Mars Rover landing raises ethical colonization questions


Kat St. Martin-Norburg

Upper School science teacher Dr. Heilig makes a list of the pros and cons to space colonization in the Space Science class.

While space has long fascinated people of all ages and backgrounds, it’s always seemed like a distant, unreachable location. Now, however, scientists have presented a way for human civilization to possibly be semi-transplanted to space: terraforming Mars. There are a variety of ways to terraform Mars, but on a fundamental level, terraforming entails changing Mars’s biology to make it fit for Earthly life, including humans. While terraforming Mars may seem like an incredible initiative, it also raises countless ethical and moral concerns that outweigh any positive effects.

One of the larger issues with terraforming Mars, and subsequently developing a human colony there, is that it’s not within humanity’s rights to terraform another planet. By fundamentally changing the environment of Mars, humanity essentially takes control of the planet, developing a human-centric mentality that assumes dominance over other areas of space. This mindset fosters the idea that humankind is a superior race of space creatures, and therefore, prioritizes human life over what could be found in space. Considering the fact that scientists have a limited understanding at this point about how space works, prioritizing humanity could have dangerous repercussions that humans won’t even know about.

Furthermore, terraforming Mars assumes that the planet doesn’t have rights. On Earth, wildlife reserves have been set up to preserve parts of our environment out of respect for its longevity and biodiversity. Rivers have even been declared to have rights. Heilig emphasized the importance of this part of the debate around terraforming.

“What about Mars as a planet? Does it have rights? Should it be treated like a wilderness area? It’s been around for a long time, and it’s different from the Earth,” said Heilig.

Because Mars is similar to Earthly wilderness reserves in terms of its longevity and diversity from Earth, it should be treated as a wilderness reserve. Rather than changing its environment forever, humanity needs to respect Mars, and not abuse it for its own purposes.

Part of the issue with terraforming Mars is that doing so would destroy any life that exists there. While scientists have not been able to find life on Mars yet, their research is impeded by the fact that they know so little. Their knowledge of life is limited to an Earth-based understanding that excludes many other possible types of life. Even if scientists were to proclaim that Mars has no life, they are limited by the fact that they can’t entirely know what life is. Terraforming Mars will forever have the risk of killing life that exists there. By assuming power over Mars and terraforming it, humans would essentially prioritize their own lives over potential life elsewhere in space.

The main reason to terraform Mars is the idea that humanity could build a colony there, which would function as a backup home in case Earth stopped being habitable. However, this argument is inherently flawed. According to Upper School science teacher of the Space Science class, Steve Heilig, Mars isn’t a feasible location for Earth’s current population.

To [make] a whole planet [habitable], that’s a tricky thing, but to build a space colony, that might be something we can do in short time.”

— Dr. Steve Heilig

“Because Mars is smaller than the Earth, it’s not like we can take everybody and move them [there],” he said. In the case that Mars was to serve as an outpost of human civilization, it wouldn’t even be able to save everyone on Earth. In the event that human civilization was to transplant to Mars, some people would be chosen to go, while others would be left behind on Earth. This choice could exacerbate power structures already in place, leaving marginalized communities on Earth, and saving people in privilege. Therefore, a colony on Mars isn’t a viable backup plan.

Mars also isn’t the only location where humans could have an outpost of civilization, and therefore, it doesn’t need to be terraformed. According to Heilig, asteroids pose a viable alternative to colonies on Mars.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to live in space other than the surface of Mars…You could take a big asteroid, and drill tunnels into it and turn that into a giant city in space,” he said.

In fact, according to Heilig, terraforming Mars would cost more time and resources than building a colony elsewhere in space.

“To [make] a whole planet [habitable], that’s a tricky thing, but to build a space colony, that might be something we can do in short time,” he said.

While some people argue that terraforming Mars is necessary to have a backup plan for human civilization, it actually isn’t needed at all. Humans can develop a colony in space not just outside of Mars, but more easily. For people who are interested in a space colony, developing one on an asteroid is actually a more viable, and time-efficient plan. Mars isn’t the only or best option for a space colony, and therefore, doesn’t need to be terraformed for human benefits.

Terraforming Mars would do more harm than good. It would violate the respect humans need to have for space and destroy the potential for life. Even the suggested benefit, human life in space, has other, better, ways it can be achieved besides terraforming Mars. Ultimately, because terraforming Mars is unnecessary and harmful, humankind should not pursue the idea of terraforming Mars.