Opinion L.A.

Observations and provocations
from The Times' Opinion staff

« Previous Post | Opinion L.A. Home | Next Post »

By the toll of a billion deaths man has bought his birthright of the earth

Interplanetary hubris watch: Scientists continue to ignore the warning of that great astrobiologist Elton John: Mars ain't the kind of place to raise your kids. This time, NASA scientists and a University of Mexico professor are checking out the top of Pico de Orizaba volcano to see whether trees that grow all the way up there might make it possible to send hearty perennials (in the words of the accomplished physicist Lou Reed) way up to Mars.

The goal, according to NASA's Chris McKay and U of M's Rafael Navarro-Gonzalez, is to use trees as "the engines of the biosphere" to pump "powerful gases," with the goal of bringing human-caused global warming to the cold and thin atmosphere of the Red Planet.

Mars_5Here in the backyard of the robot-probe-friendly Jet Propulsion Laboratory, rooting for the home team means taking a dim view of NASA's human-centric projects (which this one, characterized by Reuters' Catherine Bremer as a way to "create an atmosphere that would support oxygen-breathing life forms" is deep in its carbon-based heart). But in this case I'm especially skeptical. Aren't we a lot closer to, say, the "Genetic modification and selection of microorganisms for growth on Mars" [pdf] stage of theorizing than to the E.T.-cruising-the-Redwoods stage?

McKay innoculates himself against absurd claims for terraforming by cautioning: "I don't have this vision of people moving to Mars the way people settled the New World, setting up homes and bringing their families." But the terraformers always want to have it both ways — making judicious-sounding claims about how long the process of earthifying Mars would take (centuries even!), but never acknowledging something more basic: Outside poetry or religion, terraforming is the closest you can come to the anthrocentric fallacy.

That's because Earth-like conditions are not some default position to which we can reconcile the rest of the universe but an apparently improbable (and constantly changing) set of circumstances under which life as we know it evolved. There's no indication, other than our own never-dwindling sense that we are at the center of the universe, that a square milimeter of territory outside our own atmosphere can ever be rendered Earth-like in any serious way.

The glib but well meaning counterargument to the above goes something like this: Hey, we've done such a number on Earth's atmosphere, just by accident, imagine what we could do if we set our minds to it on Mars. It does not minimize the seriousness of global warming to reply to that with a supercilious Oh, rilly? Have we really screwed up our environment so badly that human beings now explode on contact with fresh air? Have we rendered our planet lopsided, with a giant bulge in one hemisphere? As far as I know we haven't even managed to stop all geological activity or eliminate the magnetic field that is the only thing keeping good ol' Planet Earth from getting fried by radiation (though that idea was explored by Hilary Swank and a cast of A-minus listers in a wonderfully goofy movie a few years back). To believe you can change these very basic negative factors in the Arean real estate market is to believe in essentially god-like powers of creation and destruction.

You never hear NASA projects described as faith-based initiatives, but manned space travel is one of those. Your tax dollars may not be paying for those initiatives, but your tax nickels are. Whatever we get out of the federal space agency, we'd be getting a lot more if it would stop rewarding people who envision space-for-us and start rewarding people who envision space-as-it-actually-is.

Thanks to Ron Bailey.


"Mean Scientists Dash Hopes Of Life On Mars"

If you're talking outer-space forestry, you're talking Bruce Dern, baby!


Comments () | Archives (3)

The comments to this entry are closed.


i think, and presumably bailey would agree, that space colonisation skeptics, while rightly pointing out that the final frontier is supremely inhospitable, often succumb to their own 'anthrocentric fallacy', which is that humans necessarily need to stay 'human' in order to venture out in space. rather than terraforming other planets, why not bioengineer ourselves?

Tim Cavanaugh

I'm with you there, Glory. Self-government for mutants on Mars! (And I am pronouncing mutants the good way: mu-TANTS.)


mutations to accommodate (long periods) of space travel and extrasolar living is a staple of SF (niven, baxter, simmons) and of course the politics of human mutation has been endlessly rehashed in the marvel universe. dyson's recent post-evolutionary treatise in _the new york review of books_ aside -- http://www.nybooks.com/articles/20370 -- i wonder why the debate doesn't enter 'mainstream' consciousness more often, outside the occasional edict from the president's bioethics panel. is 'eugenics' so frowned upon? as if selective breeding and _discrimination_, in one form or another, was the dirty little secret of civilisation (rather than its motive force).

mayhaps, like terraforming, the cost and complexity of genetic modification renders its application impractical* and discussion of its implications moot for those pundits and politicos grounded in the 'real world' of their viewing audience and constituencies, with other matters to consider...

on that note, as an aside, left to the realm of SF and comics, i'm partial to the idea that human experimentation on animal test subjects (à la _planet of the apes_ & _ mrs. frisby and the rats of NIMH_) will lead to the origin of species more capable of meta-cognition and self-determination than _h.sapiens_ :P


btw, it wasn't just a dream...
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Total_Recall#Themes - "director Verhoeven and star Schwarzenegger discuss how they wanted to do a sequel (which later became _Minority Report_), using Quaid as the hero of a firm that uses psychics (Martian mutants brought back to Earth for the proposed Verhoeven/Schwarzenegger sequel, Precogs in the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise film) to solve crimes before they happen"

* http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/01/business/yourmoney/01frame.html?ei=5088&en=e8a6202e0162538f&ex=1340942400&partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&pagewanted=all



In Case You Missed It...



Recent Posts
Reading Supreme Court tea leaves on 'Obamacare' |  March 27, 2012, 5:47 pm »
Candidates go PG-13 on the press |  March 27, 2012, 5:45 am »
Santorum's faulty premise on healthcare reform |  March 26, 2012, 5:20 pm »


About the Bloggers
The Opinion L.A. blog is the work of Los Angeles Times Editorial Board membersNicholas Goldberg, Robert Greene, Carla Hall, Jon Healey, Sandra Hernandez, Karin Klein, Michael McGough, Jim Newton and Dan Turner. Columnists Patt Morrison and Doyle McManus also write for the blog, as do Letters editor Paul Thornton, copy chief Paul Whitefield and senior web producer Alexandra Le Tellier.

In Case You Missed It...