Shut up and get on the rocket!

Group 24

Discussing the ethical implications of Mars colonisation

Introduction: the pre-launch countdown

Colonisation of Mars has been an ambition of humanity for generations, however, its ethical implications are extensive: on the one hand, humans are living on an Earth with ever-decreasing resources, on the other, the planet has no life, no oxygen, no air pressure and plenty of poisonous soil. Throw in the likelihood of no-return contrasted with our natural desire for exploration, and the waters (if you find any) become even murkier. This report investigates the ethical arguments for and against human colonisation of Mars, before reaching an initial conclusion based on its discussions.

Mass extinction: the banana implication

As a duty of ethics to future generations (intergenerational justice), self-sustaining habitation of Mars may be a viable solution to mitigating the extinction of human life on Earth. Neglecting this risk for most of human history has been justifiable, but with prevalence of nuclear weaponry and climate change, Bostrom argues “setting the probability [of disaster] lower than 25% [this century] would be misguided”. However, technological advancements also provide increased accessibility to space such that the development of an isolated colony could safeguard a proportion of the population in the event of disaster. Extinction mitigating strategies limited to Earth may offer drastically reduced quality of life compared to Mars, even accounting for the planet’s extreme environmental conditions.

Living the high life

Humanity currently uses resources at a rate 50% faster than their natural regeneration, driven in majority by unchecked population growth, which is expected to continue to a projected global headcount of 11 billion by the end of the century. Mars habitation may offer a viable utilitarian solution to the projected trends in globally declining quality of life as a result. The pursuit of other-worldly settling may permit a proportion of the population to achieve a higher quality of life as resources on Earth reduce.

Space for cooperation

In the modern, politically fragile environment, countries cooperating and building international relations around a common cause is considered beneficial regardless of application. Key nations involved with space travel, namely the USA, Russia and China also possess a strong military presence and thus political tension is undesirable. Consequently, it is of global interest for relations between these countries to be as strong as possible. The International Space Station, which involves the cooperation of 15 countries and their respective space programmes, is an excellent example of how countries working together in a space technology environment has strengthened relations. Putin said of the ISS “This is a sphere of activity that unites people. I hope it will continue to be this way.”

Whoops! – a water purification system!

The scope for technological advancement through the colonisation of Mars is vast and with every new discovery comes potential benefit to the population of Earth. Technologies credited to space exploration ranging from water purification to smoke detectors have already had great terrestrial success. We can hope to benefit from similar discoveries in future if we dedicate the resources to find them. Dyson stated ‘There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our present-day science. And we shall only find out what they are if we go out and look for them’.

Life on Mars

Mars is inhospitable; even short missions are known to damage human health.With no mission yet exceeding 438 days, long-term habitation would expose astronauts to unknown risks. Colonisation is a life sentence, with no infrastructure to support a return. Applying care ethics, failure to provide sufficient protection or risk certainty would render the venture unethical.

No civilised society would consider sending children to Mars. However, children born on Mars would have a lower quality of life compared to those on Earth. This puts a question mark over Martian eugenics from a Kantian and care ethics point of view. This issue could arguably be avoided by preventing adults from reproducing on Mars which is ethically contentious, as controlling births leads to serious societal issues.

Not in their backyard

There is a clear argument for the preservation of the Martian environment, intrinsically related to the ‘backup’ planet concept: the reason that backup is required is because of the destruction we have inflicted on Earth. There is damning evidence of humans’ abuse of Earth, from global warming to mass extinction. After the discoveries of water on Mars, it is not impossible to imagine that the planet will eventually foster new life. The principle of scientific conservation to preserve the Martian environment and its creative potential clearly prohibits further interference.

Tourism, but not as we know it

The argument for a ‘fresh start’ on Mars is highly alluring: that humanity can learn from its mistakes and create a utopian society. However, with the advent of space tourism, whereby the super-rich can pay for the experience of space flight, it becomes conceivable that once Mars is within human reach, it will simply become a billionaires’ playground – undermining the morality for colonising Mars based on the utilitarianist principle.

