Life on Mars: Cultivating a Planet–and Ourselves
Mars is one of the brightest objects in the night sky. Its reddish color, now known to be caused by the prevalence of iron oxides in its soil, perhaps accounts for its identification by the Greeks and Romans with the bloody god of war. Its astronomical symbol is the same as the circle-and-arrow symbol of the male and of the metal iron. Like all planets–”wanderers”–it does not make an orderly circuit of Polaris, as do the fixed stars, but pursues an odd looping trajectory through the sky, and waxes and wanes in brightness as it does so. The orderly astronomical mind, intrigued by this irregularity in the orbits of planets, arrived after some ten thousand years of speculation at the present model of the solar system, wherein Mars circles the Sun in the same plane as the Earth, but at about one-third again the distance away (about 228 million kilometers). From Mars the sun would look about two thirds of the size it looks from here. Mars is smaller than the Earth, and its surface gravitation is about three eighths of ours. Its year–the period in which it revolves about the sun–is about twice as long as that of the Earth, but the inclination of its poles is almost identical to Earth’s, and thus its seasonal variations are analogous: it has a spring, a summer, an autumn, and a winter. Its day–the period in which it spins on its own axis–is almost exactly identical to Earth’s.
We have always projected upon the stars the images of our own archetypes: and Mars has been a rich field for such imaginative colonization. Indeed, the twentieth century mythology of the planet is perhaps richer than at any prior period. The eyes of the astronomers Lowell and Schiaparelli, straining against the distortion of the Earth’s atmosphere as they peered through their telescopes, interpreted the orange blur into a surface webbed with lines. The planet of canals they hypothesized became in turn the evocative basis of the Mars many of us grew up with: the Mars of the great deserts, the dying planet of Edgar Rice Burroughs and H. G. Wells, with its thin air, its ancient despairing civilizations eking out the last precious water from the melting poles, its envious glances at the blue water-planet between them and the sun. In the extraordinary panic that followed Orson Welles’ radio dramatization of The War of the Worlds Mars became the great American symbol of The Other–ancient where we were young, in want where we were surrounded by natural fertility, subtle and incalculable where we were simple: like the Europeans, perhaps, or the orientals, or, in Burroughs’ fantasy, like the North American Indians we had dispossessed and driven into the deserts.
Nevertheless we yearned for there to be life on Mars, and the evidence for a while looked good: Mars clearly had an atmosphere, and weather, and changed color at different times of the year. For these and other reasons Mars became a major focus of NASA’s planetary exploration program, and their efforts were rewarded by the spectacular success of the Mariner and Viking probes, which photographed, landed on, and sampled the Martian surface. But the result was bitter disappointment; Mars was biologically dead, and our almost religious hope for a sister species in the depths of space was deferred. On the level of cultural myth many people turned inward, back to the precious and beautiful island of the Earth and to the inner realm of personal experience, and abandoned the impulse of exploration. But that retreat also perhaps carried with it an ungenerous, timid and querulous element, a miserly hoarding of the spirit, which has permeated our economy, our educational system, and our arts. The Martians have perhaps done us more harm by their nonexistence than by their imagined invasion of our world.
But let us imagine another myth instead. In one of Ray Bradbury’s stories an Earthly colonist of Mars takes his daughter down to the canal to show her a Martian. She is told to look into the water, and there she sees her own reflection. Suppose we were the Martians? Suppose we could go there and make the place our own? “We” in this case cannot, we know now, mean just we human beings. If the ecology movement has taught us anything, it is that we cannot exist without a biosphere of other species about us–they are us, are our bodies. So the new myth of Mars must be that we will bring Mars to life, and garden it into a place where the living descendants of Earthly plants and animals can flourish–a new nature, a new birth of a world into sentient existence.
But what would be the purpose of this enterprise? What would justify its enormous expense and danger? There are two answers to this question: one practical and economic (though based, as is all economics, on the mysterious sources of desire); the other philosophical or even pre-philosophical, since it concerns a fundamental tuning of the mind that is the prerequisite of true philosophy.
Economics first. We live in a time when despite the achievement of great wealth for huge continental populations in many developed nations, there is a widespread sense of the loss of value, meaning, dignity and grandeur in our vision of ourselves and our cosmos. We need the moral equivalent of a great war or a great religion; or we will find it in drug-addiction, madness, and perhaps uncontrollable internal political violence. The young especially need to find in the world an enterprise worth the life and death commitment of a full undamaged uncynical adult human being. The existence of such an enterprise would create a general improvement in morale as the peoples of the world realize that they are working for something worthy of human attention, not just for personal wealth or national prestige or out of the exacerbated grievance that is the core of the Marxist/Capitalist theory of value.
One of the strangest things about human beings is that we tend to achieve the most obviously desirable things only when we are striving for something else. We are happiest when we are striving not for happiness but, say, for artistic perfection, or for the purest service to other persons, or for true knowledge. Economically the widespread wellbeing of the great masses of people in Europe and America was not achieved by any ambition to improve the lives of the poor–in fact, it may have even been hindered by it–but rather through the pursuit of trade, exploration, art, religious evangelism, science, and profit. The most stable and perhaps the most contented society in the world has probably been ancient Egypt, which for millenia poured all its surplus wealth straight into the ground, in the form of gravegoods, tombs, monuments and pyramids. Death was its sink of excess value. The contemporary stability of the world’s economic system–not in absolute terms, of course, but compared with all other periods of history–may well have a great deal to do with our own egregious and pyramidical form of waste, the arms race. With peace imminent between the east and the west, we are going to have to look very seriously for some commensurable and magnificent folly to keep the world economy going. It will be hard work spending the trillion or so annual dollars that presently find their home in the world’s defense budget. The best candidate for the job is the Mars terraforming project.
