Only Mars Will Save Us Now: Space Exploration and Terrestrial Sustainability as competing Environmental Strategies

by Liam HeneghanNASA artist's conception of a human mission to Mars (painting)

More than any at other conferences I have attended, participants in the annual Mars Society meeting, which was held this year in Boulder, Colorado (August 2013) — their 16th such meeting, my first — like to nod their agreement. In contrast, attendees at the meetings I more regularly visit concerning the ecological fate of the planet signal their comprehension with aghast motionlessness. When Robert Zubrin, director of the (currently Earth-bound) Mars Society, announced in Boulder this summer, that Mars is our future, the audience nodded. Rather, I should say, we nodded.

Not only is a manned mission to Mars technically feasible with existing, or almost-existing, technology but Zubrin insists that it is desirable for us to go to Mars sooner rather than later. Zubrin was reasserting an argument that he has been making for some time. In The Case for Mars — The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must (1996) he set out his blueprint for Mars Direct, a plan for manned missions to Mars that would pave the way for colonization and would be both cost-effective and possible with current technology.

Why should we go to Mars? There are economic arguments in favor of us doing so, Zubrin claims. Certain elements, such as deuterium used in nuclear reactors, are hyper-available elements on Mars could be profitably used on Earth. Additionally, rare metals: platinum, gold and silver, can be recovered from Mars and returned to Earth. The economic arguments are important to the case for Mars, but central to Zubrin’s argument, is what exploration of Mars says about us as a species. We should go because we can; it’s who we are. According to Zubrin “virtually every element of significant interest to industry is known to exist on the Red Planet”. Of all the planets in our solar system Mars has by far the greatest potential for self-sufficiency. The resources on Mars will cater for both initial colonists and for the subsequent expansion of a civilization on the Red Planet. For example, subsurface accumulation of water can provide supplies to explorers. Moreover, the colonization of Mars “reaffirms the pioneering character of our society.” Drawing parallels to Roald Amundsen’s successfully traversing the wilderness of Canada's Northwest Passage in 1903, an expedition which adopted a “live off the land” strategy, Zubrin appeals to a pioneering grit and esprit in forging his plans for Mars. Summarizing his reasons for colonizing Mars, Zubrin wrote, “For our generation and many to follow Mars is the New World”. Considering that as of the 9th September 2013 more than 200,000 have applied for a one-way settlement mission to Mars over at the Mars One website, it would seem that Zubrin’s assessment is confirmed.

The form that Zubrin’s argument follows is familiar from the history of rhetoric on space exploration. Expanding human economic activity into space is a common defense of exploration. However, there is an increasing reluctance in the space community to use the term “colonies”, many advocates preferring more neutral terms like “settlements” and “outposts”. Even that great space advocate Carl Sagan (1934 –1996) spoke of space “cities” rather than “colonies” to avoid such negative connotations. By and large, however, those advocating our transformation into a true space-faring species tend to couch their arguments in much of the same sort of idealistic language that Zubrin employs. “Reaching the stars” or “facilitating the spread of life beyond the planet” are proposed as selfless goals, ones that are galvanizing for all humanity. Such reasons rest upon an assumption, usually implicit, that we have a predisposition, possibly a genetic one, to explore. Furthermore, this exploratory tendency, in the view of space advocates, is regarded as one of the many fine things about us. It is the destiny, manifest or otherwise, of humans to hurtle off the planet.

One important category of idealistic motivation for planetary escape is that colonization of space responds to environmental concerns on Earth. Space exploration emerges therefore as a response to many of the same sorts of challenges that are discussed in mainstream ecological circles.

Gerard K O’Neill (1927 – 1992) the Princeton physicist and space exploration enthusiast, framed his advocacy for space colonies explicitly in the context of concern over environmental pollution and the ‘evils” consequent from the Industrial Revolution. Moreover, in The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space (1976) O’Neill wrote “the evils of environmental damage [pollution and so forth] are minor compared to others that have appeared: sharp limits on food, energy and materials confront us at a time when most of the human race is still poor, and when much of it is on the edge of starvation.” The solution as O’Neill saw it was not to “retreat to a pastoral, machine-free society…” No, the future rather is in space colonies which should be free-floating in space and thus open to constant solar radiation supplying us with unlimited energy. Such space colonies, O’Neill wrote, will follow on as “an inevitable result of the large-scale development of space resources.” Space will ultimately become a “new Earthlike environmental range for humanity, bathed in continuous free energy…” — humans’ newest habitat.