Home is where the inhabitable land is

Typically ‘inhospitable’ areas of Earth (14,000,000km2  of Antarctica) are far less dangerous to settle than Mars. Even with winter temperatures of -60°C, the availability of standard gravitational and atmospheric conditions severely reduce the challenges of habitation. Although Mars could provide habitable land for humanity, the utilitarian theory would argue that initial investment should be on Earth, providing more space per resource cost, before looking to Mars.

Although space exploration generates technological improvements on Earth, if NASA was to redirect its annual spend of £14.6bn to terrestrial issues, greater benefit could be provided to more people sooner. This would be a morally superior choice when applying utilitarian principles, while abiding to virtue ethics, whereby programme directors could achieve progressive research without the distraction of national pride.

Initial Decision

The justifiable reasons for Martian habitation centre around improvement of life for humanity. These are considered outweighed by the pragmatic plan to focus technological investment on more pressing terrestrial issues.

109 thoughts on “Shut up and get on the rocket!

    1. Thanks for your comment, I think one possibility would be the occupation of areas of earth currently considered inhospitable. The technological requirements needed to occupy Mars could equally be used to occupy difficult environment on earth. Currently 10% of earth’s land is home to 95% of the global population!

  1. Really interesting read! I especially like the point about how we could be using our resources to be inhabiting inhospitable places on earth. Sounds like a good option to look into. Maybe even as a step towards going to mars.

  2. You mention that Mars could become a playground for the rich, a utopian space reserved for the privileged few. If this were to happen, and the rich were effectively able to escape from a declining Earth, what would this mean for those left behind? Also, would this then worsen the environmental crisis on Earth, since there would be less incentive for the rich and powerful to protect the planet’s resources (given the existence of an alternative)?

    1. I think that’s a huge concern you’re right. Suddenly making the earth seem less valuable may rapidly increase the decline of the planet.
      On an alternative thought, after spending time on Mars, perhaps the rich and famous would look back and see how pleasant and unique Earth is and re-consider investing their fortune in preserving it?
      Thank for your comment.

  3. An interesting and thought provoking read. By the time we have finished trashing our own planet we wouldn’t have the resources to start looking elsewhere anyway.

    1. Regarding simply physical space, it is a very long way off! To populate all the land mass with a density similar to the UK would need a population of over 40bn. However, the clear limiting factor long before this would be the resource availability and quality of life, let alone the environment argument. So maintaining a quality of life without impacting the environment would likely incite a Mars landing long before the physical requirements would!
      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Interesting and well structured article that discusses an overlooked moral debate regarding space travel.

    Colonising another planet would be incredibly costly, could this money be better spent elsewhere?

    In my opinion, the opportunity for a fresh start where we can learn from our mistakes is too enticing, and far outweighs the negatives.

  5. With the destruction of earths environment by increasing numbers of people at what point do birth control laws (i.e. chinas ome child policy) become a serious solution?

    Assuming the choice is made to colonize mars, how will such a colony be governed and will terrestrial countries attempt to claim ownership of mars?

  6. It would take thousands of lives to completely terraform Mars into a habitable planet. It would be an unforgiving task for these brave individuals and they would need to be fully aware and accepting of these risks. Numerous deathly risks like Mars’ atmosphere, it and the Earth’s orbital differences meaning only once every 2 years is there a realistic travel window between the planets and 50 times the radiation of that on Earth. Ultimately for humanity a multi-planet civilisation would be a marvel and key to the species’ survival. However, the toll on human life would be unprecedented in the short run.

  7. Great read. Never previously considered how a extra-terrestrial society would pose serious ethical challenges rather than just a matter of survival.

    What are your thoughts on businessmen like Elon Musk proposing conducting industry in space and retrieving resources where the pollution of such activities would not damage earth?

    I think you provide the most logical conclusion. Perhaps further research could consider why society under funds projects like nuclear fusion compared mars missions.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I think providing material in a way that doesn’t impact the human environment could be quite positive. My concern would be the effect on the space environment and any hazards this poses – is it acceptable to ruin another environment just because it is not ours? Or should we look to produce our requirements in a method that won’t negatively impact any environment!