The enormous expense of the project, then, is one of its great advantages; we are going to need something to replace the necessary economic waste of the arms race when nobody takes the threat of nuclear war seriously any more. And to what better purpose might we put the beautiful and terrible heroic spirit of humankind, ready for suffering and sacrifice and courage, when we no longer have war to spend it on? There is in this proposal a strange continuity of technology and passion with the old art of war, combined with a reversal of purpose. The seeding process might put to appropriate use our huge stocks of ballistic missiles, replacing their warheads with the germs of life. Old cliches are sometimes very rich: this would indeed be a beating of swords into plowshares.
The flow of economic value, especially into the tropical areas that house the great preponderance of species on Earth, would be a significant tonic to the world’s economy. Some have already suggested that the World Bank could trade forgiveness of third world indebtedness for protection of the rain forests; in the light of the Mars project, and with a new juriprudence in which genes can be patented, the genetic information preserved in the forests would become a precious, salable, and renewable resource.
Meanwhile the economic fallout from the new biotechnology should produce great new forms of wealth. The terraforming of Mars will require the complete recreation by human science, art, and technology of the natural ecology itself, and the creative extension of that ecology into new domains. We will be preparing ourselves to become the pollinators and the seeders of the universe, and to carry life not only to other planets in the solar system but also across the galaxy and to other galaxies. This project will require that we come to understand the molecular structure of life so well that we can reproduce existing lifeforms, resurrect extinct forms, beneficially alter existing forms for new environments, and create entirely new kinds of life. Only thus could the hostile and sterile environments that lie beyond the blue mantle of the Earth be seeded and gardened. In the process of this work we will discover how valuable is every single existing species, and perhaps even roll back the wave of extinctions that we have caused, by restoring lost species.
Who knows what new technologies might arise out of this effort? Why might we not here on Earth eventually live in houses grown from genetically-tailored trees? And mine our raw materials with the aid of multitudes of tiny bacterial or nanotechnological assistants progammed to strain the precious elements out of the sea or the ground, or extract them from our own waste-products? This increase in wealth, moreover, would not be at the expense of the CO2 balance of the planet, nor would it generate pollution.
The world not being exclusively a linear and rational system–thank heaven!–we may not be able to achieve all our immediately desirable objectives by striving for them. An excellent and universal education, which is our greatest need, may not be achievable merely by the direct application of resources and intentions to that purpose. Nor may, in the long run, any reversal of the process of environmental deterioration. Nor may any improvement in the condition of the world’s poor, as we know from the Sahel and the American ghetto, where the aid and good intentions of one generation were largely responsible for the famines and the cultural collapse of the next. Of course for our own moral sanity we must do everything we can. But the real help will come from some other direction; it will be some incalculable and autonomous movement of the human spirit, and will have to do, I believe, with the health of the stock of value in the world, its growth, its hope in itself.
So our deepest work must be like that of an artist, who by indirect means must make some beautiful richness flower up, who must nourish the ground of her art with strange conceptions. The Mars terraforming project is a “pyramid” whose building will force us to educate ourselves as we need to be educated, but behind our backs, while we are not, so to speak, looking. It will be at first a magnificent waste, which will prune our economic system to its most productive. Only later will we realize that it was in our economic interest, indeed was the key to our economic survival. This is the way the story of history happens–what was a game turns into our surest and soundest resource. This project will give birth to social, spiritual, and economic turbulences that will raise up the unfortunate, and cause us to seek out that knowledge and power by which we will save the environment from ourselves.
The second reason for undertaking the gardening of Mars is that it will be an essential part of our philosophical education as a species: an education the we desperately need. At present the constructive energies of our culture are locked in a paralysing struggle against one another. Those energies derive from three distinct modes of thought: the reductive, the creative, and the ecological.
The first, the reductive, might also be termed the analytic: its procedure is to take the object of study apart to see what it is made of and how it works. Its goal is to tease out the operations of a system into a single line of logic, so that by following it anyone else would arrive inevitably at the same conclusion, and the conclusions are clearly inherent in the premises. This way of thought values the basic, the primary, the elementary, the simple; the single variable that explains the workings of a complex system. And in fact this analytic mode must always be exhausted or invalidated for good reason before any other mode of thought can be expected to carry conviction; because analysis has the profound virtue of demonstrability, communicability, and repeatability, and is thus accessible to every member of the republic.
Such institutions as scientific experimental protocols, international standards of weights and measures, the Food and Drug Administration, scientific peer review periodicals, repair and operation manuals, the Dewey decimal system of library classification, due process of law, and so on are examples of the absolute necessity of the analytic mode, and its indispensability in a democratic society. They also represent a refreshingly noble objectivity in a world where desires are equated with needs and the truth is what we want it to be. Science gets out the vote of the rest of the universe on what it takes itself to be, not what we would have it be.
