In my last Workable Utopias newsletter, the feature article discussed the advisability of writing terraformed worlds in SF. This newsletter, I continue the theme with reflections on terraforming in real life.
I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments.
Terraforming – Part 2: Thousand-Year Thinking
Last newsletter, I recommended Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel Aurora, specifying I was only part way through it. Now that I have finished it, I recommend it with boundless enthusiasm! Mind you, it is not the perfect novel, but it is philosophically compelling. And it leads me to part 2 of my discussion of terraforming. Vague spoilers for the novel follow (so vague I’m not bothering to cut for spoilers).
In Aurora, the author who rocketed to fame by writing about terraforming Mars argues that we should give up terraforming. Aurora tells of an intergenerational ship on a mission to colonize an “Earth analogue” planet about 11 light years away. This task proves incredibly hard in numerous ways. Meanwhile, Earth, even ravaged by climate change, is much nicer.
One thing this novel captures brilliantly is scale. Robinson argues that terraforming a planet, while not necessarily impossible, would be the work of millennia. At one point, the ship’s crew run computer simulations that suggest timeframes running from several hundred to tens of thousands of years, with the median projections in the thousands. Of course, Robinson’s projections are made up, but they do reflect something of the massiveness of having to generate atmosphere, seed soil microbes, etc., for a whole world—if we ever figure out how to do that, if we can survive in artificial environments for the number of generations it would take to create an Earth-like biosphere.
For reference, our earliest written records, such the Epic of Gilgamesh, go back about 5000 years. So if we were to successfully terraform a planet, we would need to undertake a single, coherent task likely lasting at least as long as all of recorded human history. Is this impossible? I would argue… no. Very unlikely to succeed, yes. Much more likely we’ll die out first, yes. But not impossible and worth pondering.
What kind of civilization might actually do this? Here’s a conundrum. Looking at human societies thus far, the only societies that seem capable of this kind of very long-term continuity and sustainability are indigenous. Yet indigenous societies are perhaps the least likely to want to do this. They are, by definition, the societies most bound to Earth, with the deepest roots in particular Earth places. (For an excellent exploration of what it means to be indigenous in space, see Drew Hayden Taylor’s short story “Lost in Space” from Take Us to Your Chief.) Leaving aside physical concerns, could an indigenous—or heavily indigenous-influenced—society psychologically persist for dozens or hundreds of generations in ships, domes, etc. without losing itself, without dying of dislocation? Could any human society? And is a worldview that is primarily circular and sustainable even compatible with the mindset required to systematically move forward with the technological progressionist venture of terraforming?
The practical answer—and the answer Robinson gives—is save the Earth! It is our only realistic home and hope. But as we consider what kind of future we would like to leave for our descendants, I think it worth contemplating how the indigenous and progressionist might intersect (or not), how the traditional, the ancient might inform the science of the future. One thing is sure: the modern world needs to change our sense of scale. Whether terraforming other planets or navigating the terraforming adventure we have already begun on Earth, we need to (re)teach ourselves to be people of the millennia.