  8. I think that increasing habitation on Earth is a short term solution to the core problem that we are ruining our planet and will only expedite the inevitable conclusion. Mars colonisation my address this core problem but the many negative ethical impacts of performing this doesn’t seem to be commensurate with the distant positives. I agree with your conclusion that ethically, resources would be better used addressing terrestrial matters but I don’t believe that expanding habitation is a sustainable solution.

    1. Thanks for your comment, I think that’s a huge part of the dilemma, the only way I can see this being acceptable would be to ensure this is clearly understood by anyone making the trips. However, it falls down when the next generation born there had no say in the matter!

  9. Excellent article, I agree that it would be more practice and more cost effective to establish secure repositories of people here on Earth. Also I fear that if we did try to colonise Mars, or anywhere else, we would take the cause of our downfall with us; humans.

  10. Mankind should look to preserve our planet before venturing to other planets at great expense and with little certainty of the outcomes. We should all individually and collectively for the sake of future generations and the existence of our species look for positive outcomes for our planet. Greed and self interest should take a backward step if we are to survive. We are as a world in charge of our own destination with regards to our survival. We must act now before it is to late to prevent the extinction of our planet on so many fronts. The life of our planet and future generations is in your hands. Act responsibley.

  11. I like the last comment that the average Martian temperature is similar to that in Antarctica, which illustrates that there are environments are Earth where we could build futuristic colonies.

    Overall this is a good article, I like the balance of ethical reasoning.

  12. An interesting and thought-provoking article. Whilst an admirer of space exploration to further our understanding and appreciation of what we are part of, greater investment in reducing human impact on earth needs to be made. Failure to do this will necessitate other planetary colonisation – a risky strategy as there is insufficient knowledge of the long term impact on humans.

  13. Very interesting read! The long term effects of radiation could be one hurdle that will be difficult to overcome. Given that we are overdue a mass extinction event it should be a goal that we work towards but we can do this slowly and correctly. If we can collect hydrogen from the environment we could use this to preform round trips meaning it wont be a death sentence for the first travelers. This being said the success rate of landing on mars is roughly 50/50 at the moment…

    1. Yes, we read that any realistic protection would involve constant habitation behind shielding of some sort, greatly reducing the quality of life. However, as you say if an extinction event is overdue, life in a space capsule may be preferable to no life at all!
      Thanks for your thoughts.

    1. it’s certainly a challenging environment, although this drives technological advances we felt it ultimately neglects facing the more pressing ethical problem of maintaining a stable and habitable environment for earth!
      Thanks for your comment

  14. I agree with the conclusion – sorting out our problems here seems an eminently sensible idea (if we can ever manage it…) Perhaps the only ethical solution is to euthanise humanity, as we’re clearly not responsible enough to be the custodians of one whole planet, let alone two.

  15. Presuming those going to inhabit Mars had acknowledged the risks involved, I think much of the moral argument is removed for the initial stages of the landing.

    The incentive of simply surviving on a remote planet must surely drive research and development into self-sustainable existence far more rapidly than any Earth environment, thus leading to solutions for our low-impact existence sooner?

    An interesting read.

  16. Very interesting read.

    On the point of the billionaire playground:
    Most billionaires already run empires. Any wishing to go to mars would likely dream of a Utopia. I believe these people would be most equipped to develop a stable society from scratch off the back of lessons learned on earth.

    On the point of Children on Mars:
    Parents have (almost) always had the right to choose how they bring their child up, or how they bring them into the World. I think parents should always reserve this right. Even on mars.

    1. Interesting thoughts, although millionaire’s may be well equipped to design and manage a Utopian society on Mars, this maximum benefit would be experienced by the few – fine by Kantian standards as what has been achieved is a ‘good’ thing – high standard of life and low crime etc.
      However, arguing from the utilitarian perspective – these millionare’s may not be focussed on providing a lower (but still good) quality of life for a larger number of people, which would arguably result in a greater benefit to society.

      Regarding your thoughts on childhood, i suppose the argument then becomes not should parents choose where their children are brought up, but can they (to the best of their ability) provide a high quality of life for them? and if not, is it ethical to allow children to be brought up in extreme hardship?

  17. I found the report extremely interesting, particularly as I admit to knowing very little about the subject. To read that we are using resources 50% faster than they are generated is terrifying. Why don’t we all know this? I was amused to read President Putin’s ironic comment; if only.