The analytic mode of thought has given us perhaps the greatest practical gifts that we have received as a species. It supplied the basis for our unprecedented control over the rest of nature (though it could not provide a coherent conception of how or why we might exercise that control); it fed us, it healed us, it clothed and housed us–it fulfilled all of Jesus’ great injunction when he bade us love our neighbor.
But the reductive mode has its deficiencies. It explains wholes in terms of parts. It is deterministic: the outcome must always be inherent in the origin, and thus it can look only backwards into the past. It aspires to the absolute simplicity and automatism of the Big Bang. It values things only for what they are made of and what they came from: the parent is more valuable than the child, the origin than the result. Its law is one of decay, of a falling-off from an original richness of causal power to a decomposition of that power into more and more trivial and disordered threads of entropic consequence. Such things as mind are inaccessible to it; mind must be only a description of brain, and brain is only the mechanical workings of the neurons. It cannot accomodate that mysterious relationship between observer and observed which seems, in quantum theory, to close a loop in the universe between the most primitive and the most advanced constituents of it. It proceeds in the opposite direction from evolution, which is a process that works from past to future; its description of evolution has no language or concept for the emergence of new, richer forms of order and reflexiveness out of simpler, more primitive, more chaotic origins. Taken by itself it would lead to a psychology in which we were neither free nor responsible, in which neither sin nor virtue had any meaning, and for which the creative inventions of both art and technology would be mere fantasies, random epiphenomena of a decaying world.
When natural reality starts working in even very simple nonlinear ways, as Prigogine and the Chaos theorists have shown, the analytic method must confront monstrosities like self-generating ordered systems, processes that forget their initial conditions, measurements whose increasing accuracy makes it more and more difficult, not easy, to predict the behavior of what is measured.
Analysis fails not only when it must confront evolving systems that develop emergent forms of order over time, but also when it looks at complex interdependent systems at any given moment of time. Its arrow of explanation points always backward, downward, down the slope of time, down the hierarchy of detail. But the horizontal arrow of relationship, of mutual influence, of those balance-restoring feedback systems that preserve an environment in a stable state, is invisible to the analytic eye. For the reductionist way of thought the world is dead, and the chill perfections of death become the ideal yardstick against which life is measured. It can know neither the upward-pointing arrow of evolution, from parts to wholes, past to future, nor the horizontal arrow of mutual interdependence, of copresence, of system, of ecology, of culture.
And thus it is no surprise that the analytic mode, taken without sufficient alloy from other modes of thought, has got us into deep trouble. It is surely responsible in part for the quick-technical-fix, bottom-line attitude of much industrial exploitation of the environment, whether by free-enterprise business or socialist bureaucracy. It may yet be the destruction of the living world itself, whether by the ultimate reductiveness of the nuclear explosion, that reduces matter itself to energy, or by the slower process of beheading and poisoning the ecological body of Gaia. In economics it has led to a reduction of all goods to crude numerical economic good, measured by money; a reduction which, alloyed in capitalist societies by the need to appeal to a consuming public, is totally unalloyed in leftist theory, where the welfare of various social groups (statistical phantoms such as Women, Minorities, the Poor, the Third World) is measured by a single monetary standard that degrades their culture, their personal value systems, and the actual complexities and differences of their way of life.
The reductive way of thought is by itself insufficient; though it is also absolutely necessary.
Let us turn, then, to a second mode of thought, that mode which proceeds in the same direction as evolution, from the simple to the complex, from past to future, from origins to new and unpredictable outcomes. This mode might be called the creative, the inventive, the progressive, the constructive, the synthesizing. In one sense it is the optimistic and hopeful spirit of life itself, of sexual reproduction, of those great wasteful billowings of sperm and eggs–by the tons, the ten thousand tons–as the myriad-bodied organisms of the coral reefs release their great bet on the future two days after the full moon. Just so a forest of chestnut trees will blossom hugely in the spring, the salmon will leap the falls to immolate themselves in their love death, the birds will build, the cats will yowl, the lovely young people blossom at the prom, the artist–Mozart even on his deathbed, Shakespeare three or four immortal plays in one year–will throw mind, body, and spirit into the fecund furnace of original creation. The creative impulse is at the heart of our purpose for being in the world: it is our freedom–freedom can be nothing else–and it is the only solution to the problem of desire.
The creative energy we see in the productions of biological evolution and human creativity can be found in an even more universal form, as the nonlinear positive feedback processes, dissipative systems, and self-organizing structures currently under investigation by Chaos science. Or perhaps we might broaden the term evolution to cover these processes, or say that evolution itself evolves, and that biology was just the first place where we noticed the phenomenon of evolution in general. Nature’s own creativity, which we have come to know as generated by evolution, is not of a different kind from our own. Our thoughts are a new electrochemical way in which the old evolutionary process of creation can take place–but in us the process is unimaginably faster and more powerful.
To this Promethean impulse can also be credited that effectuating and enabling vision by which science–passive and often reductive in itself–is transformed into technology. Let us celebrate for one last innocent moment the starry and heart-shaking glory of our technological civilization: the perfection, the sureness, the tautness of that entasis which springs the almost imperceptible arch of the pediment of the Parthenon, the roadbed of the Golden Gate bridge; the fire of the rocket engines of the Challenger as it rose into the blue Florida sky.
