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Backup of Life on Mars

Backup of Life on Mars

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Published by Frederick Turner

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Published by: Frederick Turner on Feb 27, 2009
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06/16/2009

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Life on Mars: Cultivating a Planet--and Ourselves
 Mars is one of the brightest objects in the night sky. Its reddish color, now known to becaused by the prevalence of iron oxides in its soil, perhaps accounts for its identification bythe Greeks and Romans with the bloody god of war. Its astronomical symbol is the same asthe circle-and-arrow symbol of the male and of the metal iron. Like all planets--"wanderers"--it does not make an orderly circuit of Polaris, as do the fixed stars, but pursues an oddlooping trajectory through the sky, and waxes and wanes in brightness as it does so. Theorderly astronomical mind, intrigued by this irregularity in the orbits of planets, arrived aftersome ten thousand years of speculation at the present model of the solar system, whereinMars circles the Sun in the same plane as the Earth, but at about one-third again thedistance away (about 228 million kilometers). From Mars the sun would look about twothirds of the size it looks from here. Mars is smaller than the Earth, and its surfacegravitation is about three eighths of ours. Its year--the period in which it revolves about thesun--is about twice as long as that of the Earth, but the inclination of its poles is almostidentical to Earth's, and thus its seasonal variations are analogous: it has a spring, asummer, an autumn, and a winter. Its day--the period in which it spins on its own axis--isalmost exactly identical to Earth's.We have always projected upon the stars the images of our own archetypes: and Mars hasbeen a rich field for such imaginative colonization. Indeed, the twentieth century mythologyof the planet is perhaps richer than at any prior period. The eyes of the astronomers Lowelland Schiaparelli, straining against the distortion of the Earth's atmosphere as they peeredthrough their telescopes, interpreted the orange blur into a surface webbed with lines. Theplanet of canals they hypothesized became in turn the evocative basis of the Mars many of us grew up with: the Mars of the great deserts, the dying planet of Edgar Rice Burroughs andH. G. Wells, with its thin air, its ancient despairing civilizations eking out the last preciouswater from the melting poles, its envious glances at the blue water-planet between them andthe sun. In the extraordinary panic that followed Orson Welles' radio dramatization of 
TheWar of the Worlds
Mars became the great American symbol of The Other--ancient where wewere young, in want where we were surrounded by natural fertility, subtle and incalculablewhere we were simple: like the Europeans, perhaps, or the orientals, or, in Burroughs'fantasy, like the North American Indians we had dispossessed and driven into the deserts.Nevertheless we yearned for there to be life on Mars, and the evidence for a while lookedgood: Mars clearly had an atmosphere, and weather, and changed color at different times of the year. For these and other reasons Mars became a major focus of NASA's planetaryexploration program, and their efforts were rewarded by the spectacular success of theMariner and Viking probes, which photographed, landed on, and sampled the Martiansurface. But the result was bitter disappointment; Mars was biologically dead, and ouralmost religious hope for a sister species in the depths of space was deferred. On the levelof cultural myth many people turned inward, back to the precious and beautiful island of theEarth and to the inner realm of personal experience, and abandoned the impulse of exploration. But that retreat also perhaps carried with it an ungenerous, timid and querulouselement, a miserly hoarding of the spirit, which has permeated our economy, our educationalsystem, and our arts. The Martians have perhaps done us more harm by their nonexistencethan by their imagined invasion of our world.But let us imagine another myth instead. In one of Ray Bradbury's stories an Earthly colonistof Mars takes his daughter down to the canal to show her a Martian. She is told to look intothe water, and there she sees her own reflection. Suppose
we
were the Martians? Supposewe could go there and make the place our own? "We" in this case cannot, we know now,mean just we human beings. If the ecology movement has taught us anything, it is that wecannot exist without a biosphere of other species about us--they
are
us, are our bodies. Sothe new myth of Mars must be that we will bring Mars to life, and garden it into a place
 