    Having seen the comparisons between Earth and Mars, I certainly would not wish to emigrate there, irrespective of the situation here on earth. It is also clear that there would not be enough room for all of us, so perhaps not only the poorer members of society would be left behind but also anyone over a certain age.

    Governments are largely driven by economics and national self interest, therefore education is vital. Without the facts, the public will not be motivated to lobby politicians to take urgent action, centering upon a common cause to preserve our planet. However, political unity and commitment are only part of the solution; first we need to take some personal responsibility, as individuals. We over populate and over consume, with little regard for the consequences. “…never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee” (John Donne). It’s time to look to ourselves.

  18. Thought-provoking stuff. You note in the opening that ‘with prevalence of nuclear weaponry and climate change, Bostrom argues “setting the probability [of disaster] lower than 25% [this century] would be misguided”’. Given that both of the threats you mention here are man-made, I think /that’s/ where the biggest ethical issues arise. Yes, there are ethical problems with colonising Mars, but surely the bigger ethical problem is in the damage humans are inflicting on planet Earth, and the greatest ethical dilemma of even contemplating colonisation of Mars is that it avoids us dealing with the real problems we’ve caused — and continue to cause — here on Earth?

  19. Interesting topic and article.

    On the topic of developing in Antarctica – I find this proposition slightly alarming as a believer of protecting some of more precious habitats left on the planet. Over-development of our planet is, after all, the reason why we might need to look further afield. Likewise, the Antarctic Treaty System may make development here more tricky.

    As for Mars, I tend to hold the opinion that while we should look to protect our own planet first, there will always be some mad hatters who can’t help but imagine themselves living on another planet. At the moment, this seems to fall into the space tourism category for the elite and rich – a dim light in the future for us normal citizens.

    If they wish to privately fund colonisation attempts then is there anything we can do to stop them? While I would currently not want any state funding to be poured into extremely hopeful colonisation attempts, if a rich billionaire wishes to try his or her luck then can we really say no?

  20. Very interesting article, It is hard to believe that we are consider colonising a planet with zero natural resources when we haven’t managed to efficiently use our own.
    If we are using our natural resources 50% quicker than they are naturally being replaced then how do we expect to support ourselves on a planet that doesn’t have any to rely on.

    I agree the £14.6bn could be spent on our own planet to support our own climate and population, however, you made an interesting comment: “Technologies credited to space exploration ranging from water purification to smoke detectors have already had great terrestrial success.”
    This proves that investment made purely on space exploration, does in fact have significant benefits for our own planet and to colonies that live in less hospitable environments, compared to those who live in “first world” countries.

    1. it’s very true our resource consumption is a large problem. However, living with limited resources could begin to install a mindset change on those that live there, learning to ‘make do’ instead of consuming everything as soon as it is available. If this mindset could be translated to those still living on earth, perhaps the ‘suffering’ of a few on Mars could re-kindle our ability to make do back on earth, benefiting the lives of more people on Earth?

  21. Good article. The current combination of population growth, and increasing per-capita natural resource consumption creates a double whammy impact on Planet Earth’s resource depletion.
    Hopefully technological development and increasing social awareness and action can lead to a reversal of resource consumption rates, back below the levels of self sufficiency. Whether this is a result of the pursuit of Space travel or not is possibly not important.
    It would seem that life on Earth would have to be faced with near or actual extinction before committing to a non return movement to Mars, and the implication is that the mass majority of humanity and animal/plant life would be lost. As the possibility of Mars colonisation is totally unproven, it is not an option to plan on, so the impetus must focus on sustainable life on Earth.

  22. A thoughtful and futuristic article. With the state of our planet as a result of climate change and the pressures we humans are creating for ourselves and the environment, it could be a very tempting thing to abandon ship and “start anew” as it were. Perhaps starting again we could create a better world for ourselves. But how long would it be before we humans fall back into our old ways? I rather agree with perhaps putting our ever expanding knowledge and technology towards living in the more inhospitable places of our world first (if we really must use up more space) and start to put our money and resources towards actually trying to save his planet, pertaining to the idea of “there is no planet B.” Perhaps following along with a one child policy idea in the more overpopulated places to better keep track of our ever expanding numbers. If we’ve so miserably failed and messed up this planet, why should we deserve to go and mess up another. There is so much life and so many eco systems on this planet that we should be working to protect, not simply abandon because it seems easier to inhabit a possibly inhabitable planet. What would become of all of this life, both animals and plant if we were to escape to Mars? Arguably they would all be better off without us, but would taking a few hundred people to Mars really help? Would they be able to start a successful colonisation that the rest of the world could relocate to eventually, or would we simply begin to overpopulate both Earth and Mars and be in a worse state than before?