But the more technology has come to ignore and despise the past, to concentrate on the innovative, the futuristic, the efficiently productive, the more it has tended to exploit and despoil the natural and cultural environment, to destroy the past sources of value that help to maintain it. “History is bunk” said Henry Ford; a sentiment shared by the technological socialism of the eastern bloc countries, with their now-failed attempts to dissolve the heritage of religion, family, and culture. The forward-looking thought of the great artists and technologists is, alas, partly responsible for the ecological destruction that we cannot now ignore.
The trouble with the creative/innovative way of thought is that though indeed it does value things, it values them not for what they are but for what can be made of them, what they will result in. Modern galleries and museums of art all too often ignore work which is beautiful in itself in order to concentrate on the seminal breakthrough in concept or technique; the new is more valuable than the old, the old valuable only in that it anticipates the future. The older generation is oedipally sacrificed to the more advanced ideas of the new. In this form the innovating way of thought is often deeply hostile to the scientific. Much polemic in the arts and the humanities has been directed against scientific reductionism and the linear thinking of the technocrats. And the reciprocal contempt of some established reductionists for the undisciplined thought of artists and visionaries is only too familiar.
The creative, innovative way of thought is indeed, taken by itself, deeply flawed. In desperation, then, we might be tempted to turn to the third great way of thought, the ecological, the relational, the present-oriented way of thought, as a panacea. Perhaps here we can find an answer, in that gentle, loving realization that all is system, that we are all–or if not, we should all be–equal participants in the world. In this conception of things the universe is a great network or web of relations, and all entities in it are equally valuable. Most important of all is the balance of nature, that self-correcting equilibrium whereby any deviations are gently corrected and all is adjusted to the common good.
And indeed when we contemplate such natural phenomena as a coral reef, with its hundreds of thousands of species living in relative harmony with each other–and its beauty, its richness of forms, its mysterious order and its innocent productiveness–we are almost persuaded that that is how we human beings should live; or at least if we do not live that way in some sense, we will not live at all. On the social level, on the fringes of the academies, among certain groups of artists and intellectuals, a great experiment in living this way is still going on, and its principles call forth an aching loyalty even among those who do not live its practice. This way of life is one in which there is no hierarchy, no distinction of persons, in which the good of each is identified with the good of all, in which an undiscriminating love and acceptance bathes every member of the community, and authority and prohibition are forever abolished.
In fields as diverse as ecological theory, general systems theory, neomarxist economics, radical psychoanalysis, New Age ethics and the new moral theologies of the Christian and Buddhist Left, the great ideal of the human community in harmony with itself and nature is still pursued. We cannot deny the enormous transforming value of what it has taught us.
But the social experiment of the sixties, which was designed to test these ideas, has, tragically, failed. For even this way of thought, taken by itself, is dangerous and distorting. The commune ideal seemed to lead directly and unerringly toward the must brutal and bestial authoritarianism or totalitarianism. Consider Jimmy Jones’ idealistic community in Guyana, the happy equality and self-abnegation of the Moonies, the name and mission of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Pol Pot was no doubt trying to create that non-hierarchical kind of system in Cambodia, one in which the population would all live in harmony with nature; and indeed the soil of Cambodia may well be richer with the organic fertilizer of those two millions who died. Anyone who has experienced the groupthink and ideological thought-police atmosphere of those college programs devoted to some kind of minority-oriented revision of history will know the phenomenon; and I have seen it at work in a consciousness-raising group, a commune in Canada, and among environmental activists.
Why does this happen? Why should a way of thinking devoted to the equality of all, to the unique value of the individual, and to the common good, turn out again and again to produce these monstrosities? The answer, I think, lies again in the exclusion of the other necessary modes of thought–in this case the reductive/analytical, and the creative/innovative. Ecological thought concerns itself with present horizontal relations between entities in systems, rather than the downward vertical relation of a system to its past roots and internal components, or its upward vertical relation with its future, its goals, the greater whole of which it is a part. Thus ecological thought, taken by itself, tends to deny any differences of value between things, being capable only of relativistic evaluations depending on an arbitrarily-chosen point of view within the great Web. This in practice means that the ecological way of thought has no systematic way of assessing greater or lesser value. The ecological mind cannot coherently prefer, for instance, the Weimar regime of Germany to the Nazi regime that followed it. To do so would be to hierarchize, which is anathema to the ecological mind. Strictly speaking such a person cannot coherently prefer his or her own view to any other, but can only assert that they are different, and that one of them happens to be their own. Their values must thus be held without analysis, criticism, debate or compromise, if they have any values at all. Hence the bigotry and prejudice of unexamined values must flourish when the ecological mode excludes the others.
Ecological thinking, moreover, is instinctively hostile to any kind of innovation; indeed, even to evolution, to the extent that evolution is an innovating process. The ecological way of thought is basically conservative; the only feedback processes it recognizes as legitimate are negative feedbacks which return a system to its original position. It fears both the linear processes of analysis and the nonlinear positive feedback processes of evolutionary creation, and it hates change. For innovation always unbalances an ecology, revises the terms of its relations, eliminates some participants and changes others. Evolution necessarily involves inequality–it is the very heart of inequality, since it works by differential rates of survival, competition, and clearly-demonstrable inequities in reproductive success. Individuality itself, which is the driving force of evolutionary and artistic change, is the enemy. Those totalitarian communes flourish only because the members, their individuality diminished, reduced to a common equality of submission, are easy prey for some confident ideologue who can protect them from the fierce independence and individuality of people competing and cooperating outside in the real world.
