The morality of space conquest

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As ambitious plans for living in Mars are being made, it’s time to probe whether we have the right to make other planets and moons our own (Cosmopolis column published in the Hindu Business Line, 7 October, 2016)

Last week, human beings got a little closer to the possibility of living in outer space. Elon Musk, a tycoon more likely conceived (and named) in a Hollywood studio than in real life, announced ambitious plans for a settlement of one million people on Mars within 40 to 100 years. Crucial to any such endeavour are advances in rocketry that would allow the cheaper transport of materials and people to the red planet. Musk’s company SpaceX is aiming to design these vessels and make Mars the first extraterrestrial planetary outpost of the human species.

Many questions remain about the viability of the project, which is one of a number of private and governmental initiatives to take man to Mars. Critics wonder about its astronomical cost, whether people can endure the physical and psychological strains of space travel over such a distance, and if it will be at all possible to make human life on Mars self-sustaining.

Quite aside from those practical considerations, humanity faces a moral challenge: do we have the right to journey into space and make other planets and moons our own?

I grew up on a steady diet of science fiction about the conquest of space. I thrilled at the prospect of exploring other worlds, encountering (and, in my boyish enthusiasm, fighting) intelligent alien species, and expanding the intergalactic reach of human civilisation. I realised only later how completely that sci-fi metaphorical language borrowed from the era of European empire.

We hope to colonise planets. We see space much as Europeans saw North America, lifeless, pristine and virgin, a blank slate for the inscription of Manifest Destiny. We imagine the discovery of alien life on faraway planets in the same terms of encounter as those of Columbus landing on the shores of Hispaniola. Even the evangelists who insist that it is humanity’s moral mission to settle space — to spread the vitality of life in a “dead cosmos” — echo the proselytising zeal of Christian missionaries in Africa and the Americas.

What was once the realm of science fiction is now the real study and debate of ethicists. As intelligent beings, what is our role in the vastness of space? Do we have a responsibility to preserve the stark red valleys of Mars just as they are? Or do we have the license to conquer and transform?

Some of their larger concerns have to do with the smallest bits of life. The 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires that nations take great pains to prevent the contamination of space by terrestrial microbes. But once people settle on Mars, it’ll be nearly impossible to stop the introduction of Earthling micro-organisms. Suppose there is already life on Mars, even if it is only microbial and buried in the craggy recesses of the planet. Is it right for human beings (and their microbes) to disrupt this life?

Supporters of human space exploration argue that Martian microbes aren’t “moral agents” and therefore don’t deserve this ethical care. Critics find a moral urgency in looking millions of years into the future. Left to their own devices, Martian microbes could evolve into new and increasingly sophisticated forms of life. Do we have the right to interrupt that process, as we would surely do if we “terraform” Mars? Do we have a moral duty to respect the potential of indigenous Martian life?

Part of the struggle in grappling with these questions is their timescale. The evolutionary processes of Martian microbes that some ethicists are fretting about might require hundreds of millions of years. It would take 10,000 to 100,000 years to artificially produce an atmosphere on Mars in which human beings could breathe unassisted (that’s already at a minimum twice as long as the history of literate human civilisation). We are burdened with making decisions whose implications, rewards, and destructions vastly outstrip the brief remit of a human lifetime.

At a more mundane level, we have to ask how space exploration and colonisation will affect people on Earth. Will its costs and benefits be evenly shared? Who will get to journey to extraterrestrial colonies? Who will be left behind? How will orienting our societies towards the stars change matters on the ground?

More fundamentally, wouldn’t it make more sense to figure out how to live sustainably on Earth before we devote tremendous resources and energies to the colonising of space? According to Janet Stemwedel, a scientist and philosopher, “maybe the real reason to protect the pristine Martian environment is in order to cultivate restraint in ourselves, rather than feeding our rapacious appetite for conquest.” European imperialism from the 15th century onwards was bent on the extraction of natural resources, no matter the environmental (and human) costs to the colonial “periphery”. Are we simply going to replicate this model on other planets and moons? If we can’t build sustainable human life on Earth, what right do we have to try to create that life elsewhere?

These considerations may seem remote right now, but they will take on sharper meaning in the coming years and decades. It may not be Musk who leads the way to Mars, but some entity — private, public, or more likely a combination of the two — will get us there within the 21st century. We will grapple with these ethical issues, but there is no arresting that fundamental, world-shaping human force: our curiosity for what lies beyond.

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