Ethics and the Extraterrestrial Environment
a brief review
environmental ethics this paper examines how terrestrial
environmental values can be developed into policies to protect extraterrestrial environments.
Shallow environmentalism, deep environmentalism and the libertarian extension of rights are
compared and then applied to the environmental protection of extratarestrial bodies. Some
given. The planet Mars
used as a test case from which an ethical
argument emerges for the protection of environments beyond Earth. The argument
necessity to recognise the intrinsic value of all living species and natural environments.
the treatment of extraterrestrial environments by makers of space policy
This paper explains why such an attitude endangers those environments and calls
makers to incorporate non-anthropocentric ethics into extraterrestrial environmental policy.
goal for the early twenty-first century is to land humans on Mars. Beyond that one of
the long term objectives of the
Office of Technology Assessment is ‘to spread life in a
responsible fashion throughout the solar system’
If such a serious commitment to
exploring and colonising the solar system is planned without recourse to ethical and
environmental considerations then, as Hargrove
states, industrial and commercial
projects for space may simply produce a new environmental crisis that dwarfs our current
has taken industrialised humanity about three centuries to inflict an environmental
catastrophe on Earth unparalleled for sixty-five million
In the next few centuries this
degradation may be extended to other planets in the Solar System, perhaps with biocidal
can the environmental ethics we already have be used
stave off such
disasters? Can it serve for Mars if for Antarctica?
In the past twenty years we have been attempting to extend ethical boundaries beyond
human affairs to embrace all living and non-living components of the environment on Earth.
There are three general reasons for this: Libertarian extension, Ecologic extension and
Libertarian extension involves the widening of rights to previously unconsidered
members of the living and non-living community. One can trace in human history an
evolution of such an ethical extension which aims at promoting human rights
individual. In the realms of environmentalism Libertarian extension is most manifest in the
works of animal rights activists who believe that animals (generally those with an advanced
central nervous system) hold the same rights and should be valued at parity with humans.
Such ethical extension tends to emphasise the importance of individuals. If one carries
Libertarian extension beyond just the narrow scope of animal rights it must find application
to all organismal entities.
WOMEN'S VOTING RIGHTS
Ecologic extension has evolved from the science
ecology and from deep environmental-
ism which tells
how all the components of a living ecosystem, along with the abiotic
components, are interrelated and dependent on the well-being
one another. Such an
approach emphasises the value
species, communities, ecosystems and ultimately the
planet Earth more than the rights
individual organisms. Ecologic extension
considers each species important not only because
contributes to the overall ecosystem but
because diversity in the biosphere is intrinsically valuable.
Ethics and the Extraterrestrial Environment
The Conservation ethic does not recognise any intrinsic value or rights
components of the environment but sees their value purely in terms of their being natural
resources which have a use or potential use for humanity. The Conservation ethic parallels
the view known as shallow environmentalism
within environmental philosophy.
anthropocentric. Such an ethic recognises we must conserve and manage environmental
resources primarily to ensure a continued high standard of living.
The Conservation ethic.
Extraterrestrial Environmental Policy According
the Conservation Ethic
The anthropocentric nature of the Conservation ethic currently governs the implementa-
tion of policies designed to protect extraterrestrial environments. In respect of scientific
investigation it would be prudent to minimise environmental destruction of extraterrest-
rial bodies owing to the desire to study natural environments in their original state without
their having been degraded by human influence. Scientists studying the earth or celestial
objects from earth orbit would also suffer if the orbital space of scientific satellites were
cluttered with debris from other space missions.
From a commercial point of view the implementation of a conservation ethic can be
supported, since telecommunications and resource-mapping satellites may suffer the same
problems of orbital pollution as scientific satellites. The pollution
Earth orbits is such
that it has become an acknowledged threat to the long term future of space activities
Naturally, because of the possible effect on human space exploration and space commerce,
orbital pollution has received a great deal of attention. In view of the exploitation of
planets, moons, asteroids etc, the instigation of conservation management policies for
economic reasons will have to take place since consideration must be given to the needs of
future generations, including their resource needs. However, the view that extraterrestrial
resources are an infinite bounty will probably blind consumers of space resources to any
need for conservation of those resources.
on earth, such an ethic will only permeate
economic theory when the supply of resources approaches zero.
