The happy promoters of giant space projects are at it again. “Should we terraform Mars?”, they ask — to which I reply that we aren’t even close to being able to implement such an undertaking, so your fantasies are silly, and worse…why do you always express it in such palpably stupid ways?
Before we talk about terraforming another planet like Mars, we have to talk about Earth—and whether we should be spending our resources trying to save it, or moving on to another pale blue dot. It’s a grim debate that some scientists say it’s time to have.
“Some scientists say…” is one of those grossly dishonest constructions bad journalists use. I can well image some dunderheaded engineer might say such a thing, but I hope it’s not representative of the scientific community at all.
But also, what the hell are you talking about? The rest of the article is about slamming meteors into Mars and other such tedious tropes, but nowhere do they talk about the problem of transporting billions of people to this distant world, along with training people to live in an artificial environment (note that they’ll have to be transported at a rate faster than the birth rate, too); there’s no talk of building habitats for polar bears, elephants, whales, pygmy marmosets, tuataras, ants, salmon, whooping cranes, sequoias, or baobabs. Implicit in these delusions is the idea that almost the entirety of humanity, less a tiny lucky elite that reads science fiction novels, will die, that every biome on the planet will be trashed in favor of a tenuous, constructed environment, and that the vast reserves of planetary biodiversity will be sacrificed.
I will be blunt: fuck no, we won’t be moving to “another pale blue dot.” It’s impossible. There is no technological solution even imaginable, and it’s especially not possible when proponents of uprooting humanity can’t even consider the magnitude of the problem.
One sign of progress, though, is that they’re now emphasizing an alternative excuse: figuring out how to terraform Mars would help us figure out how to fix the Earth, they say. Bullshit, I say.
It’s true: Discussions about terraforming Earth, not Mars, are becoming more and more common. It’s almost as if the science of making Mars livable could actually inform repairing our own. In an essay called Terraforming Earth, the scifi author Kim Stanley Robinson—who described terraforming the Red Planet in his beloved Mars trilogy—argued that we should be thinking about using similar techniques to fix our own planet, like carbon capture and even shooting sulfur dioxide particles into the atmosphere to block the sun’s rays. “Geoengineering,” he writes, “has become our ongoing responsibility to life on this planet, including all human generations to come.”
Oh, god. Geoengineering. Let’s do radical experiments on our own home — big projects to modify our atmosphere or oceans, for instance, and hope they are sustainable and don’t lead to even bigger problems. Please don’t “help”.
Here’s the deal. The solution does not lie in mucking up our planet any more; it lies in changing ourselves. These solutions ought to be doable.
Someone wants to mine the tar sands? Fine. Part of the cost has to involve restoring the terrain to a livable, fully repaired, sustainable ecosystem afterwards — none of this poisoned moonscape crap — and you have to have a plan to compensate for the release of all the fossil carbon into the atmosphere. If that means the project is no longer economically viable, then so be it. You don’t get to subsidize your profits on the back of the environment.
You want to increase pork production on your factory farm? Even setting aside the ethical concerns, you don’t get to pump pig sewage into vast fecal lakes that will be there for your grandchildren to deal with. Instead, you’ll manage it now, and that will be part of the cost of production. Maybe that factory farm will look a little less cost-effective if you have to pay for the environmental havoc you’re wreaking.
You have a plan to reduce infant mortality? That’s a good thing, I approve. Can we also simultaneously have a plan to educate the population and improve their economic opportunity so that their will be a concomitant voluntary willingness to have fewer children?
All this geoengineering nonsense is about making desperate efforts after the fact to compensate for the bad behavior of humans. Maybe we ought to spend a little more effort not doing destructive things in the first place.
Also, maybe it’s too much to ask, but the self-congratulatingly clever community of science fiction fans needs to learn to think bigger, and stop settling for a universe in which humans live alone in flying sterile tin cans.