Terraforming the Earth, Redesigning the World

Climate emergency is forcing us to harness our ability to intervene in planetary processes and direct it at repairing the damage caused to the planet.

pikist.com | Public Domain

pikist.com | Public Domain

The term terraforming refers to the transformation of the ecosystems of other planets or satellites to enable them to support Earth-like life. The looming ecological consequences of what is known as the “Anthropocene” suggest that, in coming decades, we will have to terraform the Earth to enable it to remain a viable host for its life forms. We review planetary engineering measures such as nanotechnology, solar or climate engineering, carbon dioxide removal and assisted migration, techniques which are, however, useless unless accompanied by commitment to deeper change.

During the COVID-19 pandemic we witnessed a proliferation of discourses (branded by many as ecofascist) that reinforced the idyllic image of a nature beginning to heal and advance when human activity stopped: dolphins returning to ports, the sun rising on crystal-clear canal waters, pollution dropping… “Nature is healing, we are the virus.”

The idea that there is an internal balance in nature (or that, left to its own devices, it returns to a state of equilibrium) has been around for a long time and for many years it made sense, as, in times previous to techno-scientific development, the only major changes that we could perceive were cyclical, like one season giving way to the next. This idea was, however, abandoned long before the end of the last century for its romantic overtones and its inaccuracy in describing what is, actually, chaos or perpetual dynamic turmoil: ecosystems are regularly destabilized in the absence of human influence, and even the world’s remaining “wild” parts are constantly changing.

The reason for my quotation marks around the word “wild” is that it is a philosophically and scientifically problematic category. For some people, it connects a certain type of environmental thinking with narratives of colonialism and genocide. But beyond the debate as to whether it is a cultural construction or not, that pristine, virgin nature—if it ever existed—is no long to be found. We have transformed the environment as a whole, and our impact (as geological agents, to which the concept of the Anthropocene refers) reaches every corner of the planet. So we cannot wait for the natural balance to be restored, because it won’t be. As Christopher Preston suggests, “paradoxically, nature could need a considerable degree of human manipulation to survive as nature in this new age”.[1]

To date, this manipulation has not been planned and has had devastating effects on our environment and on the rest of non-human life forms. Now, climate emergency is forcing us to act more responsibly and to harness our ability to intervene in planetary processes in order to turn the most basic natural operations into conscious decisions aimed at repairing the damage caused to the planet.

This places us in the field of terraforming, also called planetary engineering. As Benjamin Bratton says:

The term ‘terraforming’ usually refers to transforming the ecosystems of other planets or moons to make them capable of supporting Earth-like life, but the looming ecological consequences of what is called the Anthropocene suggest that in the decades to come, we will need to terraform Earth if it is to remain a viable host for Earth-like life.[2]

The central theme of this proposal is that response to anthropogenic climate change must also be anthropogenic or artificial (that is, intentional and designed). This includes some natural climate solutions such as afforestation or regenerative agriculture, but they cannot be the only responses to the current disaster, so other measures are necessary.

One would be to use nanotechnology to exploit the reactivity and instability of materials at the nanoscale. Many environmentalists are reticent about the idea of manipulating matter at atomic and molecular levels, as though there was some ulterior reason why these properties have been hitherto hidden from view. Although some of these doubts are reasonable, it is undeniable that nanotechnology could make massive contributions to environmental sustainability. In the field of energy, nanostructures designed for their thermoelectric properties can capture waste heat and convert it back into electricity. Nanotechnology also enables the development of more efficient solar technologies that can power faster, more powerful rechargeable batteries, and flexible or even paintable photovoltaic panels that can be applied to anything in the sun, from a car to a garage door. Then, used as catalysts, nanomaterials can make combustion more efficient and help break down woody plant matter for faster conversion into biofuel. The list is long enough not to rule out nanotechnology as a possible solution to some of the problems posed by climate change.

Another measure consists of managing solar radiation, using technology to artificially cool the climate by making the Earth more reflecting and sending a significant amount of the energy it receives back into space before the temperature of the globe increases. This is called solar or climate engineering. There are multiple ways of carrying it out (some of them still too speculative): placing millions of tiny mirrors in Earth’s orbit to reflect sunlight before it reaches the atmosphere; painting large portions of the earth’s surface white; genetically modifying common crops to make them more reflecting; injecting aerosols into the stratosphere; increasing the brightness of the clouds by spraying saltwater through nozzles specially designed for fleets of slow moving boats…

The problem is that it merely assuages one of the effects of carbon dioxide but does not eliminate its main cause: the emission of greenhouse gas. If we want to restore the atmosphere to acceptable carbon concentrations, it will be necessary not only to reduce current emissions but also to chase down the ones that have already been emitted. Carbon dioxide removal can do this. There are several ways: planting more trees, generating massive blooms of phytoplankton in the oceans or artificially accelerating the mineralization process by which carbon dioxide turns to stone. Another is the sequestration and removal of carbon by artificial trees on a scale large enough to produce a significant change. However, this measure presents some problems (manufacturing, transport, energy, water), so it should be combined with biofuels that allow negative emissions—that is, sequestering more carbon than is emitted, thereby reducing greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere.

As regards the species affected by climate change, assisted migration or planned relocation is proposed: encouraging the displacement of all species whose ecosystems have adverse conditions (whether or not they are due to human causes), understanding that we have a moral obligation to redesign or intervene in nature to help non-human animals and reduce or eliminate their suffering, as suggested by Catia Faria[3] and Eze Paez,[4] among others. If we are concerned with nonhuman animals—and we should be if we consider sentience as a basic criterion of moral consideration—we need to be prepared to build more conducive ecosystems.

All these measures might suggest that terraforming consists solely of a series of technological interventions of varying degrees of sophistication. However, we are not dealing with a “technology” or an artefact taken from a toolbox alongside genetics and robotics, but rather a variety of practices that include people in their various relationships with nature and with each other. As Holly Jean Buck writes:

Rather than just emerging technologies, both solar geoengineering and carbon removal are practices that combine aspects of infrastructure and social intervention. We must not pigeonhole them in the field of technology, where only experts are allowed; we must see them as projects, programs and practices about which civil society can decide.[5]

This is, then, a project that requires an expressly political commitment and does not in any way replace the need for systemic change or economic measures against capitalism, which is largely responsible for the current ecological crisis. To see it differently would mean falling into the trap of technological solutionism.

Of course, terraforming is not a project like any other: the damage caused by poor execution is measured not in costs or lost opportunities to invest in other things, but in ecological dangers. It understandably raises certain misgivings due to the many risks involved, but this is just one reason more to start debating the subject (extending discussion to society as a whole instead of relegating it to expert committees): we cannot allow the corporations guilty of ecological devastation to appropriate this discourse to justify some form of green capitalism, nor can we wait until it is too late and we are at a point of no return.

[1] Preston, Christopher: The Synthetic Age: Outdesigning Evolution, Resurrecting Species, and Reengineering Our World (The MIT Press, 2019).

[2] Bratton, Benjamin H.: The Terraforming (Strelka Press, 2019).

[3] Faria, Catia: “Muerte entre las flores: el conflicto entre el ecologismo y la defensa de los animales no humanos”, Más allá de lo humano (Bartlebooth, 2018).

[4] Eze Paez: “A Kantian Ethics of Paradise Engineering”, Analysis 80 (2):283-293, 2020.

[5] Buck, Holly Jean: After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration (Verso Books, 2019).

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Terraforming the Earth, Redesigning the World