terrestrial planets

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Only recently have humans gained the capability to willfully and technologically manipulate the environment on a global scale. This sort of planetary engineering includes present-day geoengineering proposals to counteract anthropogenic climate change by reflecting away a fraction of incoming sunlight. Although such a feat seems technically achievable, whether or not we should engage in such geoengineering is a question of ethics. Other, more futuristic, kinds of planetary engineering include plans for terraforming Mars to increase global temperatures and make the red planet habitable for Earth life. For terraforming as well, the technology for terraforming may be available today, but whether or not we should deliberately modify another planet is a question of ethics.

I recently published a paper in the journal Astrobiology that develops a two-axis framework for comparing different views about how we value organisms, environments, planetary systems, and space. The ecological compass is shown in this figure with a scale from “space” to “intelligence” along the horizontal axis. This axis is intended to represent the vast diversity of life on Earth, from humans and other animals on the far right, to microscopic organisms near the middle, to planetary systems and space on the far left. The vertical axis of the ecological compass contrasts two types of value: instrumental value and intrinsic value. Instrumental value describes the usefulness or purpose that an object, organism, or system provides; for example, a logger may assign instrumental value to trees that are grown for lumber. Intrinsic value describes the an object, organism, or system as valuable for its own sake; in this sense, a hiker may view a tree as valuable simply by virtue of its being a tree. With this two-axis system, we can describe and compare various attitudes toward nature and their implications for planetary engineering.

An anthropocentric view, which assigns instrumental value to all life other than humans, may find no environmental objection to planetary engineering. This is because anthropocentrism is only concerned with the effects of planetary engineering on humans. A zoocentric (or ratiocentric) framework extends intrinsic value to animals and gives at least some consideration to how human actions affect these organisms. As such, zoocentrism suggests that some consideration should be given to the effects of geoenginering on non-human animals. Likewise, a macrocentric viewpoint considers large, visible organisms as intrinsically valuable, while a microcentric viewpoint considers even microorganisms to possess intrinsic value. Under these ethical frameworks, the decision to terraform a planet such as Mars will depend upon the organisms that are already inhabiting it. Finally, a cosmocentric framework places intrinsic value across the entire biological spectrum from intelligent creatures and microorganisms to planets and space. This suggests that a cosmocentric ethical framework would refrain from any sort of planetary engineering because a planet is valued for its own sake.

This ecological compass is intended to be used as a tool for discussions of human valuation of nature. As a tool it cannot provide the answer to whether or not we should engage in planetary engineering, but it can at least help us raise important questions about how we value nature in advance of any decisions.

Planetary Messenger

At long last my philosophical novel is complete! A journey through space, time, and dreams, Planetary Messenger explores the social, scientific, and spiritual consequences of discovering another planet in the galaxy just like our Earth. I began this project as a NaNoWriMo entry in 2007 and continued editing and revising for a year and a half.

From the back cover:

Since the dawn of humanity we have gazed at the stars to ponder our existence. To the naked eye the skies are dark and lifeless, but what if, through a glass, we looked to the heavens and saw our mirror image, a twin Earth from afar? If we found our uniqueness shattered in the vast cosmic arena, then what, if anything, could we still hold sacred?

Planetary Messenger is now available either directly from Createspace or through Amazon. Thanks to all of you who have been part of my life so far and helped make this possible. Happy reading!

The Milky Way is old enough that a slightly more advanced civilization than us could conceivably have colonized the galaxy several times over by now. Known as the Fermi Paradox, the absence of extraterrestrial observations is often taken to imply either the rarity of life or the impossibility of interstellar travel.

In a paper published in the February issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society titled “The Sustainability Solution to the Fermi Paradox“, we challenge this conclusion with the possibility that exponential growth is an unsustainable development. That is, even if an extraterrestrial civilization has colonized the galaxy, it would have done so through rapid unsustainable growth and collapsed upon reaching a physical resource limit. Not enough time has yet passed for a sustainable growth civilization to colonize the galaxy, so there is still promise in the search for extraterrestrial life. Furthermore, though the absence of extraterrestrial civilization does not imply the unsustainability of exponential growth, it does increase the probability that humanity should transition to sustainable development in order to prevent its collapse. A more detailed writeup is available on the Lifeboat Foundation blog.

In other news, NASA’s Kepler Mission successfully launched yesterday evening! Over the next three years, Kepler will observe 100,000 stars in a patch of the Milky Way in search of Earth sized planets. This is the first mission with the capability of detecting Earth at a distance, so with any luck we’ll soon have a better idea of just how common small rocky planets are in the galaxy.

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