Terraformation is the intentional moulding of a planet to create Earth like conditions for colonisation. Assuming Earth’s civilisation is technologically advanced enough to be considering terraformation as a solution to an imminent species crisis, the ethics of terraformation should be explored. An important discussion considering interplanetary travel would only allow the wealthy to leave Earth, a decaying planet. This forsakes Earth to be ravaged by the consequences of humanities previous activities, but without the leadership of the wealthy, powerful and influential. To achieve this, McKay’s three perspectives of environmental ethics: anti-humanism, wise stewardship, and intrinsic worth will be used.
Civilisation was defined in 1964 by Russian Astrophysicist Nikolai Kardashev by the amount of energy that humans can harness, where a Type 1 civilisation enables humans to harness 1016 W of energy. Based on Kardashev scale, humans shall achieve Type 1 civilisation in 100 years. The main ethical element that acts as a base to drive the human race to achieve Type 1 civilisation is intrinsic worth which defines that humans have their own self-worth independent of Earth’s detriment. It can be argued that Earth’s detriment is inevitable because an ever-increasing population will demand more resources than what Earth can provide. Leading to an ethical justification of terraforming which is to cater to the needs and therefore sustain the human race through extra-terrestrial resources. Achieving Type 1 civilisation will result in a better energy sustainability which is explained by expanded knowledge on advanced equipment that can harness cleaner energy which benefits the human race in the long run alongside with ensuring their survival.
Moreover, the ethical element of anthropocentrism which means that humans are ranked above all other organisms supports the need for terraformation. Ensuring the survival of the human race in the face of Earth’s decay through terraformation is ethical under the perspective of anthropocentrism. Achieving a success in terraforming might also reduce the Earth’s decay rate. The Earth currently houses 7.65 billion humans and having other potential planets as future homes will drastically reduce the consumption of Earth’s natural resources.
Certain regions on Earth will not be able to sustain the local population due to global warming. The level of atmospheric carbon dioxide has surpassed 400 ppm resulting in significant sea level rises, which incur floods at low sea level countries. As a result, agricultural resources are depleting which will eventually lead to famine in climate sensitive areas. Civilization will need to find another planet and prioritize for the preservation of the human race. This follows the ethical perspective of anthropocentrism.
The issue of human overpopulation can be mitigated through the migration to a terraformed planet. This relaxes the demand on Earth’s resources following the ethics of wise stewardship as put forth by McKay. This axiom of natural ethics describes the sustainable utility of Earth’s resources. An additional benefit of reducing Earth’s population through emigration is the reduced habitat loss for Earth’s fauna and flora. This relates to another axiom put forth by McKay: Intrinsic worth, in that, it is ethical to value all life on Earth.
The first ethical criticism of terraforming under the highlighted assumptions uses biocentrism, an ideal which places an intrinsic value on, and willingness to preserve ecosystems. Endeavouring to a foreign planet and engineering a human compatible environment may eradicate entire ecosystems. This is an ethically unjust act easy to justify under even the loosest of ecocentrists as any life should be able to develop without interference. Additionally, this signifies a loss in potential knowledge obtainable from observing the development of an alien species in an alien environment, observations that may hold the key to having the human race truly prospering as a genetically adaptive interplanetary species.
Terraforming is an astronomical feat which would require an abundance of resources, possibly sourced from Earth. The opportunity cost of which is directing those resources to solve existing species threatening scenarios such as famine, conflict, economic turmoil, threatened democracy and natural disasters. Alternatively, it may be unethical to terraform a planet when the planet’s material may be used in a different, more productive way. Enough material where, if repurposed outside of the planet, would compromise the optimal gravity necessary to alleviate colonisation on the planet’s surface. Extensively mining a planet’s materials could be used to create suspended space colonies, a more sustainable method for expanding the reaches of humanity which could possibly support more humans.
The perpetuation of Earth’s demise once extra-terrestrial colonies are established would be optimistically compensated with the assumption that sustainable development on the foreign planet would begin immediately, i.e., humans would have learned from their mistakes on Earth. Realists would counter that humans are incapable of change, and will show unwise stewardship to the terraformed planet. Therefore, from a pragmatic sociological standpoint, it would be unethical to colonize additional planets to only doom both by providing no solution. This would also mean the human race is fated to be extinct and as such, the human race should embrace an end caused by asteroid impacts or the Sun’s expiration rather than an end from our own doing.
Intrinsic value is placed on the entire universe using an ethics perspective named cosmic preservationism. This illustrates that all nature, both inanimate and living possess an intrinsic value and should be left untouched, preventing the mammoth alteration that is terraformation. Sacrificing the widely shared bewilderment that comes from discovering and observing Earth’s cosmic environment by means of terraformation would be wasteful, and would taint extra-terrestrial colonisation in some eyes. It is with these arguments that suggest that terraformation is mostly an opportunity to demonstrate vicious traits rather than virtuous ones.
We are in favour of terraformation despite the consequences to Earth.