The perils of planetary exploration

Artist's depiction of terraforming Mars. []

Artist’s depiction of terraforming Mars. []

I’m frequently concerned with the balance between scientific progress and the health and well-being of our species and our environment. These things do not necessarily go hand in hand, but neither are they absolutely opposed. One of the fundamental elements of technological advance is that it provides us with more options than we had before, and the way forward is often not entirely clear. Any decisions we make involve trade-offs between different values.

I’ve been reading the book “Cradle to Cradle”, by architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, which addresses the issue of sustainable design. In general it draws into question the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” motto of many sustainability advocates, suggesting that this approach delays the depletion of the earth’s resources rather than really trying to design products and lifestyles that are completely waste-free. They also have some things to say about space exploration:

There is some talk in science and popular culture about colonizing other planets, such as Mars or the moon. Part of this is just human nature: we are curious, exploring creatures. The idea of taming a new frontier has a compelling, even romantic, pull, like that of the moon itself. But the idea also provides rationalization for destruction, an expression of our hope that we’ll find a way to save ourselves if we trash our planet. To this speculation, we would respond: If you want the Mars experience, go to Chile and live in a typical copper mine. There are no animals, the landscape is hostile to humans, and it would be a tremendous challenge. Or, for a moonlike effect, go to the nickel mines of Ontario.

Seriously, humans evolved on the Earth, and we are meant to be here. Its atmosphere, its nutrients, its natural cycles, and our own biological systems evolved together and support us here, now. Humans were simply not designed by evolution for lunar conditions. So while we recognize the great scientific value of space exploration and the exciting potential of new discovery there, and while we applaud technological innovations that enable humans to “boldly go where no man has gone before,” we caution: Let’s not make a big mess here and go somewhere less hospitable even if we figure out how. Let’s use our ingenuity to stay here; to become, once again, native to this planet.

There are lot of beliefs inherent in that passage. Their complaint, that finding resources external to our planet makes us less likely to preserve those found on it, is one that I’ve heard before. It has some merit, in that sustainability has a strong economic imperative only when resources are limited. And although there are stronger arguments for sustainability than economics, that argument is often the strongest one for those making the decisions. So the pursuit of extraterrestrial resources (on Mars, as they suggest, or perhaps via asteroids) requires some caution, but the push for planetary exploration is so strong that in order to preserve the environments on Earth we need to rely on other arguments.

I don’t think the authors put enough stock in the scientific value of planetary exploration, nor do they give enough credit to the incredible curiosity and adaptability of people. For millennia, here on earth, people have been pushing to places they had no good reason to be. Sometimes it has been for the pursuit of resources, and sometimes it has been just to see what’s there.  Exploration is a fundamental characteristic of humanity. They contend that we “evolved on the Earth, and we are meant to be here,” but by that logic nobody would have ventured to new continents, establishing themselves in a new life there. Humanity evolved in Africa, but we didn’t stay confined there. Human evolution has virtually stopped, but we are now in a process of human/technology co-evolution. This has carried people from their homelands across oceans, to the barren plains of Antarctica, to the depths of the ocean, and it will carry us beyond this planet. It is true that we evolved on Earth, but we also involved in the Solar System, in the Milky Way, in the Universe.

Earth should and will hold a special place for humanity, but for future explorers it may be the same way that a modern American can trace his or her roots back to Africa, Asia, or Europe. Those places are a part of our history, part of our identity, but no longer our home. Humans on Mars will be Martians, and they may be concerned with preserving the wilderness of that planet. That doesn’t change the fact that those of us remaining on Earth still live here, and as long as we do its preservation should be a top concern, not because of the flimsy and variable problem of resource availability, but because it is our home.


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