Ecological thinking, taken by itself, is also deeply suspicious of science and of any knowledge of the past and the parts and the development of the natural world as it is now. If nature has a past, then it was not always thus, and there is nothing sacred about nature as it now stands. I can recall a radical ecologite reacting in blind fury to an inoffensive reference by a scientist to episodes of mass extinction in the past; it was as if holy scriptures were being violated. If a natural system has parts, then the parts must be unequal to the whole, and inequality enters in. If it has a development, the present system must be said to be better or worse than its past, which implies that it might yet be improved upon.
For unalloyed ecological thought the role of human beings in nature is to ignore the reflexive and dynamic capacities of the human mind, given to us by nature, and act as if we were merely one species of plants or animals among many in the garden, and not as the gardener or shepherd. In a paradoxical sense the unalloyed ecological viewpoint is ecologically irresponsible. For if we are just another species in the system, why should we not do what all other species do when they get a chance: wipe out first all our competition and then all sources of our own nourishment? We can only protect the environment if we recognize that we are superior to it. Everything in the universe does indeed have vote in the constitution of the universe, as the ecologists insist; but it is not and should not be an equal vote.
For many reasons, then, we must reluctantly abandon pure and unalloyed ecological thought when it is taken by itself. Where, then, are we to turn?
It is by now clear that the answer is not simple, but is instead a plunge into a forbidding complexity–a recognition that we only see the world sanely and wholly when we see it with all three modes of thought at once: marvelling at the scaled worlds within worlds of more and more elementary and deterministic elements that make it up, and from which it evolved; sharing in its own evolutionary/creative leap into freedom, transcendence, creation; and lovingly recognizing our participation and interdependence within the present ecology of the world.
Once we see the world in this larger, integrated way, it springs suddenly into three dimensions. The reductive mode of thought sees the world as a vertical timeline or scale of relative complexity, and privileges the bottom of the line–the most ancient, primitive, and elemental being the causal determinant of whatever happens higher up the line. The creative, synthesizing way of thought also uses the vertical timeline but privileges the top end of the line–the most recent and modern, the most advanced, the most constructed and intentional–and fears the past, historical or biological, as an infringement of our human freedom. The ecological way of thought sees the world as a flat plane covered with interrelated and equal entities, where nothing is privileged and therefore value judgements are impossible. But if we put all three together then we suddenly see the world as a dynamic evolutionary hierarchy, in which everything has value–the basic for being basic, the advanced for being the flowering and purpose of the basic; and there is plenty of room for those entities that share a given level of being to rejoice in their equality, intrinsic value, and interdependence.
What we see is an evolutionary ecology, a four-dimensional expanding manifold whose inside is the past, whose outside is the future, and whose expanding surface is the present. Every organism in the universe has its own vote in the constitution of the universe, as the ecologists assert. But that vote is weighted according to the complexity, integration, sensitivity and effective field of action of that organism, derived from its evolutionary history. Thus in one breath, so to speak, is asserted forever both the greater value of those beings, human and other higher animals, that our moral intuition tells us to value highly above the insects, the plants, and the rocks; and the fundamental equality of all human beings, who share the same evolutionary history.
This vision of the world supplies us with an epistemology–a way of knowing–and an ethics of disagreement and coexistence. For in this view every opinion and argument is a member of an ecology of knowledge, where the competition and cooperation of its members produce a longterm increase in the richness and viability of the ecology as a whole. Bad opinions and arguments, like Nazism, will become extinct; good ones will survive to reproduce themselves. Such a view is consistent with democracy in politics, free enterprise in economics, and the dramatistic approach in esthetics and sociology. It has its own systematic reasons for protecting the weak, the endangered species and the minority culture, as parts of the necessary symbiosis, and as rich repositories of genetic or cultural alternatives, which may be called on when the system as a whole must adapt to change.
What one loses when one takes on this combined mode of thought is the comfort of simplicity and partisanship, and a certain immediate political effectiveness, as one becomes more prone to see, with stark sympathy, the other person’s point of view. What one gains is an enormous enfranchisement.
But the only way of learning to see the world in this fuller way is by actively engaging in a task which requires it. This is true both on the individual and the cultural level; but the value of an individual’s work, as we have seen, is ultimately underwritten by the existence of a valid collective purpose: such as the terraforming of Mars. In this larger work the three modes of thought must be intimately combined, or success will be impossible. The transformation of Mars would be a necessary education to the human species: not only a scientific and technological exercise, but also an alchemical one. Its deepest meaning would be the spiritual metamorphosis of the alchemist.
