By Ebba Wester
"The idea of letting loose such a wicked and cancerous species on the Universe at large is nothing short of an abomination.”
Mars hasn’t always seemed like the most attractive destination for us earthlings. Also known as the ‘Red Planet’, Mars has acted as an extraterrestrial antagonist in science-fiction narratives ever since the early days of cinema, often depicted in monster movies and science-fiction sagas as a frightening dusty red rock crawling with murderous aliens. Exploitation cinema and B-movies like The Angry Red Planet (1959) populate Mars with carnivorous plants and giant drooling bat-spiders, and even Warner Brothers cartoon character ‘Marvin the Martian’ was a trigger-happy mastermind with dreams of destroying the Earth.
But fast forward to 2018 and, as temperatures and sea-levels continue to rise on Planet Earth, humans are tilting their gaze to the stars in search of a plan(et) B: Suddenly Mars - previously known as our hot-headed neighbor - is starting to look a lot like underutilised real-estate. The commercialization of space exploration is reinvigorating the now space “industry” (that has remained otherwise relatively stagnant since the glory days of the Cold War space race), and companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX are working to put man on Mars as soon as 2024. Mars colonization is also next on NASA’s agenda and, as advertised in the Netflix documentary The Mars Generation, gen Y’s and Z’s are already training at space camp to be the first ever outer-space settlers.
A film that embodies this new positive and neighborly attitude towards Mars is of course Ridley Scott’s The Martian, from 2015. Based on a science-fiction novel of the same name, the story follows a team of NASA researchers on Mars who are forced to emergency evacuate the planet when a sandstorm threatens to destroy their base. Biologist Mark Watney (played by Matt Damon) is accidentally left behind in the chaos of the storm and he is left alone to somehow survive on a disastrously limited food supply that’s doomed to run out before help has time to arrive. Watney’s botany skills come to the rescue, however, and he eventually manages to use some creativity and the equipment available to grow potatoes in Martian soil. This successful growing of crops marks - as Watney proudly declares to the audience via video-diary - “official” human colonisation of the Red Planet as per technical definition.
It’s unsurprising to find that NASA more than happily collaborated on both the production and theatrical promotion of The Martian given the films heroic depiction of a human mission to Mars. Though the film arguably plays out the worst-case scenario of a Mars expedition, the overarching attitude remains positive and inspirational - so much so that the Golden Globes deemed the film a ‘comedy’, despite the castaway plot. Watney is insistently optimistic and resourceful, and his agricultural project presents particular cause for celebration. Far from the raygun wielding action-heros of films like Robinson Crusoe on Mars, Watney (though “fighting” for survival) behaves more like a peaceful settler than an endangered outlander threatened by an alien world.
Yet, while enthusiasm for potential Mars-colonization continues to evolve and public opinion starts to wrap its head around space settlement, one can’t help but wonder if Mars is the one in danger of humans, and not the other way around. Is the environmental disaster in which we find ourselves here on Earth not a testament to the destructive and exploitative tendencies of our terra-species? Before we start planting flags and seeds in Martian soil, should we perhaps be asking ourselves what responsibilities, if any, we might have towards preserving or protecting Mars? If we embark on interplanetary colonisation, to what extent would ‘terraforming’ - the changing of the environment to suit our needs - be an ethical issue?
In the paper “The ethical dimensions of space settlement” (2000), researcher Martyn J. Fogg discusses a number of philosophical questions concerning the morality of human colonization of Mars: “If we can visit Mars, live there, and ultimately terraform the planet, would it be right to do so? Is Mars just potential real estate or does it have an inherent right to eternal preservation?”
Fogg essentially concludes that sentimentality and misanthropy lie at the root of prevailing moral doubts concerning Mars colonization, arguing that ‘zoocentrists’, ‘ecocentrists’ and ‘cosmic preservationists’ are ethical theories that all choose to focus on humanity’s unfavourable qualities and our capacities for evil and exploitation, rather than our potential for “enlightened self-interest” as shepherds of our planet(s):
“To the zoocentrist, humans are unnecessarily cruel to our fellow creatures; to the ecocentrist, we are seen on the one hand as nothing special, and on the other, uniquely arrogant and destructive. To the cosmic preservationist, the idea of letting loose such a wicked and cancerous species on the Universe at large is nothing short of an abomination.”
Preservationism for its own sake does not, in Fogg’s view, out-weight the potential benefits of colonisation, and he argues that cosmic settlement - if Mars turns out to be lifeless, as we suspect - could and should be a way for humans to spread life to other parts of the universe, maximise diversity and pollinate the cosmos. If agriculture on a planet where we’re sharing space and resources with other life in a pre-existing ecosystem has proven destructive for biodiversity, could humans “pollinating” Mars really have the opposite effect?
Perhaps the peaceful agricultural settler depicted in The Martian is a realistic, if optimistic, imagination of humans ‘bringing life to’ Mars. And perhaps if we exercise this supposed potential for “enlightened self-interest” we can do our best to ethically pollinate the universe while ‘protecting’ Mars from our past mistakes. And yet… while Matt Damon growing potatoes in a homemade tent feels innocent enough for now, a number of unanswered questions still linger at the end of The Martian that leave me feeling inquisitive, if somewhat uneasy: would we also consider it ethical to bring animals to Mars in the name of spreading biodiversity? How would we pack the noah’s ark to bring along? Would it be ethical to give birth to and raise humans on Mars? If we eventually abandon the Earth like a sinking ship, is a future “Mars immigration crisis” really so difficult to imagine?
But, I won’t let my cynical misanthropy get ahead of myself and rain too hard on The Martian’s parade. Humans creating and controlling the life system of an entire planet - what could possibly go wrong?