Along with scientific and economic reasons for conserving extraterrestrial environments
there are aesthetic reasons. The natural beauty of planetary rings, Martian volcanoes or
lunar moonscapes is a human-imposed value which must be considered if exploitation of
the solar system becomes widespread. On a lunar mining site or near a colonial Marsbase
the scars inflicted on the landscape due
human exploitation or pollution may create
spots of unnatural ugliness out of sites of natural beauty, though some would claim that
they make artificial beauty out of natural ugliness.
consider the scientific, economic and aesthetic reasons for
extraterrestrial environmental protection as the guiding philosophy for implementing
environmental policies, but we must ask if the same environments deserve protection
only if they satisfy the human characteristics of curiosity, utility and beauty. Science,
economics and aesthetics may evoke needs for environmental protection but they are
human concerns that evade the intrinsic value of natural environments. Many
environmentalists, however, are resigned to the idea that anthropocentric conservation
ethics must be employed in order that policies which by chance protect the intrinsic value
of natural objects or the integrity of ecosystems may be put into effect.
According to Ecologic and Libertarian
In discussing what ecologic and libertarian extension of ethics have to say about
extraterrestrial environmental policy formulation
shall be concentrating on the planet
Mars. There is a terrestrial analogue to Mars. The Antarctic continent, like Mars,
possesses an extremely inhospitable environment and is viewed as a frontier to human
advance. We can study how policies are implemented and what philosophical reasons
there are for the protection of
Antarctic environment and seek to apply them to Mars.
Antarctica is the least populated and contains the least diverse terrestrial ecosystem of all
the continents but it is
replete with life.
has many indigenous species of animals and
plants in its coastal zones, although most of the Antarctic landscape
devoid of life.
Devoid, that is, except for microbes.
How do we go about formulating ethics and implementing policies for Antarctic
environments? From a popularist point of view there exist variable levels of concern
regarding what species are more valuable than others. When
are considering the plight
of Weddel seal pups or Emperor penguins, sympathy can be easily attracted in support of
environmental protection policies. With polar insects, moss or colourless flowering plants
it is somewhat more difficult to raise concern. With microbes, which are the only
inhabitants of vast tracts of inland Antarctica,
is even more difficult. Such a scale of
differential concern for living species is referred to as the ‘cuddly quotient’ by Michael
It is abundantly clear what effect exploitation of resources would have on
coastal Antarctic mammals and birds even if it were limited to the inland areas of
Antarctica; support services, such as seaports, airports, pipelines etc, would ultimately
adversely affect bird and seal colonies, perhaps causing local extinction. But would we care
the whole of Antarctica were inhabited only by microscopic organisms? Here we come to
Mars, an environment not too dissimilar, with respect to the prospects for living
ecosystems, to the
valleys of the Antarctic interior.
extract resources in Antarctica
will not be economical, if we allow it, for many years yet. Resource-extraction on Mars
may not be economical for hundreds of years, but if there are microbes on Mars, will
environmental ethics be developed enough for us to consider their interests?
the moment some conservation ethics governs the treatment of extraterrestrial
environments and there is even some legal backup in the form of international treaties.