And this is not a fantasy. The technology which is presently threatening the atmosphere and biosphere of Earth may one day be used to bring a dead planet to life. The biological metamorphosis of the planet Mars into one habitable by human beings now appears increasingly feasible. Several bodies of scientists are investigating various aspects of the problem, for instance the Institute of Ecotechnics in London, Space Biospheres Ventures, the University of Arizona’s Environmental Research Laboratory, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, the American Geophysical Union, Carl Sagan and his associates, and NASA. The ecological successes of such institutions as the Wisconsin Arboretum, which has recreated a virtually authentic prairie on degraded farmland, and Dan Jantzen’s restored forest in Costa Rica, have encouraged efforts all over the world not just to protect but to create complex living ecosystems. Construction has begun on a sealed, self-sustaining five million cubic foot environment in Arizona called Biosphere II.
James Lovelock, a distinguished British biologist, is the formulator of the Gaia Hypothesis, which maintains that the biosphere of the planet Earth acts as a single organism to maintain the stability of the planet’s atmosphere, oceanic environment, and temperature. His book (with Michael Allaby) entitled The Greening of Mars, outlines one strategy by which Mars might be transformed. Though one of his ideas–the use of chlorofluorocarbons or freons to produce a greenhouse effect on Mars–now seems impracticable, several elements of an even more ambitious, and perhaps quicker, solution to the problem already exist.
First is the revolution which has recently occurred in our understanding of the Earth’s early evolution. The original atmosphere of the Earth would be highly lethal to contemporary living organisms, being composed largely of hydrogen sulfide, methane, and ammonia, with almost no free oxygen. The first living organisms were anaerobes, that is, lifeforms which do not need free oxygen and would indeed be poisoned by exposure to it. However, free oxygen was excreted by many early organisms as a waste product, rather as we and our technology excrete carbon dioxide. When the available “oxygen sinks”–metallic ores, for instance, that could soak up oxygen in the formation of oxides, or hydrogen, which combined with oxygen to create much of the water of the earth’s oceans–were exhausted, the new oxygen atmosphere poisoned the old anaerobic organisms that had brought it into being, leaving only those forms of life, such as the blue-green algae or cyanobacteria, which could either endure the presence of oxygen or, better still, use it as an enhanced energy source for photosynthesis, the creation of sugars, and the metabolic extravagances of the more advanced animals. With this change came the age of the eukaryotes, those organisms whose nucleated structure was such as to promote multicellular organization and sexual reproduction.
If this transformation could occur on Earth by biological means, might it not also be made to happen on Mars? Of course the process took hundreds of million years on Earth; but Earth had to make do with the very primitive and haphazard organisms supplied by its early evolution, whereas today there exists an enormous riches of life-chemistries and metabolisms to draw on.
But no contemporary Earth organism could survive long on Mars, whose carbon dioxide atmosphere is at a pressure less than one hundredth of the Earth’s–not enough to allow liquid water to exist–, whose surface temperature, averaging -40 degrees Fahrenheit, can support frozen carbon dioxide, and which because of its thin atmosphere and weak magnetic field is bombarded by ultraviolet radiation. Nonetheless certain Earthly organisms–bacteria for the most part–can handle conditions nearly as severe as these when taken one by one, though none can withstand them taken all together. Enormous advances are now taking place in bioengineering, whereby traits deemed desirable can be grafted from one organism to another. Could not hardened strains, chimeras, be generated, that might be adapted to the Martian environment? But in order to metabolize and reproduce, such organisms would need water.
The terrain of Mars clearly shows that at certain points of its geological history water has flowed on its surface. It could again, if the temperature of the planet could be raised sufficiently to release gases locked up as ice and increase the pressure to the point that free water could exist. Various methods for doing this have been proposed. By means of dyes, artificial dust-clouds or pigmented living organisms, the albedo–reflectivity–of the Martian surface could be reduced, so that less radiation was leaving its atmosphere than was striking it. So to turn Mars green it would first be necessary to make it black.
Robert Parke, an Australian Mars expert and visionary, suggests that the Martian moon Phobos might be used as a source of raw materials. The best hypothesis as to its composition is that its top few hundred feet is composed of very dark material, that could be fired by sun-powered electric mass-drivers against Phobos’s weak gravitation (one thousandth that of Earth) into the gravitational field of Mars, where it would either spread throughout the atmosphere or be aimed to fall on the polar regions. Here the dark material would absorb nearly twenty times as much heat as the water and carbon dioxide ices of the polar caps, and the sun’s heat would begin to vaporize the caps, much as it does Halley’s comet in photographs by Russian, Japanese, and European spacecraft. Other larger chunks of Phobos material, from deep under its surface, rich in frozen water, ammonia, and organic materials, could be impacted on the Martian surface, especially near Mars’ ancient river and lake beds, which contain more locked-up water and organic sediments. These chunks would constitute artificial meteors, and their impact would vaporize the water and organics, create greenhouse-effect dustclouds, and heat the planet’s mantle. Perhaps the old volcanoes of Mars would become active once more, adding their outgassing to the atmosphere.
Many of the necessary changes on Mars might employ the new concept of nanotechnology, whereby tiny self-reproducing chemical factories can be programmed for specific tasks, such as the mining and extraction from the Martian soil of the necessary gases. But in a sense this is only another extension of the idea of the Von Neumann machine, the machine which can make copies of itself; we already possess a fantastic riches of such machines, and we call them Life.
