A Beautiful (Red) Planet

Should we turn Mars into a second Earth?

Asking this question is the easiest way to wreak havoc in an astrobiology meeting.

Proponents of the so-called terraforming will passionately advocate that  we should modify Mars’s environment to make it habitable. In short, that we should turn the Red Planet into a green one.

Opponents, on the other hand, will vehemently argue against it. Some for scientific reasons (“we should study Mars before we modify it”), others for ethical ones.

The text that follows is from Sean McMahon, a brilliant astrobiologist and good friend of mine. I invited him to discuss an unusual argument against terraforming Mars: its beauty.


The Aesthetic Objection to Terraforming Mars

By Sean McMahon

Mars has been a wandering star, a vengeful God, and latterly a storied world of shifting greenery, huge canals, carved faces, pyramids, aliens, and warrior princesses. Today, it is hard to see Mars through the haze of these cultural-historical associations. In the midst of this haze, it seems quite reasonable to talk about terraforming. If we can, should we not force Mars into an earth-like, humanly habitable state? Should we not seed its deserts with vegetation, flood the lowlands, thicken the atmosphere, make the air breathable?

One objection, which I explore in a forthcoming paper, is that terraforming would destroy the natural beauty of Mars. You may think that beauty is too subjective, too psychological and too controversial a thing to set against the potentially enormous scientific and cultural dividends of terraforming. But human beings have always found beauty in nature, and life without it would scarcely be worth living. Whatever philosophical doubts we may have about beauty, in reality we cannot help but recognize an obligation to protect beautiful things. Reasons to destroy them—scientific, economic, or whatever—may sometimes be more pressing, and so the case may ultimately be with Mars. But the aesthetic value of Mars must at least be weighed in the balance. We need to emerge from the haze and look at Mars afresh.

Before we start, let us dispatch the idea that terraforming Mars is somehow necessary for the preservation of the human race. If this were true, aesthetic concerns would be irrelevant. But it isn’t true. Mars can accommodate a healthy and productive human population without needing to be remade in the image of Earth. A limited programme of colonization would have many benefits and would not require the wholesale effacement of the planet. Charles Cockell and Gerda Horneck have argued that areas of Mars should be set aside like national parks and protected under treaty arrangements similar to those governing Antarctica, which prohibit the destruction of “biological, scientific, historic [or] aesthetic” resources. I am inclined to agree.

A more serious objection to my view is that terraforming Mars might actually increase its aesthetic value. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy of novels, the character Sax Russell asks, “If [after terraforming] there are lakes, or forests, or glaciers, how does that diminish Mars’s beauty? I don’t think it does. I think it only enhances it”. But to my mind, the simple response of Sax’s opponent Ann Clayborne is more compelling: “You’ve never even seen Mars”. One cannot conclude that terraforming Mars would make an aesthetic improvement without first having paid serious, careful attention to the beauty already there. My paper argues that very few of us have ever done this, even though we now have several decades’ worth of photographs from the martian surface.

What do these photographs reveal? Landing sites are usually chosen to have as little topography as possible, so the famous canyons and volcanoes, probably among the most sublime landscapes in the solar system, have only been seen from afar. Nevertheless, even the plains of Mars turn out to be strange, subtle and delightful. Bathed in a pale half-light, tinted at various times by all the colours of the rainbow (not just red!), Mars is awash with unexpected beauty. But very few people have seen it. In my paper, I claim that popular imagery of Mars is dominated by unrealistic artists’ impressions. These images, although typically smothered in crimson, embellish the “red planet” with features of Earth’s beauty that cannot be found on Mars, and fail to exhibit the special qualities of Mars that cannot be found on Earth. In so doing, they both demonstrate and perpetuate the shallowness and inadequacy of our aesthetic engagement with Mars so far.

Earth’s national-park movement was begun by people who had spent years immersed in the wilderness, learning the depth of its beauty. Such immersion in the wilds of Mars has not yet been possible for us. Aesthetic responses to Mars will shift in the decades and centuries ahead as new stories and new images anchor themselves in the public imagination. For now, I hope to encourage readers to look at the photographs of Mars already available, and to look at them in the right way: with an open mind, free of preconceptions, alive to the possibilities of a new and unfamiliar world.

Mars in acrylics (painting by Sean McMahon)

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3 thoughts on “A Beautiful (Red) Planet

  1. Ion says:

    Sachant ce qu’on fait de notre planète actuelle, pourrait-on et saurait-on prendre soin d’une autre planète si on se mettait à la transformer ? 😞


  2. Mark Sackler says:

    As you may already be aware, most of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Triology (Red Mars, Green Mars, Blue Mars) deals with exactly this question, and foresees a future where disputes and even wars are waged over it. My opinion? Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, and a terraformed Mars could turn out to be quite beautiful, too. I’ll be long gone, I suspect, before anything serious could ever be done about this. But if it can ultimately make the human condition better, I’m all for it.


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