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

July 30, 2007 |  9:11 pm

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.

Related:

"Mean Scientists Dash Hopes Of Life On Mars"

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

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