Code, etc.

Notes on the Mars Trilogy, part 3

The ecological themes of the trilogy centre around the question of the terraformation of Mars. Attitudes towards terraformation can be separated broadly into two camps: Reds, conservationists who oppose all attempts to drastically alter the Martian bioshere, and Greens, who want to alter surface conditions to make them suitable for human habitation by whatever means necessary. There are, of course, a great number of intermediate positions.

The Red camp are conservationists. The human presence, as far as they are concerned, should have minimal impact on the Martian landscape. Ann Clayborne, their de facto leader, is a geologist who supposedly prefers stones to people. Unfortunately (because it is the only false note I detected in over 2,000 pages), this propensity of hers is given a trite explanation in Blue Mars. Their point of view is that Mars is an object of study, and human interference pollutes the data. The question of whether life arose independently on Mars in the ancient wet phase of the planet’s history would undoubtedly be complicated by the presence of immigrant microbes. Their position is not based on solely scientific motives, nor are their motivations uniform. While the general thrust of the Red movement seems to imply a belief in the innate value of the landscape reminiscent of deep ecology, certain sections seem to be motivated by a misanthropic opposition to what they see as human pollution of a primal and unspoiled ecosystem. The catastrophic conditions on Earth lends backing to their cause, due as it is to the rapacious conduct of the human species. While the specific comparison is never invoked by Robinson, one cannot help but recall the humanity-virus equation of The Matrix. This is, in any case, a common theme, but it helps explain the Red misanthropy. A species that lives in permanent disequilibrium with its environment could not but defile the rocky stillness of the Arean plain.

For the Greens, on the other hand, humanity’s restless disequilibrium is a facet of its worth. Humanity’s expansionist tendencies are a result of its viriditas (a concept that owes as much to Dylan Thomas as to Aristotle).

The Reds and the Greens can be read as representing two opposing views on how to deal with climate change on Earth. There are those who say that in order to avert disaster we must reduce emissions, halt deforestation and decrease population through a massive effort of social reorganization. This view makes sense, but lack of international cooperation and the constant growth required by capitalism make it unlikely to be implemented in enough time to make a difference. The other group prefers to play dice. They bet that the human ability to manipulate the climate will keep pace with our destruction of it. They imagine deploying legions of carbon scrubbers like postboxes all over the planet’s surface, or pouring iron filings into the sea to reflect sunlight back into space. Oxygen-producing vegetation can be replaced with machines that replicate photosynthesis. These strategies are not necessarily bad ones. They require no magic, only an understanding of processes already going on in nature. Implementing them is a political and engineering challenge, nothing more.

As usual, the comparison is more suggestive than exact. In reality, there is no strict opposition between the two strategies and a composite strategy would probably be best. we can still salute Robinson’s prescience, however, in foreshadowing the growing interest in zero-impact living, taking modern earthly ecological positions and adapting them to Mars.


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