The ethics of Terraforming Mars

Colonizing space has unintended consequences

Space travel and exploration have always been the stuff of science-fiction, movie and TV franchises making it seem like something for the distant future. However, advances in technology, the rapid pace of climate change and the understanding of the space around us – especially Mars and the moon – have made this future not-so-distant. Corporations such as SpaceX and Blue Origin make it even easier to achieve this goal by taking the burden off of governments to lead the move to space. But just because we can do it does not necessarily mean we should.

Humanity has not developed a sustainable culture, especially within the big corporations that lead the move to space. Unsustainable practices in the industry have led to climate change, melting icebergs, extinction of species and pollution of drinking water. Who is to say that any of this will change on a different planet? If a planet, such as Mars, can be successfully made habitable, how long will it be before resources are found under the surface and the drive for unearthing these resources makes Mars inhabitable too? If a planet with life, even if microscopic, is found, how long until that life is wiped out for the desire of preserving the human race? Even on Earth, the production of transportation and fuel for space travel will likely accelerate the impacts of climate change, even more, creating debris both on Earth and in the atmosphere around it.

To make matters worse, people are not impacted equally by climate change. Lower-income communities in the United States and Western Europe are disproportionately affected by climate change, and the impacts are felt even more acutely by countries in the global south. In their desire to lower labor costs, corporations outsource work and production to countries in the global south, worsening the local environment and contributing to climate change.

This pattern will not change when these corporations turn to space travel. In order to produce the materials and technology necessary to go to space, indigenous populations and vulnerable communities will continuously be put at risk, continuing a pattern that works hand-in-hand with capitalism. While wealthier communities make their dreams of space exploration a reality, poorer communities will be pushed further and further from this goal.

Then, there is the issue that as the Earth deteriorates, the move to space has become privatized. With SpaceX and other corporations paving the way to space, it opens the door for them to make accessing this frontier cost tens of millions of dollars. So, if we eventually move to space, it is likely that poorer communities will be left with the burden of keeping Earth a sustainable living place while the wealthy will be able to buy their tickets and escape increasingly unsafe air and water conditions. People in countries taken advantage of time and time again by European and North American powers will lack access to space travel and the development that comes with it, leaving them in an unsustainable world.

Of course, while space travel itself is nearer to the present, actually colonizing space is in the more distant future. However, that does not change the current patterns in place that set humanity up for a classist filter of who gets to move away from Earth’s mess and who will be left behind to clean it up. In the excitement of delving into an unexplored frontier, it can be easy to forget that exploration will come at a cost, one that not everyone will pay. Before we consider making a new home beyond Earth’s atmosphere, it is important to resolve the systemic issues already in place to make sure that the version of the human race that is sent into space is a sustainable one.