The perfect society is an illusion. Tomáš Sedláček

A New Earth

Not all scientific projects that will soon become feasible are also desirable. One example: terraforming on Mars.

The information gathered thus far by the Mars lander “Curiosity,” as well the upcoming launch of the Mars probe “MAVEN,” have once again stirred up discussions about terraforming on the Red Planet: Could it be possible to turn Mars into a habitable environment complete with plants, animals, liquid water, and breathable air?

In theory, terraforming works by introducing carefully selected microbes to Mars, which then form a biological vanguard and gradually help to turn the planet’s surface into a more hospitable environment.

Especially among younger scientists, this idea seems to be pretty popular. To them, Mars is a giant Petri dish for the evolution of new organisms and, ultimately, for the creation of a second Earth. Or at least that’s the dream. It is surprising that the experience of the last decades – large-scale scientific projects that almost always ran over budget and incurred significant delays – have not led to an abandonment of grandiose aspirations. Why have upcoming scientists not been looking for small projects with lower technical and political risks, more limited budgets, and a set of clearly defined and defensible goals? Instead of pursuing those small projects, many scientists still like to dream big: no challenge and no scale is too large for them. They dream about changing the world, about creating new life, about the universe, creation, and a new Earth.

The grandiosity of scientific ambitions is surprising for another reason as well: Despite the dangers of biochemical experiments, and despite the well-known reservations many people have against genetic technology, there is no ethical taboo which would categorically rule out certain sets of experiments. Ethical concerns and considerations bubble to the surface pretty regularly, but science has so far avoided a comprehensive and sustained public discussion about the ethical implications of free-range genetic experiments on Mars. Nobody has articulated the possibility of a moral duty to protect the Martian environment – presumably because the planet is too alien and too lifeless to warrant moral concern. Mars is uninhabited, so out-of-control experiments would not endanger other humans.

But what about respect for nature itself? For billions of years, Mars has evolved naturally. Do we not have a moral duty to respect undisturbed nature for what it is? The lack of moral discussions is the most unsettling aspect of the debate about terraforming.

Moral discussions cannot be reduced to risk assessments (Could humans be put into jeopardy? Could microbes evolve out of control and somehow be re-introduced to Earthly ecosystems? Could terraforming lead to the extinction of hitherto unknown life forms on Mars?). At their core, moral discussions ask the question of whether we should aspire to do everything that we are capable of doing. We know from history that some of man’s footprints can never be erased, and that we cannot foresee the unintended consequences of developments that were kick-started in the name of scientific progress. Terraforming would be no exception.

We don’t need proof of inherent dangers. We can simply limit ourselves and scale down some of our aspirations – because we can, and without justification.

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