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Martian Park Service

olypark.jpgNo human's going to step foot on Mars for a couple more decades at best, but that hasn't stopped people from thinking about what we should do when we get there -- or, more to the point, what we should not do. Charles Cockell, a microbiologist for the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, and Gerda Horneck, an astrobiologist from the German Aerospace Centre in Cologne, have proposed that we (the global 'we') set aside a series of conservation parks on Mars, places where no human activity (especially terraforming) should take place. The seven proposed park locations cover relatively obvious locations such as the northern (water) ice cap and Olympus Mons, the largest volcano in the solar system, as well as locations of either historical (the Viking and Pathfinder landing sites) or geological (the Hellas crater) interest. They seek to limit the environmental impact of human activity in these areas.

The UN Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna, Austria, would be best placed to administer the parks, [Cockell] says, although he has not contacted them about the idea. They already oversee planetary protection regulations that limit the number of spores allowed on a Mars lander. But the sole purpose of this is to stop experiments looking for life becoming contaminated, says Cockell. "There's no sense of any greater environmental protection."

The struggle between those who wish to keep Mars pristine and those who wish to make Mars more habitable for humankind is the core plot driver for Kim Stanley Robinson's excellent Mars trilogy (and in a delicious bit of meme-play, those who want to change the environment are referred to as Greens, and the Reds are those who want to keep Mars as it was). This Martian Park proposal would satisfy neither side, of course, as it either blocks off too much potentially interesting places from human activity or gives up most of the planet, depending on one's point of view.

But the proposal does successfully raise the question of what our responsibility is regarding leaving human imprints on other worlds in the solar system. I suspect that many WorldChanging readers will have a strong desire to avoid leaving any disruption, "doing to other planets what we've done to our own world." This is often "aesthetic environmentalism." There's no life on the Moon, for example, no water or air to pollute, no greenfields to tear up, just inorganic dirt and rocks. And yet the idea of leaving trash strewn about is nonetheless appalling, as is the notion of strip-mining and the like, even though we know that there's no "environment" (in the green sense) to damage.

In the case of Mars (and Europa), however, "biological environmentalism" has a stronger argument. There's strong evidence that microbial life once existed on Mars, and growing speculation that it might, in fact, still exist. If we do discover that life retains a tenuous foothold on Mars, we have a grave responsibility not to harm the only known example of extra-terrestrial biology. Even if current speculations prove faulty, the possibility that we might still find small pockets of biological activity remains a strong reason for caution about human impacts.

It may take another half-century and a completed space elevator, but human beings will eventually go to Mars. And when they go, they'll stay. The distance is so vast, and the time required to get there so great (a minimum of a couple of months, even with exotic propulsion ideas), that people like Buzz Aldrin (second man on the Moon) argue that any trips to Mars should be with long-term habitation in mind, with extended stays akin to Antarctica research. Eventually, people may even choose to live there permanently, establishing a second home for human civilization.

Thinking about conservation on Mars now may seem like a premature (at best) or absurd (at worst) exercise, but it's worth pondering. It forces us to think about the trade-off between aesthetics and development, between human activity and the rights of other life -- the very issues we confront every day here on Earth -- under "clean slate" conditions. These are places that have close to no human impact upon them at all. Would we make the same choices on Mars that we made on Earth? Is it possible to do it right next time?

Comments (5)

Sounds something similar to the idea mentioned in Red Mars by Kim Robinson.

Ah. I didn't read the whole post. You did mention the Mars Trilogy.

But in the novels, don't you find it ironic that the green becomes the gray and the red becomes the green?


I read a sentence further and made a comment.

And then read another sentence and there you mentioned about the red being the green and the green being the gray.

Alrighty. I'll stop making any comment further in so that I may stop embarrassing myself.

I hope you managed to get through the rest of the post, _earth.


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