In January 1976, O’Neill appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Aerospace Technology and National Needs laying out a case for an Apollo-style program for building power plants in space. Ultimately, these plans were regarded as “nutty” and funding space colonization research was cut from NASA’s budget.

THE ultimate environmental reason for creating off-Earth settlements is the possibility of Earth’s destruction. Global catastrophic episodes, doomsday scenarios, include numerous monstrous events that could wipe out our entire species. Catastrophic comets or asteroids, nuclear annihilation, the sterilization of the planet from the sun’s increased luminosity (in about 3.5 billion years) and so forth, are all ultimately environmental disasters which would leave little environment to speak of in their wake. Recently, Nick Bostrom, the University of Oxford philosopher, has analyzed a category of problem that he terms “existential risks”, the sort that often stimulates discussion of extra-planetary colonization. In a paper entitled Existential Risks: Analyzing Human Extinction Scenarios and Related Hazards (2002) Bostrom defined the term existential risk as those “threats that could cause our extinction or destroy the potential of Earth-originating intelligent life. Some of these threats are relatively well known while others, including some of the gravest, have gone almost unrecognized.” Of particular concern to the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk, a Cambridge-based research group with which Bostrom is associated, are artificial intelligence, biotechnology, global warming and warfare. Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic have compiled a fine, thorough, and horrifying list of cataclysms in their volume Global Catastrophic Risks (2008).

Now, these “existential risk” assessors have not been seen running for the interplanetary life-boats just yet, though there is discussion in these circles about the long-term relevance of space exploration in hedging our bets against the ultimate demise of the home planet. Bostrom recently wrote to me arguing that “space colonization (at a level that has globally significant economic impact or relevance as a safeguard against existential risk) will not happen until after the creation of machine superintelligence, and that any preparations we might have made towards space colonization will then be irrelevant and obsolete.” (E-mail, 14th Sept 2013).

Surely, however, any super-intelligent species would have figured out the long-term reasonableness of pan-galactic colonization in the face of their own existential risks. Some may even have gone beyond the Bostrom threshold of superintelligence required to efficiently explore space. Assuming that the galaxy supports several such entities (let’s not, chauvinistically, call them species) physicist Enrico Fermi once famously asked: “Where is everybody?” contrasting the supposed high likelihood of extra-terrestrial intelligence with the astonishing silence of the universe. This contrast is termed the Fermi Paradox. Taking up to this question with reference to the search for extra-terrestrial life on Mars, Bostrom voiced the hope that none will be found, speculating that there is a Great Filter (the term pre-dates Bostrom’s work) either in our past or future (though possibly both in the past and future) which explains the silence of the universe. A Great Filter consists of a highly improbable transition, the occurrence of which is required in order for a habitable planet to produce an intelligent civilization (one that would be visible to us with current technology). In Bostrom’s paper, provocatively entitled Where Are They? Why I hope the search for extraterrestrial life finds nothing (Technology Review, May/June issue (2008): pp. 72-77), Bostrom wrote:

“If it is true that almost all intelligent species go extinct before they master the technology for space colonization, then we must expect that our own species, too, will go extinct before reaching technological maturity, since we have no reason to think that we will be any luckier than most other species at our stage of development…. If the Great Filter is ahead of us, we must relinquish all hope of ever colonizing the galaxy; and we must fear that our adventure will end soon, or at any rate, prematurely. Therefore, we better hope that the Great Filter is behind us.”