acknowledges that writings on space law, although having occasion-
Ethics and the Extraterrestrial Environment
ally dealt with the space environment, are typically legalistic in nature and devoid of ethical
Much of the thinking about extraterrestrial conservation revolves around the subject of
preventing the contamination of the Earth by extraterrestrial lifeforms (back-contamina-
tion) but it also extends to protecting bodies of the solar system from being contaminated by
Earth organisms (forward-contamination). The main purpose of this is to discourage the
interference of contaminant lifeforms in the conduction of life-detection experiments. Such
conservation necessities were realised early in space exploration when in 1959
Committee On Space Research) set up guidelines for spacecraft decontamination pro-
cedures to be implemented on interplanetary missions. Sometimes the commitment to these
decontamination policies has been dubious. The Galileo spacecraft, launched in the late
1980s, will insert unsterilised probes into Jupiter’s atmosphere. Right now, bacterial spores
may be awaiting to infiltrate and germinate
the warm layers of the Jovian atmosphere and
pursue a planetary conquest to the detriment of native lifeforms. Similarly the Zond
probe, which crashed on Mars in the early 1960~~ and the two Viking Orbiter spacecraft,
which may yet crash on Mars, were not sterilised before launch.
there life on Mars? This is obviously an important question, since the formulation of an
environmental policy for Mars depends on the answer
101. While some scientists believe
that life on Mars is still a distinct possibility, many biologists in the post-Viking era doubt
the ability of the Martian environment to support extant life. Although a widespread
microflora is absent there exist various possible life-supporting environments on modern
Mars: for example
sub-regolithic life (life below the soil)
2) polar life (life in the icecaps)
endolithic life (life inside rocks)
life associated with hydrothermal
Such life is common in the Antarctic inland regions.
An endemic Martian biota may be intensely susceptible to invasion by humanity and its
pollutants. The two Viking Lander spacecraft, which tested
life on Mars in 1976, were
sterilised such that the chances
a terrestrial microbe reaching the Martian surface were
exceedingly small. However, Boston
111 starkly declares that we must accept the reality
and inevitability of forward contamination that coincides with future exploration plans. The
potential for an Earth microbe to live through spaceflight conditions and survive the
extreme environment of Mars may be unlikely (though some studies suggest that it is
not ), but if a microbe does survive it may:
A) attack and kill indigenous microbes
alter the environment
that this kills indigenous microbes.
Biological processes that could contribute to A) include:
antibiosis (the production of substances by one microbe that are toxic to another),
phagocytosis (the eating of one microbe by another to obtain its carbon, water
infection (the intracellular invasion of one microbe by another to facilitate
Applied Philosophy, 1993
While infection may be unlikely, as it relies on the specificity of a host-parasite relation-
ship arrived at through a co-evolutionary heritage, the other processes pose real threats.
That such processes will remain localised at the point of contamination cannot be
assumed. Bacterial spores may be carried thousands of kilometres by the episodic Martian
duststorms. The chances of contamination would increase along with the increasing
duration and area covered by manned missions. With permanent bases, contamination of
Mars would be assured. And the dissemination of contaminants would be furthered by
widespread prospecting and resource-extraction, especially if polluting activities prevailed
which might work synergistically to enhance microbial invasion. On the most Mars-like
environment on Earth, the dry inland valleys of Antarctica, introduced microbes from
scientific personnel and bases have commonly grown and repi-oduced more rapidly and at
lower temperatures than the indigenous Antarctic microflora
131. It is possible that
biological or chemical pollution on Mars may enhance a native microbial ecosystem
it speedily colonises the whole planet and moves into previously unsuitable areas.
several Mars species exist then the balance of one to another may be affected
microbial species could be enhanced to the detriment of others. Alternatively an indige-
nous microbial species enhanced by human activities may alter its environment
make that environment unsuitable for its own existence. We could be responsible for a
Martian microbial species’ poisoning itself to death.
The potential disturbances outlined above should encourage the policy of exploring
Mars with sterilised unmanned probes extensively before embarking on a series of manned
would be shameful to discover life on Mars and then cause its extinction. The
situation would be akin to that of an exploratory entomologist who discovers a small group
of unidentified butterflies and promptly fures them into a collection only to find out later
that an entire species has been exterminated in the name of science.
