perspective of Earth and its biota, humanity is dispensable
and maybe even redundant
highlight the extreme asymmetry in causal dependence between humans
and Nature, inasmuch as we depend entirely on Nature whereas the
reverse clearly isn't at all the case.
This makes our current
ethical systems seem unduly anthropocentric and Earth-based.
Because of its intrinsic value, I would argue that Mars deserves
moral consideration from rational moral agents (that is, human
beings) - and it is precisely this that terraforming advocates fail
Thus, all else being
equal, Mars is entitled to continue to exist in its present form,
undisturbed by human attempts change it, whether directly or as a
by-product of economic 'development'.
Granted that Mars has
moral considerability, it is no longer a foregone conclusion that it
is simply 'there for the taking'.
Activities that are and
are not to be permitted on Mars must be decided via some moral
calculus that weighs up the competing claims of Mars and humanity.
The above considerations regarding an 'intrinsic value ethics' show,
says Lee, that,
"human arrogance and
superiority toward Nature are misplaced" and that the
appropriate attitude for us to take is one of awe and humility,
maintaining "a respectful distance" from it.
Whilst I concur
wholeheartedly, it is important to stress that maintaining a
'respectful distance' from Nature does not necessarily entail a
total lack of engagement with it.
Indeed, I would contend
that the exploration of Mars in no way implies disrespect and is, in
fact, necessary to understand what Mars is - a prerequisite for any
meaningful relationship or engagement with the planet.
If you are happy to grant moral considerability to living things,
then Alan Marshall (1993, p.234) suggests that 'living' might
not automatically imply 'biological':
"It must be
remembered that nature is not static in abiotic worlds. Myriads
of dynamic physical, chemical and geological phenomena permeate
The atmosphere of Jupiter
with its cyclonic
Great Red Spot, the volcanically
Jovian moon Io, or indeed the
surface and atmosphere of Mars,
"could fulfill many
definitions of what it is to 'be alive'."
Robert Sparrow (1999, p.227-236) argues that terraforming,
least two serious defects of moral character: an aesthetic
insensitivity and the sin of hubris… to change whole planets to
suit our ends is arrogant vandalism."
He claims that we can
demonstrate aesthetic insensitivity in two ways:
destroying beauty directly
using beauty "for one's own purposes in ways that make no
reference to its beauty" even though that beauty is not
involves glorying in one's own powers, a false optimism about
them, and a haste to put them to the test. A lack of
self-knowledge and self-reflection is also characteristic… as is
a dismissive attitude toward both critics and past failures."
Sounds like terraforming...?
In a cosmocentric ethics, moral reckoning would no longer be a
is not the same as moral significance...
Just because an entity is
admitted to moral consideration (or the moral community), by
ascribing to it an intrinsic value, it does not automatically follow
that it will have the same moral significance as other members of
the moral community, such as human beings.
We will also need to develop some kind of 'moral calculus' that will
allow us to balance the rights of the various entities - for
example, a method for weighing up the right of a stone to exist
against the rights of a human being, should these two rights be in
Robert Haynes (1990, p.177) argues that terraforming raises
new issues in ethics, so that,
"we need from
philosophers a new 'cosmocentric' ethics, and perhaps a revised
theory of intrinsic worth… [Such a] cosmocentric ethic would
allow scope for human creativity in science and engineering
throughout the solar system",
...and also recognize
that human artifacts are as much a part of the universe as natural
objects like trees, planets, stars and animals.
It is precisely such a
cosmocentric ethics that I am advocating in this article...