Assuming that the Great Filter is in fact already behind us (perhaps the arguably inprobable origins of life itself was the filtering event), and marvels await our species in a gleaming future, prospects of a global annihilation by means of a freak cosmic accident give some force to a suggestion that we are depositing all of our eggs vulnerably in just one planetary basket. Therefore we would be wise to decrease our extinction risk by colonizing elsewhere. Such vulnerability is the reason behind physicist Steven Hawking’s urging us to explore space. He recent wrote, “We are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill…Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain lurking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.”

It may be cold comfort to those of us that will stay behind, but the successful colonization of space may ensure that the enterprises of life, and perhaps even civilization, endures beyond the demise of the home planet.

IN Bostrom’s assessment there is little likelihood that an intelligent species will “choose to stay at home and live in harmony with nature”. I will call this the sustainability option (this is not the language Bostrom uses). He considers the probability for the sustainability option as being low for the following reasons: life spreads, a fact that Bostrom finds consonant with evolutionary theory; humans are an exploratory species; space is where the resources are, whereas a planet is finite; a sustainable society might “change its mind after a hundred years or fifty thousand years”; finally, even if many species chose to live sustainably, other civilizations may opt to colonize. Bostrom’s point here is to underscore Fermi’s paradox. I am especially interested in this discussion because it also underscores a general distinction between the ways in which environmentalists think about solutions to our planetary problems (sustainability options) and the way in which space enthusiasts do (colonization inevitable).

Traditional environmentalists (perhaps, most environmentalists) have asserted that our solutions need to be exactly of that type that Bostrom regards unlikely, in a probabilistic sense, for intelligent entities, that is “choosing to stay at home and living in harmony with nature.” Space advocates, however, do not, of course, have an appetite for curtailing the human enterprise in this manner. Though sustainability and space advocacy are, in a sense, forms of environmentalism — sharing apocalyptic visions and responding to similar planetary threats — one nevertheless expects a degree of tension between them.

Robert Zubrin’s latest book Merchants of Despair: Radical Environmentalists, Criminal Pseudo-Scientists, and the Fatal Cult of Antihumanism (2012) seems to confirm the suspicion that sustainability and space exploration are indeed the opposite ends of the solution spectrum. In it Zubrin claims that radical environmentalists (inspired by the Rev Thomas Malthus 1766 – 1834) promote the idea that “humans are a cancer upon the Earth, a horde of vermin whose unconstrained aspirations and appetites are endangering the natural order.” Zubrin writes that a properly conceived environmentalism is “an effort to apply practical solutions to real environmental problems, for the purpose of making the world a better place for humans to thrive in.” The “anti-humanist” tendencies of radical environmentalism he claims attempts to suppress human activities “in order to protect a fixed ecological order with interests that stand above those of humanity.” A centerpiece of this anti-humanist thread is to be found in actions to abate global warming, which, according to Zubrin at least, has “significantly enhanced the abundance of nature, to the benefit of both agriculture and the wild biosphere alike.” Most ecologists do not share this assessment.

I will not review the substance of Zubrin’s claims here — I think he paints with a rather broad brush and consequently smears outside the lines at times — but rather I use this to illustrate a claim that those advocating for the colonization of space often are examining the same terrestrial problems as environmentalists but come up with radically different solutions. The differences in approach are mediated, it seems to me, by different conceptions of the human being. Space enthusiasts, even when mindful of our capacity to wreak havoc are optimistic sorts. Traditionalist environmentalists, by reputation at least, incline to pessimism. As we reflect upon our environmental challenges, two poles therefore define our actions. On the one hand is the ascetic modesty of sustainability, on the other the hubristic desire to colonize the galaxy. In some ways Mars colonization may seem the more immediately attractive solution as it come with all the thrill of a technical challenge and the allure of subsequent conquest. This may be the reason why back in August at the Boulder meeting we all nodded in agreement with Zubrin. The adrenaline rush of sustainability may be a modest one in contrast. The challenge for sustainability advocates will be to convince us all that staying on Earth and tightening our planetary belt is the most exciting challenge of our times. In making this an attractive proposition environmentalists have a lot to learn from Mars enthusiasts.

Image is NASA artist's conception of a human mission to Mars (painting) (1989) from Wikimedia commons.

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