To some the probability of either 1) there being life on Mars or
that earth microbes
could survive and affect Mars microbes, is deemed to be
remote as not to justify
However, there are two points that must be considered here. Firstly, it is
questionable whether or not we have enough knowledge (of Mars, and of the nature of life)
to assume that the probability of life on Mars is as low as some suggest. Secondly, how can
we weigh up the likelihood that there is no life on Mars against the possibility of
exterminating an extraterrestrial race? Boston states: ‘as unlikely as it seems now that life
exists on Mars presently the unparalleled importance of finding other life dictates that we err
on the side of excessive caution rather than jeopardise the precious opportunity to study
While Boston reflects the anthropocentric desire to use the situation to advance
scientific knowledge she considers that careful exploration should precede the first
exploitation. From the above analysis a familiar theme in the formulation of environmental
policy emerges, which exemplifies the need for a philosophical analysis. Science can play
role in assessing the probability of there being life on Mars and the risk of such life’s being
destroyed by terrestrial invaders but it cannot evaluate whether the risk is justified or not.
161 addresses this issue in relation to Antarctica: ‘the process of risk estimation,
which is the definition of the probability of a particular change following a particular action,
can be objective (although hedged about with uncertainty) but the process of risk
evaluation, which answers the queston “is it worth it?” must inevitably be subjective’.
a policy is implemented which restricts the exploration of Mars
order to preserve any possible life, we will soon find ourselves asking
the question: when do we finally decide there is no life on Mars and allow human
Ethics and the Extraterrestrial Environment
exploration? After ten years of unmanned exploration? After one thousand years? The
trouble is that an unexplored environment can always be thought of as harbouring
undiscovered life. Even after breaking open a million Martian rocks we can never be totally
sure that Mars is devoid of living organisms. After just two immobile lander missions,
however, it would be foolish to believe that we have enough information to rule out a ‘life on
Mars’ hypothesis and risk the extinction of extraterrestrial species.
we do find life on Mars before
after manned exploration, what should we do?
From the point of view of ecologic extension we should let Mars
plan no more manned
missions and place a ban on exploitation. Mars could become a ‘World Park’, in similar vein
to that hoped for in the Antarctic case. Science, of course, is permitted in Antarctica and it
permitted on Mars, but only with decontaminated robotic probes. However,
direct human contact, as in Antarctica, would be out of the question. Only perhaps after a
millenium of study, when we know how a microbial ecosystem on Mars will react to human
invasion, should planning of a manned mission be permitted. As Sagan
belongs to the Martians’. How can we trespass, knowing that to do
Mars microbiota will be valuable for scientific reasons, and this to some extent will
ensure preservationist policies. But more than that, Martian life is intrinsically valuable.
That life on Mars may possess a scientific use for humans is not necessarily the prime
consideration. For Martians have no duty to contribute to the knowledge
Some would protest that the intrinsic value
extraterrestrial species is a human value, like
that of aesthetics. But intrinsic values are not imposed by human beings; they merely
involve human recognition of value. It may be hard for us to accept responsibility for ‘mere’
microbes, but we may ponder the situation, which has become a familiar theme in science
fiction, in which an extraterrestrial species from an alien planet may look upon Earth as an
resourceful looking place and decide we were not worthy of consideration
because we were mere humans.
The ethic of libertarian extension would place value on each Martian microbe. The ethic
of ecologic extension would value each Martian species, along with the environment in
which it lives. Even the conservation ethic would place value on Martian microbes because
of their use for science. If we adhere to the libertarian extension of ethics in advocating the
protection of indigenous planetary organisms then a conflict of interests may result.
libertarian may feel the need to halt space exploration for fear that it may
organism on Mars. However, libertarians may not wish to violate the right of terrestrial
organisms to explore. It can be argued, though, that since it is the aim of libertarian
extension to give equal rights to all organisms regardless to which species they belong, a
microbe has the right to live on its own land free from invasion and domination by others
a right asserted by human beings on their own behalf. The conflict of interests associated
with the libertarian extension of rights may indicate that ecologic extension (which evades
such a conflict because the right of one organism to explore is not valid compared to the
survival of a species) may be better able to protect extraterrestrial environments.
