Friday, October 28, 2011

The Mars Expedition Photos - Anthropocentric Bias

The photos of the planet known as Mars from the Rover Mission (beginning in 2004) have provided us with detailed images of a place which men have been dreaming about for hundreds of years. The imaginative paradigm of the science fiction tendency has been to project human drama and visions upon alien contexts, sidestepping most of the major problems inherent in such possibilities. This is all innocent enough, unless considered from the point of view of how our attitudes about our immediate environment, and the lengths we might go to validate these fantasy visions, are affected by idle speculation.

Since the discovery of the "New World" and the spherical nature of the earth, humankind has been rapidly covering the planet with his kind, and exploiting her resources at an ever-increasing rate. Theorists in the environmental sciences have pointed out that our ecological ontology is based on a fallacy--that man is unconnected to his immediate environment (the earth), and that what he does carries no eventual significant risks with respect to the sustainability of our continued existence. They argue that the human race is part of a larger context--of a whole system of interactive, interdependent relationships, and that the disturbance of any part of this system has implications for all the other parts (of the whole).

What is humankind's destiny? We all tacitly accept the "inevitability" of man's increase, of his continued expansion over our planetary environment. It's regarded as our "birthright." But as large as the earth is, as vast as its resources may once have seemed, we now know that our ability to exploit them is efficient enough to upset many of the "balances" which have existed for millions of years, most of which, indeed, pre-date the development of homo sapiens as a distinct species. Our affect on the rest of the life on earth has been extensive, and profound. In just about three millennia, we have transformed the surface of the planet, driving many life forms into extinction, wiping out vast tracts of flora, and burning unprecedented stocks of oxides, fouling land, water and air in the process. It is commonly accepted that this process carries huge risks to our style of life, and could spell doom not just for us, but for much of the rest of the ecosphere.

Panoramic photo of Mars (click on the image to see it at larger scale)

But from a purely philosophical point of view, such visions contain assumptions about what humankind's place in the universe is, and should be. They're, in effect, all anthropocentric in their bases (or biases). From a purely rational point of view, everything we do is completely "natural"--there are no "natural" priorities. There's no law inherent in physics or environmental science which will deny the value of a "favorable" manipulation of our environment, as long as it does no permanent harm. But there is no such postulate that dictates that we support such a value, either. Morally, whatever we do on--or to--the planet we occupy is defensible, depending upon what value we place on it. If we place man at the center of the universe--an idea which was resisted for centuries, for instance, by the Catholic Church--we put the authority for deciding what is in our best interest ahead of any other consideration.

Environmentalists will argue that the laws that govern sustainability on earth are ultimately immutable, that no matter what lengths we go to to enhance our condition, we will come up against limits inherent in the biosphere. Nature itself shows us that balances achieved over time are much more persuasive, on the one hand, and fragile, on the other, than any technological interventions we might employ to alter or "improve" them. Our ability to exhaust resource, or to spew out waste, has been impressive over the last five hundred years.

In a crude sense, we have been entirely successful in facilitating our rapid increase and physical comforts through manipulation of the environment. But that success comes at an increasing price-tag. Science fiction writers (and, indeed, scientists themselves) have been imagining an expansion of man's "voyage" into the unknown as to some degree limitless, that as earth is gradually exhausted, we will venture out and explore, and colonize other planets in the solar system. Modern science tells us this is a pipe-dream, that the barriers to such extensions are far too great to be overcome, given the limits of our power over time, matter and distance. The scale of event in "outer space" dwarfs the human scale.

The first photographs of the Mars surface gave us an eerie sensation. They resembled nothing so much as the most barren places on earth--desert landscapes in which almost nothing could live, with little or no water, and as we know, no air to breathe, and temperature which would make any warm-blooded life form untenable. It was a confirmation of the folly of our science fiction dreams, that we might someday "colonize" Mars and conquer new worlds--in a real life version of Star Trek--"to go where no man has gone before."