where the living descendants of Earthly plants and animals can flourish--a new nature, a newbirth of a world into sentient existence. But what would be the purpose of this enterprise? What would justify its enormous expenseand danger? There are two answers to this question: one practical and economic (thoughbased, as is all economics, on the mysterious sources of desire); the other philosophical oreven pre-philosophical, since it concerns a fundamental tuning of the mind that is theprerequisite of true philosophy.*Economics first. We live in a time when despite the achievement of great wealth for hugecontinental populations in many developed nations, there is a widespread sense of the lossof value, meaning, dignity and grandeur in our vision of ourselves and our cosmos. We needthe moral equivalent of a great war or a great religion; or we will find it in drug-addiction,madness, and perhaps uncontrollable internal political violence. The young especially needto find in the world an enterprise worth the life and death commitment of a full undamageduncynical adult human being. The existence of such an enterprise would create a generalimprovement in morale as the peoples of the world realize that they are working forsomething worthy of human attention, not just for personal wealth or national prestige or outof the exacerbated grievance that is the core of the Marxist/Capitalist theory of value.One of the strangest things about human beings is that we tend to achieve the mostobviously desirable things only when we are striving for something else. We are happiestwhen we are striving not for happiness but, say, for artistic perfection, or for the purestservice to other persons, or for true knowledge. Economically the widespread wellbeing of the great masses of people in Europe and America was not achieved by any ambition toimprove the lives of the poor--in fact, it may have even been hindered by it--but ratherthrough the pursuit of trade, exploration, art, religious evangelism, science, and profit. Themost stable and perhaps the most contented society in the world has probably been ancientEgypt, which for millenia poured all its surplus wealth straight into the ground, in the form of gravegoods, tombs, monuments and pyramids. Death was its sink of excess value. Thecontemporary stability of the world's economic system--not in absolute terms, of course, butcompared with all other periods of history--may well have a great deal to do with our ownegregious and pyramidical form of waste, the arms race. With peace imminent between theeast and the west, we are going to have to look very seriously for some commensurable andmagnificent folly to keep the world economy going. It will be hard work spending the trillionor so annual dollars that presently find their home in the world's defense budget. The bestcandidate for the job is the Mars terraforming project. The enormous expense of the project, then, is one of its great advantages; we are going toneed something to replace the necessary economic waste of the arms race when nobodytakes the threat of nuclear war seriously any more. And to what better purpose might weput the beautiful and terrible heroic spirit of humankind, ready for suffering and sacrifice andcourage, when we no longer have war to spend it on? There is in this proposal a strangecontinuity of technology and passion with the old art of war, combined with a reversal of purpose. The seeding process might put to appropriate use our huge stocks of ballisticmissiles, replacing their warheads with the germs of life. Old cliches are sometimes veryrich: this would indeed be a beating of swords into plowshares. The flow of economic value, especially into the tropical areas that house the greatpreponderance of species on Earth, would be a significant tonic to the world's economy.Some have already suggested that the World Bank could trade forgiveness of third worldindebtedness for protection of the rain forests; in the light of the Mars project, and with anew juriprudence in which genes can be patented, the genetic information preserved in theforests would become a precious, salable, and renewable resource.
 
Meanwhile the economic fallout from the new biotechnology should produce great new formsof wealth. The terraforming of Mars will require the complete recreation by human science,art, and technology of the natural ecology itself, and the creative extension of that ecologyinto new domains. We will be preparing ourselves to become the pollinators and the seedersof the universe, and to carry life not only to other planets in the solar system but also acrossthe galaxy and to other galaxies. This project will require that we come to understand themolecular structure of life so well that we can reproduce existing lifeforms, resurrect extinctforms, beneficially alter existing forms for new environments, and create entirely new kindsof life. Only thus could the hostile and sterile environments that lie beyond the blue mantleof the Earth be seeded and gardened. In the process of this work we will discover howvaluable is every single existing species, and perhaps even roll back the wave of extinctionsthat we have caused, by restoring lost species.Who knows what new technologies might arise out of this effort? Why might we not here onEarth eventually live in houses grown from genetically-tailored trees? And mine our rawmaterials with the aid of multitudes of tiny bacterial or nanotechnological assistantsprogammed to strain the precious elements out of the sea or the ground, or extract themfrom our own waste-products? This increase in wealth, moreover, would not be at theexpense of the CO2 balance of the planet, nor would it generate pollution. The world not being exclusively a linear and rational system--thank heaven!--we may not beable to achieve all our immediately desirable objectives by striving for them. An excellentand universal education, which is our greatest need, may not be achievable merely by thedirect application of resources and intentions to that purpose. Nor may, in the long run, anyreversal of the process of environmental deterioration. Nor may any improvement in thecondition of the world's poor, as we know from the Sahel and the American ghetto, where theaid and good intentions of one generation were largely responsible for the famines and thecultural collapse of the next. Of course for our own moral sanity we must do everything wecan. But the real help will come from some other direction; it will be some incalculable andautonomous movement of the human spirit, and will have to do, I believe, with the health of the stock of value in the world, its growth, its hope in itself.So our deepest work must be like that of an artist, who by indirect means must make somebeautiful richness flower up, who must nourish the ground of her art with strangeconceptions. The Mars terraforming project is a "pyramid" whose building will force us toeducate ourselves as we need to be educated, but behind our backs, while we are not, so tospeak, looking. It will be at first a magnificent waste, which will prune our economic systemto its most productive. Only later will we realize that it was in our economic interest, indeedwas the key to our economic survival. This is the way the story of history happens--what wasa game turns into our surest and soundest resource. This project will give birth to social,spiritual, and economic turbulences that will raise up the unfortunate, and cause us to seekout that knowledge and power by which we will save the environment from ourselves.* The second reason for undertaking the gardening of Mars is that it will be an essential part of our philosophical education as a species: an education the we desperately need. At presentthe constructive energies of our culture are locked in a paralysing struggle against oneanother. Those energies derive from three distinct modes of thought: the reductive, thecreative, and the ecological. The first, the reductive, might also be termed the analytic: its procedure is to take the objectof study apart to see what it is made of and how it works. Its goal is to tease out theoperations of a system into a single line of logic, so that by following it anyone else wouldarrive inevitably at the same conclusion, and the conclusions are clearly inherent in thepremises. This way of thought values the basic, the primary, the elementary, the simple; the

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