Mars, here be water!

The Utopia Planitia shipyards above Mars in the 24th century.

According to this article, there is now definitive proof that Mars once contained flowing water. We’ve suspected for years that Mars once harbored liquid water on its surface, a good indication life may have once been found on our near planetary neighbor. Now we know for sure that it definitely did have liquid water. What does this mean for us? Might we, as the picture above, eventually terraform and colonize Mars and build something like a Starfleet Presidio-class space station in orbit over it? My question is whether we have the right to do so. I think the answer depends on whether there is any life on Mars today. If there is, we would more than likely destroy it by terraforming Mars’ environment to better suit ourselves. But then we run into a bit of a conundrum, because don’t we as a species have a right to propagate and ensure our survival? Right now we are confined to Earth, and as the saying goes, we’ve got all our eggs in one basket. What is the measure by which we determine how possible alien life on Mars compares to the billions of humans of Earth?

Perhaps if NASA develops its warp drive in the next few decades such a terraforming and colonization of Mars would be more likely, and such an academic question will become more existential.

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5 responses to “Mars, here be water!

  1. I understand your concerns, but I’ve always found Star Trek to ignore the huge moral difference between, for example, the plight of the American Indians in American history and killing a bacterium. Seriously, that’s a huge gap. The fact is that everything in a closed set is connected, and with the introduction of warp drive (as Star Trek imagines it), the entire Alpha Quadrant becomes a closed set.

    I just wrote a comment that discussed this phenomenon on my cousin’s latest post (http://kesseljunkie.com/2012/10/05/the-real-chosen-one-building-the-case-for-qui-gon-jinn/). Each event has a near-infinite number of actual causes. In tort law, we say that only “proximate” causation leads liability because otherwise everyone would be responsible for every tort (or crime) that occurred. For example, because I chose to wear tennis shoes today, my shoelaces became untied, so I bent over to tie them, which allowed Fred to see his arch-nemesis Steve, which led to a shooting. Despite being one of many actual causes of the shooting, I’m not liable. The link is too tenuous.

    My point is that, with warp drive and subspace communications, humans in the Star Trek universe are already disrupting planetary (and even extra-planetary) life just by introducing their influence on planets or even the vacuum of space. It seems pretentious to make a production out of some microbes.

    So to answer your question directly, with all that context, I’d say the only meaningful way to draw the line is at sentient life, a.k.a., “higher life forms.” This doesn’t answer the question as to where precisely to draw the line between higher and lower life forms. I’m not qualified to do so. This also doesn’t mean we can’t choose, as a society, to protect lower life forms with animal rights laws from needless abuse, especially because their existence impacts us and our environment. In other words, I see no moral problem with swatting an annoying honey bee, but I’m quite concerned that they’re being killed en masse by the parasite apocephalus borealis. I also see no problem with rolling in, guns blazing, taking out microbial life through terraforming, though doing so to intelligent life using uzis is an entirely different issue.

    • It’s funny you should mention proximate causation, as I used to be an attorney (family lawyer specifically).

      Regardless, my concern would be more for the loss of a potentially unique life form on Mars due to human development. Where do we draw the line and how do we balance humanity’s needs with the existence of unique life? Intelligence is a totally valid criterion to use in that balance, but I think uniqueness is as well.

      For a more earthly example, would it be morally and ethically right to bulldoze the last grove of redwoods on the planet to make room for a subsidized residential community of political refugees? I don’t know the answer, but that’s the kind of conundrum I think we may face if and when we do get an actual warp drive and start expanding to new worlds with life, intelligent or otherwise.

      • If we’re talking about what’s morally required of us, I say bulldoze the forest with reckless abandon. I relate to the notion of losing a part of the universe or nature forever, but ultimately uniqueness is a practical consideration. I will always prefer intelligent life over non-intelligent life. Of course, intelligent life depends on non-intelligent life, but if they’re at odds, we win (if I’m in charge). 🙂 If they’re not in charge, then sure, let the redwoods live. There’s no need for stupid, senseless destruction. I would never oppose colonization of Mars, though. That’s an easy one to me.

      • Brain fart in that last post. After the smiley: “If they’re not at odds with us . . . .”

      • Agreed. Practicality usually ends up deciding most issues! Ironically, if we did end up developing the warp drive, it may make any moral or ethical concerns over terraforming Mars moot as we’d then have the means to access much more attractive and inhabitable Earth-like planets in nearby star systems.

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