Well, I guess I missed last week. I started the following in time to call it timely, but never got it out. Any references to last week really mean the week before. Sorry!
Continuing on in the vein from last week: Why worrying about humans terraforming and then corrupting another planet is foolish. Last time I spoke to the tendency to think we do well to regard our own well-being as the driving force behind our every decision. Well, so far as our rise to dominance is concerned. But our unjustified belief that nothing we might do could wind up being the cause of Gaia’s dying now threatens Our (capital letter) demise. Today let’s talk directly to the possibility of our fucking up another planet.
I see two possibilities here: the first seems totally misguided, the second much less so. In the first case let us assume the planet in question is lifeless. There is no good universally accepted definition of what is alive and what is not, so much of what I have to say on this point has to be seen as very subjective. I do not think rocks, for example, are alive. Yet I cannot really argue the point. Same with any element of the periodic table. Fire seems more like a chemical process to me than a living thing, etc.
Yet I think the Earth as a whole should be regarded as alive. That’s already rather unusual. I
have alluded to this elsewhere as the Gaia hypothesis, but there are many interpretations even of this.
In about 1960 James Lovelock, a NASA physicist, was tasked with the job of trying to develop a coherent list of properties that we could use to decide whether a distant planet might harbor life or not. He developed quite a list, including the presence of mechanisms which kept the planet in a dynamic state of homeostasis. I.e., when some quantity observed from Earth changed, say the methane content of the atmosphere, something else in the planet’s environment would respond in such a way that the original state of the system was reestablished. Many volatiles, such as carbon dioxide and methane, may wax and wane. This is often the case on distant planets and often can now be observed from Earth. Some more quickly dissipate under lifeless conditions than others. If the amount of methane, in particular, remains constant, or nearly so, over time, the planet being observed may harbor life. For quite awhile Lovelock’s list of traits was loosely called the Gaia hypothesis, especially when those traits were meant to characterize what was essential about Earth’s harboring life.
When the Apollo missions began to make photos of the whole earth possible, however, a new paradigm was formed. Many of those who saw the photos, and later the videos, myself included, immediately saw the Earth as a living being. Until then it had never been possible to see the whole as a single entity. Once you saw it so, it was hard to ignore its living nature.
It is this view which I and many of my colleagues are appealing to when we refer to the Gaia hypothesis. In this formulation, Earth is, quite literally, alive. It is that living thing we are referring to when we say “Gaia.” And it was Gaia that I was referencing last week when I spoke of humanity’s general belief that she is, for all practical purposes, immortal. It’s also at the heart of my seeing the We vs. we thing as so important.
The biggest problem with thinking we might fuck up a planet which does not already harbor life by terraforming it and letting it develop under our tutelage, thus possibly having it wind up like Earth now is, is that I value all life forms more highly than any non-living thing. Maybe its just me, but I don’t see any harm possible in turning a dead rock into a living planet. I have other difficulties with the argument, but most pale in comparison to this rejoinder.
In the other case, let us suppose that the target planet harbors life. Let us further assume this life is quite viable–that it is not going to cease to exist if left alone. Such is an arguable point on a planet like Mars. But we are not sure of that, so let’s assume it to remove this situation from consideration. In any case, I think we need not consider it to conclude terraforming, if it can be done, is still the right thing to do.
First off, we are not talking about anything like a certainty. Terraforming, alone, is a tremendously difficult task. It is extremely unlikely we will succeed so well that humans will ever find the new planet habitable. The civilizations floating in the clouds are pure fiction. There is nothing scientific about them. By the same token, no fully contained city will ever outlive a thriving home planet for long, as space stations can only be self-sufficient so long as they are totally independent. A minimum for total independence is to be on a terraformed object.
But any terraforming effort will involve extensive global attempts to make the alien planet hospitable to less demanding life forms than humanity alone. For example, to support certain microbes, including many of those which raise the oxygen content of the atmosphere, little or no atmospheric oxygen is called for. As far as such microbes are concerned, the alien planet will have been terraformed long before it is ready for us. We (capitol letter) will have successfully “gotten off.” quite some time before we (small letter) get off.
In any case, there will never be very many of us that successfully migrate. The initial human population of a terraformed planet will be small. So small, in fact, that if, and when, support from the home planet ceases or becomes infrequent, human dominance, as we currently see it, will end. Nature will assert itself and evolution will take over. What will result is both too far off in time and the subject of too many variables for us to predict the outcome. It is unwise for us to let our fears about that outcome influence our decision now about whether to terraform or not.
Finally, there is one characteristic of all life-forms which I think we ignore if we consciously decide not to terraform. That is self-preservation. When it cones down to a choice between us and them, our evolutionary instincts are going to vote for “us” every time. In view of humanity’s destructive habits on earth, the viability of the human species here is very much in question. Survival on another planet, even if currently inhabited, should be regarded as an “us or them” situation.