181 tries to use
amalgamation of environmental ethics to devalue
Martian microbial life. Baird-Callicot does not believe that the Leopold land ethic  is
applicable to microbial life on Mars since Leopold emphasises that we should value
organisms which exhibit interactions and interdependency with the natural environment
(i.e. possess an ecology) and have a co-evolutionary history (i.e. possess a common
heritage) with humans. This may apply to every species on Earth but Baird-Callicot
believes it does not apply to Martian species. However, Martian microbes interact and
depend on the environment, as all organisms must, and so they do possess an ecology
(albeit a simple one). If we consider cosmic and stellar evolution we can also find an
affinity with Martian microbes and fulfil Leopold’s concept of common heritage.
any other planetary body, is devoid of life it does not follow that it is devoid of
value beyond any resources it may have that are useful to humans. An extension of human
ethics to animals and thence to other organisms if taken to the next step would include an
extension of ethics to abiotic objects (be they rocks, rivers
ringed planets) even if they do
not contribute to a living ecosystem. It must be remembered that nature is not static in
abiotic worlds. Myriads of dynamic physical, chemical and geological phenomena permeate
lifeless planets. The turbulent atmosphere of Neptune, the volcanic activity on Jupiter’s
and the chemical reactions of the surface-atmosphere interface of Venus could fulfil
many definitions of what it is to
declares rightly that abiotic planets
have value regardless of being acted upon by living organisms
Consider Mars again. Although it might seem to be a great useless hunk of red rock to
humans could, in the view of martian rocks, be merely living organisms who are yet to
attain the blissful state of satori only afforded to non-living entities. Rolston believes we
should learn to appreciate alien worlds for what they are in themselves and refrain from
depreciating them because they have failed to furnish life. In reality they have not
to be anything; they have achieved being what they are. We must not consider Mars
other celestial body to be unlucky just because it does not support life. Indeed, even in the
absence of an indigenous lifeform, Mars possesses its own uniqueness and diversity which
are worthy of respect. Briggs, a planetary scientist, comments that he has come to like
Mars very much as a beautiful red planet with a stunning, dynamic geology. It is
evident that geologists can admire and wish to preserve the pristine nature of geological
structures,. just as a biologist would wish to preserve a living forest
coral reef. Even
planet appears undynamic
dead it may preserve in its rocks and minerals things which
even billions of years of past dynamic processes. It may also preserve
past histories of life in the form of fossils.
The intrinsic value of an uninhabited planet may not be considered to be as great as that
of a planet with an indigenous biota, but we should enforce strict contamination-
prevention policies all the same in order to preserve its natural state. If human exploration
and exploitation were to occur on Mars it would be prudent to retain a representative
proportion of the planet’s surface, especially areas of unique geology, for ethical as well as
scientific reasons. Only those people deficient in any ability to see beyond the concerns of
humanity would advocate laissez-faire mining of Mars. Some suggest that,
Mars is found
to be lifeless, a policy should be implemented
preserve only selected areas of scientific
interest. However, such
(Sites of Special Scientific Interest) have been imple-
mented in Antarctica but have been known to have been ignored
they happen to conflict with human interests
suggesting the inadequacy of conserva-
tion measures governed by anthropocentric environmental policies.
Environmental considerations should inform planning for the exploration and colonisa-
tion of the solar system, just as they should be prominent on Earth.