Or one might use even more radical solutions. The Saturnian ice-moon S26, recently and suggestively renamed Pandora, is about a hundred kilometers in diameter, giving a volume of about half a million cubic kilometers, and a mass of about 500 thousand trillion tons. If half this mass were used as the reaction mass to drive the other half, it might be shifted from its orbit enough to enter the gravitational fields of other satellites of Saturn, be slingshot out of Saturn’s gravity well and made to fall upon the planet Mars. Even if only a fraction of the gases released by the impact were to remain in the Martian atmosphere, such a collision could raise the pressure and temperature of the Martian surface considerably: enough to make it geologically and climatologically live. It would also be the most spectacular event ever created by human beings. Each meter of the Earth’s surface supports about twenty tons of air and an average of about two thousand tons of water. Pandora would provide a comparable amount of gases and liquids for each square meter of Mars. If this gigantic feat of engineering is beyond our powers, Saturn has many smaller moons, and once freed from their primary they could coast without further attention to their fiery rendezvous on Mars.
Even now the project seems hopeless to a twentieth century technological imagination. Nature has had billions of years to try out different lifeforms for their survival possibilities; jerrybuilt germs are notoriously fragile outside the laboratory and incapable of survival in the field. But suppose evolution itself could be speeded up, in controlled conditions that would gradually approximate those of Mars, so that the Martian strains could, so to speak, generate themselves? The limits of metabolism forbid this; but they do not forbid software simulacra from doing so.
Contemporary computer biologists are already developing ways to express the genetic and somatic structure of simple organisms as computer programs. The next stage would be to place those programs together in a large cybernetic environment where they can compete and evolve for selective fitness; and thus speed up the process of evolution electronically by many orders of magnitude. Gradually the simulated conditions could be altered from those of an Earthly environment to those of Mars. In the struggle for survival, certain traits would be selected for, generation by swift generation, and the genes which code for them could be carefully recorded. It now begins to appear that the 95% of the DNA in the genes of living organisms which is not expressed constitutes a rich archive of their evolutionary history, and may contain exquisite mechanisms that could be tried out swiftly in such an environment and perhaps used in the work of synthesis. What is learned in this way could then guide recombinant DNA engineering to produce very hardy strains. The obvious dangers of this work would be mitigated by forms of testing which threaten not a real, but a modelled and cybernetic/imaginary environment.
Many of the components of such a project are already in existence. Followers of the computer games section of the Scientific American will be familiar with some of them: Conway’s Game of Life, the Core Wars battle programs that fight it out for possession of a memory space, certain expert systems that can learn from experience and adapt themselves accordingly, genetic algorithms, biomorphs, and the new iterative or chaotic algorithms that can generate complex internal electronic environments. Meanwhile computer modelling is now being used extensively in molecular biology, cytology, and ecology; and the National Science Foundation is currently proposing the creation of a complete record of the human genome, that is, our full complement of DNA base-pairs in their correct order, divided into chromosomes: all the information needed to construct a human being (and perhaps its evolutionary past). Several viruses and bacteria have already been thus recorded by gas chromatography in whole or in part. The techniques of genetic/cybernetic manipulation could also be used to tailor plants to grow into shapes useful to human beings, like the Martian dwellings in our example.
By some combination of these methods, then, organisms adapted to life on Mars might be synthesized. But would it not take an enormous amount of time to propagate them over the Martian surface? Here the astonishing mathematics of reproduction would be heavily in favor of the planetary gardeners. Normal bacteria can reproduce themselves by fission in as little as twenty minutes; conservatively, let us estimate ten doublings per day for tailored bacteria. In one day a ton of bacteria, finely scattered over a surface rich in nutrients, and without biological competition, could yield a thousand tons–about a thousand cubic meters–of biomass; in five days, this mass, if unimpeded by lack of raw materials, would approach one hundred trillion tons. The surface of Mars is about 146 million square kilometers in extent–roughly a hundred trillion square meters. Thus in this ideal case it would take five days to cover the whole surface of Mars with bacteria to a depth of a meter, starting with one ton of seed. One might rest both on the sixth and seventh days. Of course the vicissitudes of access to food chemicals and energy sources, as well as unfavorable local variations in temperature, pressure, etcetera–some of them brought about by the bacterial growth itself–would put a stop to this growth very swiftly. But the illustration shows the potency of the biological instrument the colonists could wield.
One generation of bacterial species would certainly not be enough; the first generation would have to be used as the compost for the second, the second for a third, and so on. At some point cyanobacteria, which excrete oxygen, would be introduced. Other bacteria produce nitrogen. Each generation would at first be smothered by its own waste-products, but the net effect would be to extract from the Martian atmosphere and regolith (rock soil) the carbon dioxide necessary to sustain a greenhouse effect and the water, oxygen and nitrogen that constitute an Earth-type environment. Oxygen in the stratosphere would be broken up by sunlight to form a protective ozone layer against the ultraviolet. Shallow seas would form, and corals could be sown in them to begin the process by which the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is controlled.
After a while hardy funguses and plants could be introduced, then the grasses and the higher flowering plants, the angiosperms, together with the insects to pollinate them. Next would come the higher animals, and finally human beings, the new homesteaders–families with their seed catalogs, their hand tools, and the prospects of a new nation and a new dispensation for humankind. And no native tribe would have been displaced or murdered; no living species would have paid by extinction for human progress.
What might Mars, so transformed, be like to live in?
