Last week I was so late getting my post out, I’m going to try to get this one out before next week’s is due, giving me some chance of catching up.
A review is probably in order: In the first installment I set the theme, which is why I feel terraforming another body in the solar system is above reproach along the lines of “we’ll just fuck it up too.” I outlined the distinction between thinking about humanity as the only thing of importance and thinking about all living things on earth as being at risk, and argued for thinking that the latter should be our motivation here.
In the second post I spoke to the Gaia hypothesis, how the situation depends a lot on whether the target to be terraformed bears life or not, argued for terraforming in either case, and pointed out that terraforming is so unlikely to result in humanity being in a dominant position in the foreseeable future as to make concerns about our “fucking it up” irrelevant.
Now let’s talk about technology and time lines. There are two things I think worth noting when it comes to technology: the first is our incredible belief that it only enriches our lives and can solve all our problems. The second is our misunderstanding of its relationship to population. Every technological advance I can think of has its own negative side as well as the plus that made it stick. Take the electric light, for instance. On the plus side you obviously have the extended hours and much greater mobility. But on the negative side there are the missed sunrises and stars to teach you proper humility, not to mention the demand for energy.
In fact it may be the insidious way that technological solutions always seem to wind up being bigger problems than the problem the technology solves that is its most disturbing and dangerous trait. Which is the bigger problem, horse manure in the streets or the automobile that ended it? The telegraph to speed communications or the exportation of jobs to the cheapest labor force? Tang to provide calories for astronauts or obesity in our young? The connections may be oblique and have shared responsibility with other factors, but the trend seems clear.
The second, the misunderstanding of the relationship between technology and population, is shown beautifully in George Stewart’s novel of the 1950’s, Earth Abides. The relationship is simple: you can’t have technology without population. The one is wholly dependent on the other. This observation is behind the evolutionary time frames I mentioned in regard to our being a potentially destructive force for a terraformed body to contend with.
That the evolutionary span will almost certainly be involved before humanity is in any position to endanger the terraformed locale is something I have already discussed. In doing so I mentioned support from the home planet ending. It is common for readers to subconsciously deny this possibility. But it not only follows if one assumes we will not continue to dominate on Earth, it also is likely given the distances involved in space travel. Sooner or later, concerns on Earth will pre-empt concerns about the well-being of the terraformed, distant, offspring. At that point the technology on the terraformed locale will begin to deteriorate due to insufficient population to support it and evolutionary forces will kick in.
When we shift our focus from earth to terraforming another object in the solar system two things often get in the way of clear thinking. The first is that we automatically assume earth continues (forever). The second is that the other object must be Mars. This latter is usually based on the implicit understanding that terraforming means making the terraformed object hospitable to unprotected humans. Although this is ideal, it is only vital so long as we continue with our confusion re “We” vs. “we.” There is, of course, no reason these two have to be mutually exclusive, but forgetting that they are different may thwart any advance at all.
To get my meaning, consider: 1) there are numerous locales which are probably already hospitable to some forms of Earth-based life. 2) In order to terraform a location to the extent that humanity would find the environment habitable many Earth-based life forms must first be well established on the object. and 3) the magnitude of the final goal of terraforming for humans could be viewed as a reason not to start the process at all. The third consideration is a classic example of the result of the confusion created when one thinks we are all that is important–i.e. when one is confused about the importance of “we” vs. “We.” The latter is more important than the former. Luckily, it will be much easier to preserve “Us,” than “us.”
The terraforming effort ought to be waged on two fronts. On the first front, the importance of preserving Us should be primary. On this front, finding a location in the solar system that is naturally already prepared for some Earth-based lifeform and getting that lifeform established there should be the priority. This would be an emphasis on preserving Us, and would place us in a position of little significance. For example, the watery world of Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, may already be hospitable to some lifeforms on Earth, but it is a very unlikely target for humanity because of its lack of land on its surface.
The second front should be terraforming a place humans might one day find hospitable, such as Mars. The nature of terraforming is such that the task would require intermediate steps calling for the establishment of viable communities of Earth-based lifeforms long in advance of a human presence. The downside here is that even gaining a foothold for these lifeforms may take longer than we have left. With every additional molecule of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, the clock ticks.