Tomorrow, April 15th, is my birthday. Just another day of another passing year. And as others may look to obtain gifts or praise on a day our species has set apart for our own self-indulgence (which is not to say that’s wrong, it IS the anniversary of our own Earthly welcome…), I’ve been thinking more of what I have to offer, and I’ve anticipated sharing a chapter from this book with all of you. Expect further posts of excerpts to come from this fantastic piece of literature.
Since my adoration of Carl Sagan began, his books, intellect, lectures and persona have encapsulated my childhood and continually invoke and stir my curiosity and appreciation of life still. This book, by Robert Zubrin, has been by far the closest to parallel a Sagan-esque flavor of human ambition I’ve read thus far. Although published in 1999, I find it humbling to read through others’ perceptions and farseeing implications of human ingenuity in relation to what we’ve accomplished since then.
There’s nothing truly “outdated” I can reference from this book which bears any significance or invalidation. Zubrin’s words are powerful and not since Carl Sagan’s works have I read others as closely profound and relatively close in comparison to which I can nearly hear Carl speaking through someone else’s words to the letter. Enjoy this introduction to Chapter 10. And when you can, pick up a copy of this book. It may bring into focus more clearly what all of our reblogs, gifsets, video clips, quotes and photos cannot. Stay curious.
Chapter 10 | Extraordinary Engineering
To see it in our power to make a World happy…
to exhibit on the theatre of the Universe
a character hitherto unknown - and to have,
as it were, a new creation intrusted to our hands,
are honors that command reflection and can neither
be too highly estimated nor too gratefully received.
- Thomas Paine, 1783
I live in Colorado, among the mountains. Not long ago, I had occasion to hike to the top of one of the smaller peaks, whose summit was just above tree line. As I sat, observing the scenery while eating my lunch, an odd question crossed my mind: How did all these trees get up here? Conifers lined the slopes nearly to the summit of every peak in sight. How did a mob of immobile trees ever climb those steep heights?
As I munched away, pondering this, I noticed a group of chipmunks scurrying about carrying pinecones. The answer was thus made apparent. The chipmunks had transported the seeds uphill. Interesting. Every mountain in sight was covered with trees. By moving the seeds upslope, the chipmunks had enormously expanded their “natural habitat.” In fact, if by “natural habitat” one means the habitat that would support a chipmunk population that exists prior to and independent of their seed-spreading activity, it’s unclear whether any such place exists at all. The chipmunk habitat does not exist “naturally.” It exists because the chipmunks (together with a host of other participating species) have created it. That’s how life works.
A major challenge that humans will face as we become a Type II and then Type III civilization is that of transforming the environments found on other planets to more Earth-like conditions. This must be done because environments friendly to life are a product of the activity of life. Thus, as humans move out into space it is unlikely that we will find environments that perfectly suit our needs. Instead, as life and humanity have done historically on Earth, we will have to improve the natural environments we find to create the worlds we want. Applied to other planets, this process of planetary engineering is termed “terraforming.”
Some people consider the idea of terraforming other planets heretical - humanity playing God. Others would see in such an accomplishment the most profound vindication of the divine nature of the human spirit - dominion over nature, exercised in its highest form to bring dead worlds to life. Personally, I prefer not to consider these issues in their theological form, but if I had to, my sympathies would definitely be with the latter group. Indeed, I would go further. I would say that failure to terraform constitutes failure to live up to our human nature and a betrayal of our responsibility as members of the community of life itself.
These may seem like extreme statements, but they are based on history, about 4 billion years of history. The chronicle of life on Earth is one of terraforming - that’s why our beautiful blue planet is as nice as it is. When the Earth was born, it had no oxygen in its atmosphere, only carbon dioxide and nitrogen, and the land was composed of barren rock. It was fortunate that the Sun was only about 70 percent as bright then as it is now, because if the present-day Sun had shined down on that Earth, the thick layer of CO2 in the atmosphere would have provided enough of a greenhouse effect to turn the planet into a boiling Venus-like hell. Fortunately, however, photosynthetic organisms evolved that transformed the CO2 in Earth’s atmosphere into oxygen, in the process completely changing the surface chemistry of the planet. As a result of this activity, not only was a runaway greenhouse effect on Earth avoided, but the evolution of aerobic organisms that use oxygen-based respiration to provide themselves with energetic lifestyles was enabled (through a primeval EPA dedicated to preserving the status quo on the early Earth might have regarded this as a catastrophic act of environmental destruction). This new crowd of critters, known today as animals and plants, then proceeded to modify the Earth still more - colonizing the land, creating soil, and drastically modifying global climate. Life is selfish, so it’s not surprising that all of the modifications that life has made to the Earth have contributed to enhancing life’s prospects, expanding the biosphere, and accelerating its rate of developing new capabilities to improve the Earth as a home for Life still more.
Humans are the most recent practitioners of this art. Starting with our earliest civilizations, we used irrigation, crop seeding, weeding, domestication of animals, and protection of our herds to enhance the activity of those parts of the biosphere most efficient in supporting human life. In so doing, we have expanded the biospheric basis for human population, which has expanded our numbers and thereby our power to change nature in our interest in a continued cycle of exponential growth. As a result, we have literally remade Earth into a place that can support billions of people, a substantial fraction of whom have been sufficiently liberated from the need to toil for daily survival that they can now look out into the night sky for new worlds to conquer.
it is fashionable today to bemoan this transformation as destruction of nature. Indeed, there is a tragic dimension to it. Yet it is nothing more than the continuation and acceleration of the process by which nature was created in the first place.
Life is the creator of nature.
Today, the living biosphere has the potential to expand its reach to encompass a whole new world, on Mars, and the Type II interplanetary civilization that develops as a result will have the capability of reaching much further. Humans, with their intelligence and technology, are the unique means that the biosphere has evolved to allow it to blossom across interplanetary and then interstellar space. Countless beings have lived and died to transform the Earth into a place that could give birth to a species with such capabilities. Now it’s our turn to do our part.
it’s a part that 4 billion years of evolution has prepared us to play. Humans are the stewards and carriers of terrestrial life, and as we spread out, first to Mars and then to the nearby stars, we must and shall bring life to many worlds, and many worlds to life.
it would be unnatural for us not to.
"All civilizations become either spacefaring of extinct."
- Carl Sagan