The Repercussions of Planetary Settlement
by Athena Andreadis
Art image: Terraforming, by Michael Böhme
Part 4: Playing God I
No matter where we go, if we choose to settle we will need aids for living at the start, so bubbles and domes will be inevitable for the early generations. However, for long-term exploration and living, adaptations are unavoidable, unless we want our new worlds to resemble prisons or intensive care units. Therefore, for the long haul, it will have to be terraforming, genetic engineering or, most likely, a combination of the two.
Terraforming has been the darling of engineers and planetary physicists, for several reasons: it is macho; it bristles with gizmology and makes gods of engineers — geeks becoming builders of worlds, games of SimCity turning into the real item. Terraforming is morally palatable at first glance, unless the planet to be terraformed has advanced endogenous life.
None of us would bat an eyelash at depriving bacteria and fungi of their niches, and most of us would tolerate the destruction of lower flora and invertebrates. On the other hand, we also dream of extraterrestrials as ahead of us as we are of invertebrates stepping down from on high bearing such gifts as immortality recipes and stable wormholes. Would we give equivalent gifts to beehives, which exhibit a certain kind of hardwired collective intelligence? My point here is that the cutoffs are dangerous slippery slopes, especially if one day we expect to be hosts to ET visitors, rather than unexpected guests on planets that lack technologically sophisticated stewards.
A second point is that even if the endogenous life is advanced, we may fail to see it in time — a strong possibility, given that life beyond earth will be so different as to be incomprehensible (such as the sentient ocean in Stanislaw Lem’s classical novel, Solaris) and also given that our current primary indicator for intelligence boils down to the rather crude metric of technological prowess. Earth species are as similar to us as they can be, yet we still cannot agree if whales or elephants are intelligent — or even our cousins, the higher apes, who have recognizable family and clan configurations and who also transmit acquired knowledge to their offspring, including rudimentary technology. In fact, the closer our host planets are to Earth, the more likely it becomes that they are favorable to life, and the least likely the natives will be to survive terraforming unscathed.
As it stands, not even Earth has done too well with terraforming. Straightening of rivers has led to horrific floods and avalanches, damming has extended the domain of diseases carried by insects and rodents, the building of enormous cities is straining their local environment — witness the ever-expanding desert around large cities such as Brazilia and Los Angeles — and the habits of the First World have started a greenhouse effect and blown a hole through the protective ozone layer. Even now, we come up with new facts about terrestrial geology that give us pause. A new planet will be a much greater mystery and delving into it without adequate knowledge may well destroy it. Furthermore, unless we have technology at Kardashev level II, we still won’t be able to change a planet’s rotation rate or its distance from its primary, the two major determinants of climate.
The other sticky point about terraforming is that not only are we really clumsy at it, but we are also not long-lived enough to really follow it through. Even if we find ways to extend our lifespan, our time horizon is too short to allow us to be gods. The projections for terraforming Mars hover around thousands of years. Humans are clever and industrious, but their attention span is finite. That of an American politician hovers around two years. It is unclear that such a long project can be sustained unless it is turned over to a priesthood, thereby setting a dangerous precedent whose consequences are well documented on our planet, whether we are talking of the Catholic church or of the NASA upper echoelons. Even if we entrust the task to machines, they won’t be able to gap such long time spans unless we make them self-reproducing and immune to programming mutations. Terraforming is like sculpting clay with a shotgun: you shoot at the clay until something emerges that you can live with — if there’s any clay left at that point.
Last but not least, terraforming is a failure of the imagination. Why would we want to turn other planets into second Earths? The terraforming approach reminds me of the English missionaries to Hawaii, who dressed in boiled wool and ate boiled meat while surrounded by hibiscus trees, warm waters and a sophisticated maritime culture — or, closer to home, of people who go on expensive package tours but insist on eating at McDonald’s in Paris.
So if we really wish to be an integral part of life on the new planets, rather than tourists gazing at the Serengeti from behind the glass of air-conditioned buses, we have to opt largely for the third choice: genetic engineering of the prospective colonists.