Brave New Worlds

Curiosity fever is still under way (and with it, a greater appreciation of Mohawks, apparently), and while our plucky little rover is climbing craters and zapping rocks, we’re already beginning to ask: what’s next?

And the answer, inevitably, is: When do we get to go to Mars?

The plan to colonize Mars has a long and sometimes fanciful history. I remember reading the Reader’s Digest and being thoroughly fascinated by the idea that we would create a human colony in Mars by 2020. “I’ll still be alive then!” thought my ten-year-old self. And today morning, my past collided rather oddly with my future when ZDNet published a video by Reaction Engines, chronicling the future of Mars manned exploration.

The idea is thrilling. It gives me goosebumps, literally, to think of ourselves exploring a new planet, dealing with the challenges it’ll present and carving out an ecological niche for ourselves. The sheer knowledge and technological experience we’d gain from the exercise isn’t to be discounted, either. But I think it’s time we remind ourselves what we lack, and all the reasons we shouldn’t be colonizing anything until we’ve taken care of a few main points first.

Planets are not disposable. We cannot leap across the solar systems, colonizing worlds, simply because we’ve exhausted our planet’s resources and it’s time to mine another. If we’re incapable of living sustainably on the planet we evolved on, what makes us think we’ll be capable of doing so on a world we’ve never seen with our own eyes?

We’ll first have to cut ourselves a place on this new planet, finding out what — if any — ecological system exists and how we can fit ourselves in without displacing too much of it. And then we’ll have to figure out how to remain there for a significant period of time without destroying the climate — or ourselves, for that matter.

For instance, what do we really know about how global warming occurs, whether it cyclical, and what the best way to deal with it is? We’ll move to other worlds for many noble reasons, but surely for selfish ones as well, like the extraction of resources. And when we begin to argue over the best way to balance extraction and preservation, whose logic will prevail?

This isn’t Manifest Destiny, by a long shot. The idea of colonization is glorious. Whichever generation does it will be hailed as pioneers and superheroes. We’ll be facing the biggest challenge of our lives, and that collectively, as a species, as a civilization. Which is why it will be so easy to be swept off our feet by the possibility and the power. The stars beckon!

But no.

We cannot do this simply because we can. Even if there isn’t life on other planets, even if the solar system seems as though it’s ours for now, we cannot irresponsibly wreck havoc on worlds. We destroy all chance of learning from our mistakes that way.

Of course we should colonize Mars, and any other planets we can reach and set foot on. But only after we’ve understood the damage it might do, after we’ve considered how best to be responsible, after we’ve learned from our own mistakes.

In other words, we’re not ready for Mars. Not yet, not by a long shot.

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