According to Hartmann
we need extraterrestrial exploration and development as
Ethics and the Extraterrestrial Environment
an insurance policy, to provide new options for humanity to survive terrestrial
environmental crises. This mentality of a disposable planet is ethically dubious and
anthropocentric. We should learn to deal with the problems we have created for the
Earth’s environment before packing up, moving house and creating problems some-
where else. Some ‘shallow’ environmentalists will decide that humans should exploit the
resources of the solar system to the full in order to bring resource shortages on Earth
close to an end as soon as possible, but others will say that this is simply a continuation
of improper environmental policies that are taking place on this planet and an avoidance
of the real causes of the environmental problems on Earth. We must be courageous and
admit that we should not need to go to space to extract resources and must realise that to
advocate the scientific exploration of space in order to exploit boundless resources is
arrogant and ethically vacuous. In the end, the decision about what is an acceptable
environmental policy for extraterrestrial situations and what is not is not likely to be the
same for everyone. The whole planet ‘World Park‘ scheme will ultimately invite
criticism of being a needless block to human progress. But human progress is not the
only important thing in the universe and it should not sacrifice the intrinsic value of
a guide to formulating extraterrestrial environmental
policies the arguments presented in this paper would advocate:
that a planet with an
indigenous biota should be left alone (with exploration only via sterilised automated
that a planet devoid
life should have a representative proportion of
its physical environment preserved. This second policy guide raises the point that to
preserve a representative proportion of the physical environment of many planets may be
difficult without what amounts to an observance of the first policy guide. For instance it
would be impossible to preserve a representative proportion of much of the physical
environment of the Jovian planets since the products of a microbial invasion
would be spread throughout the planet by atmospheric processes. Human pollutants and
invasive microbial populations may alter the chemical environment of a planet’s atmo-
Some may say that seeking to preserve extraterrestrial environments on the basis of
philosophical arguments reeks
answers such criticism by
saying something like ‘humans who belittle concern for other species, for ecosystems and
landscapes need pity, for they cannot see beyond the narrow limits of their own
Applying environmental ethics to extraterrestrial situations is certainly an
interesting way to test humanity’s commitment to environmentalism on Earth. It is
sometimes argued that extraterrestrial preservation schemes for, say, Mars microbes and
landscapes might bolster the desire to protect terrestrial species and environments. It is
evident, however, that lack of interest in terrestrial environmental ethics makes the idea
that humans will be ethically inclined to protect microbes on Mars seem rather remote.
Even the committed environmentalist James Lovelock advocates a rapacious exploitation
of extraterrestrial bodies by extolling the virtue of a terraformed Mars
environmental philosophy grows to be a potent intellectual, and then a social, force more
people may express concern for the lives of Martian microbes.
Alan Marshall, Department
Development Studies, Massey University, Private Bag,
Palmerston North, New Zealand.
The research for this paper was undertaken as part of an interdisciplinary project in the
Social Sciences and the School
Applied Sciences, University of
grateful to Stephen Clark and
Rydant for their comments on earlier drafts of this
Quoted in P.
Critical Life Science Issues for
Mars Base, in C. P. McKay (Ed)
E. C. HARGROVE, Introduction, in E. C. HARGROVE, (ed)
Nature. A History
The Shallow and the Deep. Long Range Ecology Movement. A Summary.
(Pion Ltd., London).
Space Debris. An International Policy Issue.
Quoted by E. PARTRIDCE
Nature as a Moral Resource.
of Space, in: E. C. HARCROVE
discussion of those space treaties with environmental implications see G. H. Reynolds
It is not the purpose of
paper to debate the existence of life on Mars. Such debates are plentiful in the
scientific literature. For example
The case for life on Mars,
N. H. HOROWITZ
The search for
Currently there exist numerous models
extant life on Mars such as those presented in L.
A 'cryptic' microbial mat, a new model for extant life on Mars,
the World Space
D. A. G~LICHIN~KY
a promising group for exobiological investigations,
Paper presented to the 29th
For example; G. HORNECK et al.
Long-term survival of Bacterial spores in space,
B. C. PARKER et al.
Environmental Appraisal for the Dry Valley Drilling Project,
B. C. PARKER
N. H. HOROWITZ et al.
The Problem and the Agreements,
BOSTON, op. cit.
M. W. HOLDGATE
and Abuse of Polar Environmental Resources,
Moral Considerability and Extraterrestrial Life, in: HARGROVE op. cit. pp.
Natural Value in the Solar System, in: HARGROVE op. cit. pp.
G. A. BRIGGS
The Exploration and Utilisation of the Planets, in: HARGROVE op. cit. pp.
Space Exploration and Environmental Issues,
The Greening OfMars
29th Plenary Meeting
Environmental Impactln Antarctica,
Society for Applied Philosophy,