Last year, about a month into the pandemic, I reached for something comforting: the 1992 science-fiction novel “Red Mars,” by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’d first read it as a teen-ager, and had reread it a handful of times by my early twenties. Along with its two sequels, “Green Mars” and “Blue Mars,” the novel follows the first settlers to reach the red planet. They establish cities, break away from Earth’s control, and transform the arid surface into a garden oasis, setting up a new society in the course of a couple hundred years. On the cover of my well-worn copy, Arthur C. Clarke declared it “the best novel on the colonization of Mars that has ever been written.” In my youth, I considered it a record of what was to come.
It had been a decade since I’d last cracked open the book. In that time, I’d become a journalist specializing in space, covering its practical, physical, biological, psychological, sociological, political, and legal aspects; still, the novel’s plot had always stayed with me, somewhere in the back of my mind. It turns on a series of questions about what we owe to our planetary neighbor—about what we are allowed to do with its ancient geological features, and in whose interests we should be willing to modify them. In Robinson’s future, a disgruntled minority of settlers argue that humanity has no right to alter a majestic place that has existed without us for billions of years; they undertake ecoterroristic acts to undermine Martian terraforming efforts and, in the end, succeed in keeping parts of Mars a wilderness. I used to think it sensible that their opinion was relegated to the margins. Reading the novel again, I wasn’t so sure.
“It seemed to me obvious,” Robinson told me, over the phone this winter, when I asked him how he’d come to place that particular dilemma at the center of his trilogy. Environmental ethicists have long debated how we ought to treat the Earth, and asked whether the natural world has intrinsic value. In 1990, one of Robinson’s friends, a NASA astrobiologist and planetary scientist named Christopher McKay, posed the question “Does Mars have rights?” in a paper of the same name. Ultimately, McKay answered in the negative: he concluded that, when we speak of the value of nature, we’re really thinking of the value of living organisms. Unless the red planet is alive, McKay argued, we’re unlikely to extend to it the same environmental considerations that we apply to biospheres on Earth. “I thought that might be true for Chris McKay,” Robinson said. “But people living on Mars would develop affection for the place as it is.”
In February, NASA successfully landed a new robotic rover on the surface of Mars. Perseverance, as the vehicle is known, will roll around an area called Jezero Crater, searching for signs of life. It will collect up to thirty test-tube-size samples from the red rocks and dust, storing them so that a future mission can bring them into Martian orbit and, eventually, back to Earth. I have no ethical qualms about the tracks that Perseverance will lay down, nor about the part that it will play in absconding with a bit of Mars. But, in contemplating a future human presence on the planet, I start to worry about the questions presented in Robinson’s books. If there’s nobody around to stop us from doing what we want, what should we do?
Space exploration presents ethical quandaries even on Earth. Astronomers sometimes want to place telescopes on sacred land. In orbit, we scatter litter. Countries are now debating whether we have a right to mine the moon or asteroids, and asking who should be entitled to use such places as a second home. Space agencies and tech billionaires are working to solve the myriad technical issues associated with travelling to and staying off-world, but, once that’s done, there’s the problem of our conduct after we get there. Critics suggest that, in space, we risk repeating the mistakes of the colonial past, in which exploration was often a cover for the exploitation of native beings and environments.