A Brief Dive into Terraforming

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None of us are a stranger to the topic of climate change. We know that human activities on a global scale are modifying the natural environment in a profound way. As a result, we are facing rising sea levels and more erratic weather patterns, amidst a very long list of consequences that human societies will face. To call it a complex problem is a major understatement, and many solutions targeting the basic domains of human society, including energy production, agriculture, and urban development have been proposed. While their methods are different, the overlapping goal is to minimise the effects of climate change. One method however, does not meet this goal at all, and in fact would earn greater cause if the Earth was doomed. That method is terraforming, defined as “the process of creating an Earth-like or habitable environment on another planet” by NASA

Should We Terraform a Planet?

Before there were entire debates in the comments of Youtube Shorts featuring Elon Musk discussing his ideas of terraforming Mars and the whole endeavour that is SpaceX, a PhD student in philosophy was weighing on the ethics of such a project. Paul York, a writer who wrote in Philosophy Now, argued that terraforming another planet is an ethically complex procedure.

In summary, his argument is based on a perceived gap within the ethical framework accepted among academics of philosophy. In this framework, there is a moral community in which there are moral agents that are persons, and ‘moral patients’ who are directly impacted by moral agents. Moral significance applies to all those within the community, and only within it. The most lenient inclusion of inanimate objects is biota, in other words, habitats of life. As such, rocks, and an entire planet like Mars, are not considered to be part of this community, and are thus allegedly, morally irrelevant. 

In response to this perceived gap, he argues for the development of a ‘cosmocentric ethics’, where all biological and non-biological entities could have moral significance, although not entirely equal. Hence, if we manage to argue for an intrinsic value of anything that exists, even a rock, we could have a framework through which we can evaluate the ethics of terraforming. It is this absence of a framework, in 2002, the reason why he calls the ethics of terraforming ethically complicated. (York would later pursue a more complete formulation for such a framework for his PhD.)

I wasn’t very convinced by his argument. Even if a rock does have intrinsic value, I would think that our lives have more value than a rock. Also, if there is indeed a gap in academic literature surrounding the morality of terraforming, maybe terraforming is not a moral issue at all. 

What is interesting, I think, is to revisit NASA’s definition of terraforming. It seems fair to say that an Earth-like environment, and a habitable environment, are vastly different things. The former emphasises the natural conditions that Earth has, while the latter emphasises the conditions we need to live. As such, instead of looking outward to a distant planet, let us look at a place much closer.  

Terraforming Earth

We currently live in the Anthropocene, or at least, that is one way of understanding the current geological time in which we stand. The term is not an official geological unit as yet, but rather one that has been proposed (FYI: a geological term is accepted when the International Union of Geological Sciences adopts it). 

“The Anthropocene Epoch is an unofficial unit of geologic time, used to describe the most recent period in Earth’s history when human activity started to have a significant impact on the planet’s climate and ecosystems.” —National Geographic 

Our search for energy resources is a point through which we can define the Anthropocene. It is not difficult to interpret our relationship with the earth through manipulation: whether it is controlling the entire flow of a river through the giant of a stone wall we call a dam, or coal mines which swallow the greenery of a forest from within (refer to: the Hobet Mine). To sustain economies and our way of life, we have carved monolithic structures, from and into the ground. We are changing the face of the earth to sustain ourselves. 

A key assumption to terraforming is the idea that the environment is malleable to our needs. If an environment is not hospitable, it seems that we should make it so. What might be interesting, is that there is no reason to think that such assumptions apply only to the radical transformation of natural environments. After all, just look at what we consume. 

Are You What You Consume? 

Everything we buy out of our own wants is an indication of some part of our personality. If we have a room to ourselves, perhaps at home or in a hostel on campus, we decorate it as we like. We put plushies, fairy lights, photos of friends and family, favourite books, favourite snacks, amongst other personal things into this space. Maybe you don’t decorate it at all, because you like to keep things simple and minimalist. In any case, we are manipulating our immediate environment the way we see fit. There is of course, nothing wrong with it, and this observation is nothing novel (the same observation is made in a piece of popular media, Fight Club, albeit more depressingly). 

An extension to such modifications to our immediate environment is the existence of smart home networks. Through the connection of multiple smart appliances, we can gain control of our home’s energy use, temperature, and security through a single interface. In fact, those interested in smart home technology can look forward to a new common language for smart home appliances of different brands, Matter. It is expected that this new common language can minimise the hassle in setting up a smart home network of different products, and so increase the attractiveness of a smart home.  

The main difference between consumerism and terraforming, of course, is the environment before we stepped foot in that environment. If we are decorating a room, that space is already the result of urban planning and multiple layers of concrete. If we plan to terraform a planet, we are manipulating the environment as it naturally came to be, to something more sensitive to our needs and wants. 


A key assumption of terraforming is that the natural environment is malleable to our needs. We could say that such an assumption could be applied to urbanisation as well. After all, is that not how we built our cities? Hence, I think what is important to note is instead, an implication of terraforming: terraforming would normalise the transformation of a habitable planet to something we cannot inhabit. If we do not want to continuously relocate humanity, then I think it is fair to say that terraforming is not the most desirable solution to an environmental emergency.