  23. We really need to focus on sorting out what is going on here on Earth for now. If it looks like we are getting near the “point of no return” maybe we need to look at going elsewhere but if we have got to that point do we really have a justification for repeating the massacre elsewhere? To justify the habitation of Mars a serious cost benefit analysis would need to be produced. It then comes down to who decides that this should proceed. It would need hugely greater inter country collaboration than we are able to generate at present. When we have excessive poverty and starvation in our current world, the ethics of spending billions going to Mars is brought starkly into focus. A lot needs to change before we can even consider this.

  24. Thought provoking article but I feel we should be investing in saving our own planet before time runs out for us here.
    The earth has plenty of deserts why not find ways of making these areas habitable.
    However Mars maybe an excellent place to send our current government to, perhaps they’d have time to sort out Brexit on the way.

  25. An interesting article. Whilst recent initiatives suggest that countries would cooperate, it is worth remembering that for decades space exploration was a vehicle for superpower rivalry, heightening Cold War tensions.
    Also, why do you say we have a duty of ethics to – as yet unborn – future generations? What about our ethical duty to other plant and animal species on Earth? Perhaps we should save Planet Earth by sending the entire human race to Mars?

    1. That’s certainly true, the space race caused increasingly fraught relationships between the USA and the USSR, however could it be that if two nations were to attempt to colonise Mars, once up there and away from their original nations they may begin to cooperate? Surely once on Mars any human would become an ally, especially in such an inhospitable environment!
      That’s a really interesting point and one I think many people share, why should humans be the species that is ‘most important.’ Personally I think as we are a species able to have the most impact on earth, we arguably are the most important, but that should be our duty to make sure our impacts are as positive as possible for the planet! However, if we move the entire species to Mars, who would stay to clear up all the mess we have currently created? I truly believe that should be our challenge – to erase as much of the mistakes we have made here on earth before we exit this planet.

  26. An interesting read!
    However, I strongly feel that we should dedicate our use of technology to improve life and the environment on earth, rather than investing in trying to sustain human life on a planet which is essentially inhospitable to human or animal life.
    So many relatively simple changes could be made by humans on earth to reduce our impact on the natural environment and slow the currently inevitable impacts of climate change. Surely better to dedicate our energies to this before it is too late?

    1. I think that’s totally true, and not only should we be looking to slow the tide of our impact, but even reverse it. With so many humans on the planet, surely it is our duty or obligation to do the right thing and begin clearing up some of the damage we have created?
      If we look at this from the Kantian approach, we know of the damage out there, (pollution, habitat loss and endangerment of species) and we know it is a good thing to improve these issues. So by simply doing nothing and leaving, we are not even acting neutrally, but acting amorally as we know there is a good thing to be done and not acting on it.

  27. Interesting read in particular the point about the possibility of countries working together seemed interesting do you think it would have a positive impact on their relationships on earth

    1. Hopefully, collaboration on projects like this often leads to an improvement on relationships. I could see a fantastic benefit if countries with excess resources (many western nations) were to collaborate with countries that don’t have such an abundance of resource. Perhaps then lessons could be learnt on both sides, improving the lives of as many people as possible?

  28. Very interesting read that introduced me to aspects of this debate that I’ve never considered before. I particularly enjoyed the thought-provoking section about how technology developed with space travel in mind, that may not have existed had the colonisation of Mars not been considered an option for our future, has proven to be beneficial to us here on Earth. It really makes you wonder how much progress could be made in terms of technological advancements if the goal of colonising Mars is given the go-ahead. Perhaps advancements that may solve some of the existing terrestrial issues presented in this article and the other readers’ comments!

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