Southeastwards, in the direction you came from this morning, you can see sloping tablelands of forest broken and stepped with precipices banded with blood red, ocher, and brown, in shadow still from the tiny sun. They fall off northwards to an ocean that looks somehow wrong–the waves are too short and too tall, like the stylized waves in an old theater, worked to and fro to give the illusion of movement (with a fat-lipped dolphin, perhaps, and a little galleon). The waves are blue on the lit side, but deep pink on the shadow side. The ocean is scattered with islands as yet unnamed, rings or semicircles of green; but beyond them looms up into the violet sky a vague outline of impossible scale: the last ringwall of the Pandora Crater System where the largest of the man-made meteors struck forty years ago.
As you turn west the albedo changes, the sky now purple opposite the sun, and here the mesas of the Nilosyrtis rise like pink ghosts, their faces lit by the dim sunlight. The cliffs are iced like a cake with groves of gigantic trees, silver trunks, emerald leaves–English beeches, it looks like, but of giant size. Waterfalls drift down into the ravine below, with a dreamlike slowness, breaking into vapor with a soft hiss as they hit the rocks. Above the hills clouds are beginning to form, tall billowy ramshackle columns like stovepipes or chef’s hats. The turf under your feet is covered with fresh little flowers, and mixed with their earthy scent there is a smell strange and intimate, like raw milk, iron, sulfur, and snow-water.
Southwards the mountains rise and rise again, and as you turn the Gulf of Isis comes into view again, hung over by the tiny blazing sun. The light is like a rich and brilliant twilight, or the dimmed glow of a warm winter noon in northern Europe; or perhaps like the light of an acadian painting, Poussin or Claude. The painter cannot lay a brighter pigment than her whitest white on the canvas, and she knows that even that white must be diminished by the glazes and varnish; so she darkens every color in her palette to a velvet chiaroscuro, softens all the details in the shade, and saves the sharpness and the clarity for the ship caught in the blaze of noon beside the rocky cave in the bay; and makes the arbutus leaves glow as if backlit, and keeps her best clot of white for the bright lozenge of sea and sky where the painting’s lines meet at the vanishing point.
The vanishing point here on Mars, though, is strangely close. It’s an oddly cosy world, despite the wildness with which nature here strews her fresh designs about–nature here informed by human art and intention. The horizon is very close, and the rich vapor and dust, much of it organic and alive, with which the colonists have seeded the new atmosphere to keep the greenhouse effect at work, makes for intimate landscapes. It’s like the misty air of England, but with Mars’ characteristic pinkish tinge, from the dominance of the iron oxides.
You could have got to this place flying under your own power, for you weigh three eighths of what you weigh on earth, and with appropriately designed wings and some training you could realize the ancient human dream of being free of the ground. Here on Mars you can leap to twice your height, and long-jump over thirteen meters, with a hang-time of nearly three seconds. Wearing the wings you find you have time to take two strokes, which gives you a glide you can maintain. Then you can get your feet into the stirrups and use the powerful leg muscles to get your flying height. A hundred meters keeps you out of trouble, and you still have good depth perception. Landing can be a problem, and takes practice. They can start you on the brained wings,which do it for you–”drop the flaps,” as they say–extend and cup the primary feathers, open the secondaries, and stall out just as you hit the ground.
Or you can go higher, by finding a thermal or an updraft where the prevailing wind blows up over a ridge; and get out of earshot of the ground, to where you can no longer hear people talking, animals stamping and snorting, the rush and burble of the streams, the sigh of trees, the sound of bells and music. It gets very silent, though you can still smell the grass smell of the hot meadow below. And there you are up in the sunny blisses of the middle air, feeling your eardrum pop with the altitude, with a fantastic choice of detail from the whole hemisphere of world beneath, the foreshortened hillocks, the strange organic shapes of Martian homesteads (grown by recombinant DNA out of living trees), brackish streams flashing suddenly with sunlight as they meander sluggishly through multicolored bogs toward the new sea. And down the coast maybe the art deco villas and palms and awnings of a little seaside resort. Perhaps it is its own little Jeffersonian republic, or perhaps it has a form of government for which we do not have a name. You could go there now, but you don’t want to leave the air, which has become for you a school of joy. The problem is not how to get up any more, it’s how to get down.
Consider the ancient Greeks in their eye-painted ships, feeling their way along the monstrous volcanic coast of Italy, until they came to the apocalyptic landscape of Vesuvius: the huge canted ash-cone of the crater, the island fragments–Ischia, Capri–of a great caldera whose head blew off before history began, the Hadean barrens of the Solfatara, the hellmouth lake of Avernus whose fumes would kill any bird that flew over it. This place was a Mars for the colonizing Greeks. They founded cities on the coast–Paestum, Cumae–and dug caves there to house their oracles, their holy women. They found ways to garden a crater planetscape. There the Cumaean Sibyl spoke to Aeneas and prophesied the Roman Empire, and there also, if Virgil speaks the truth, she foretold the coming of Jesus of Nazareth. Dante knew that infernal landscape too: only by that way could he reach the divine spaceworlds of Paradise.
We too, like Greek or Trojan wanderers, have a mission to carry our sacred scriptures and household gods–our DNA, our ecosphere, our poetry–into a new world where they may be preserved and transformed. If Gaea is the mother-goddess who nursed us, we are offered the chance to give birth to the daughter-goddess of another planet.