The limits to interplanetary space travel, of a life beyond our immediate environment, are as real and determinative as the limits posed by the earth's biosphere. Reports about the earth's exploding population this week in the news, have underscored the concern which many feel about the crises coming just over the immediate horizon. We know that we can draw down the earth's resources of energy, water, space and air, as the frenzied hive of humanity devours them. But what is the point.

The Kaiser Medical Group tells us it wants everyone to "thrive." But does to thrive necessarily mean constantly to increase our numbers? If you wish to see what the effects of unbridled increase, accompanied by insufficient respect for requisite means to living, can lead to, go to Africa, to India, or to other parts of the poorest Third World lands.

In the imagination of humanists (anthropocentrists), mankind would endure, no matter what circumstances he found himself in. The first priority of any living thing is its ability to live, but the second has always been its ability to reproduce itself. Indeed, among some lower species (like insects), life only lasts long enough for mating to take place, before the death of the individual occurs--as if the only purpose to existence were to propagate. The life of any species--its numbers, its relative ease and duration--seems secondary to this primary tenet.

People are not insects, and our high brains have enabled us to conceive of, and to some extent realize, a different bargain with our environment than chance and the very slow adjustments of the Darwinian principle (evolution through mutation and incremental adjustments) would otherwise have permitted. But the laws which govern insect life are in principle the same that govern humankind. From an olympian perspective, humankind might indeed endure, as some kinds of insects (such as silverfish) are said to have, through the great upheavals of climate, asteroid impacts and other kinds of world-wide devastation. But the quality of such endurance is another matter.

The gargantuan irony of the cheesy science fiction pulp fantasy below--the vicarious imagination of some supernatural condition--sex in outer space!--is that our true destiny would always be our desire for sexual consummation. But sex itself now shows some signs of being rendered to some degree irrelevant. If sexual intercourse becomes unnecessary to conception, as in a very real sense it now is, then sex itself might become nothing more than a pleasant old-fashioned form of recreation. We're programmed--or, most people are--to mate and co-habit. But our higher intelligence may in the end find ways around even this most basic "instinct." The ultimate "sin" of humankind may be its ability to outsmart evolution and the limits of the biosphere. But in its present "transitional" state, there promises to be quite a bit of suffering and confusion. If the spaceman in the picture below takes off his space-helmet, will he suffocate for lack of oxygen? Is Eve seducing him into the most original of transgressions, or is she the ultimate evil spirit, intent upon his demise. Certain female spiders are said to murder and eat their mates immediately after consummation. Men--who needs'em?


1000 Names of Vishnu said...

moon colonies or ships/stations in orbit will probably be happening in next few decades--but a manned mission to Mars a long way off. The pro-Mars types (ive met a few and they are usually pure quacks) forget how much H20 and other supplies they will need (and for return trip as well)--perhaps a small crew--1-2 people could do it but still incredibly difficult logistically speaking, and approx 6 month trip with current speeds. I wager we will see "orbitals" tho' in next 2-3 decades--like the Mir, ramped up---space casino more than likely (think of tourista cash). That is, unless your pals in the TP-GOP nix the entire NASA program--which they might ,I ve read. So would have to be rockets/stations funded by private corps,etc (which is happening)

Craig said...

Terraforming was a popular concept back in the '70s when lunar golf was still a fresh memory. The idea then was that there could be forms of algae, moss, lichens or even cactus on earth well adapted to the Martian terrain and atmosphere.

There is CO2 on Mars, which could be transformed by the introduction of appropriate terrestrial vegetation, releasing oxygen on a scale sufficient to create weather that could substantially diminish the extremes of diurnal variation in the atmosphere, rendering the air breathable and the climate habitable at some point in the not too distant future, perhaps a millennium or less. Free oxygen has a strong inclination to team up with hydrogen and form water. Produce enough water and you get clouds. Don't laugh. It could happen.

Venus also has enormous potential once the fundamental principles of planetary science are mastered. Interplanetary lebensraum. I like it. Sign me up for a course in reincarnation, too. I'd like to come back and check it out a few centuries from now.

Craig said...