What are the ethical consequences of using up an uninhabited planet?
June 21, 2004 9:54 AM   Subscribe

What are the ethical consequences of "raping" a lifeless planet like Mercury or Venus of its natural resources. Assuming there's a way to establish with absolute certainty that there is no life on, above, or inside the planet, and with the understanding that we won't remove more than .001 percent (or some reasonable number) of its total mass, what's the problem?
posted by crumbly to Science & Nature (46 answers total)
 
your use of the word "raping" sounds like you've already made up your mind about this topic.
posted by websavvy at 9:55 AM on June 21, 2004


Even if there was life it most certainly isn't anything but a microbe feeding off methane or something like that. Either it'd be on a paticular part of the world we could avoid or all over the world in which case we could kill as much as we want but still keep a preserve somewhere (buffalo).

It's not like Venus is a paticularly pretty planet we'd want to keep in pristine condition. I think the constant radiation/asteroid bombardment from space would do worse damage then we mere mortals could do.
posted by geoff. at 9:59 AM on June 21, 2004


What websavvy said. Harvest, mine, or extract would have been much more effective words.
posted by BlueTrain at 9:59 AM on June 21, 2004


Funny, websavvy, I drew the conclusion that he was leaning towards the "no problem" position--both because of the scare quotes around "raping", and the casual "what's the problem?" at the end.

To the actual question, I don't see any problem with it. But I am not a professional ethicist.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:01 AM on June 21, 2004


Why are you assuming that there would be ethical problems?
posted by loquax at 10:02 AM on June 21, 2004


it doesn't belong to us. Not everything in the universe is ours to do what we like with.
posted by amberglow at 10:07 AM on June 21, 2004


It's in reference to a comment I made here.

In the abstract, nothing. But the attitude that allows you to do that ensures that you'll eventually need to do it to all the planets that have stuff you want and that you can reach and you're still working for a temporary solution.

Even though it's an absurd premise that will never happen before we kill ourselves on the world that we're presently mostly trapped on.

So it's a comdenation of a "use it up, we'll get more later" attitude. How did "The Ant and The Grasshopper" get rewritten so that the grasshopper won and everybody was cool with it?
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:07 AM on June 21, 2004


Kim Stanley Robinson tackles some of these issues in Red Mars, if I recall. In the novel, there were a faction of people who wanted to preserve the natural, barren Mars rather than see it made habitable for humans.

Anyway, to answer the question - there's no problem. You have my full permission to rape away at Mercury, et al. Provided, of course, you can develop the technology to manage that before we rape our own planet out of existence.
posted by aladfar at 10:08 AM on June 21, 2004


We could colonize a lifeless hunk of carbon and some smelly raw-food eating hippie somewhere would protest it.
posted by bondcliff at 10:13 AM on June 21, 2004


is it that it doesn't belong to us, or that it belongs to all of us?

I'd be more okay with it as long as the mining serves the public interest (being Earth's public, not just American).

Also the issue that the resources might be wasted or not used efficiently (or might have better uses in the future).

Also the issue that the mining of a planet might have some sort of effect on Earth that we couldn't possibly predict.
posted by gramcracker at 10:19 AM on June 21, 2004


We could colonize a beautiful new world and some fat 10-cylander-pickup driving inbred somewhere would want to immediately turn it into fuel and want to know if it had stuff to kill with shotguns.
posted by Mayor Curley at 10:26 AM on June 21, 2004


Me, I am into planet "raping." Its a fetish thing.
posted by Quartermass at 10:26 AM on June 21, 2004


it doesn't belong to us. Not everything in the universe is ours to do what we like with.

The simple solution to this dilemma is to plant a flag on the planet in question. Then it belongs to us.
posted by kindall at 10:27 AM on June 21, 2004


As a former and possibly future smelly raw-food eating hippie myself, bondcliff, that's not necessarily true. It's a graded scale.

We kill plenty on this planet already. We wipe out species, overturn and destroy ecosystems, and fuck with the minutiae of the workings of this planet all the time, and moreso every day, every year, every century.

The way of Nature, such as it is, is that there is a harmony of give and take throughout the universe. It may not be right to get all Vogon on the cosmos and start paving entire galaxies, but neither is "don't disturb anything" necessarily the best thing to do either. Although you can't say never to either of those scenarios.

We may not own the universe, but we have as much right to it as anyone else. And if there are organisms on these other planets we don't know about, then either they better find a way to let us know they exist, or they run the risk of extinction. (The problem with being a small organism is that bigger organisms tend to be able to wipe you out quicker. But on the other hand, you often have numbers on your side, so things tend to even out.)

Ethical? Past the manifest destiny argument, I don't know if ethics applies.

It's a sliding scale. Pillaging is bad, but advancing the cause of your own species isn't. What are you thinking of doing, crumbly?
posted by chicobangs at 10:28 AM on June 21, 2004


I don't really get the "it doesn't belong to us" argument.

There are probably two main arguments against. The first is aesthetic. It's self-explanatory, and not at all unlike how we feel about areas here on Earth.

The second is scientific (or perhaps the "knowldege aesthetic"?). Disturbing these places may forever prevent them from being accurately studied as pristine environments. This could be very important both in terms of basic science, and, conceivably, for practical reasons as well.

If we start harvesting extraterrestrial resources out of necessity, then expect the above considerations to be instantly thrown overboard. If we start harvesting extraterrestrial resources by choice, so to speak, I'd expect that we'd continue the "enlightened" path we've taken with Antarctica, the Moon, etc.

On Preview: "Pillaging is bad, but advancing the cause of your own species isn't." Seems to me that self-interest is no more an acceptable ethical principle when it's applied to a species than when it's applied to an individual.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 10:35 AM on June 21, 2004


it doesn't belong to us.

Those lungsful of air you just inhaled--did they belong to you? If not, how do you justify using them?

Not everything in the universe is ours to do what we like with.

I'm curious as to how you came to that conclusion.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:37 AM on June 21, 2004


Not everything in the universe is ours to do what we like with.

When the other beings in the universe write to us to object, we can stop it. Until then, there's no problem with Mercury and Venus being just as much ours as the countries, oceans, and other assorted stuff we've claimed for ourselves.
posted by reklaw at 10:50 AM on June 21, 2004


We could keep digging and digging and then the planet would explode, and shift the Earth into a new orbit and then where would we be, man? Where would we be?
posted by Katemonkey at 10:57 AM on June 21, 2004


We could colonize a beautiful new world and some fat 10-cylander-pickup driving inbred

Well now we have it, don't we: It's the GM foods argument again in a different disguise. "I'm perfectly well-off, so why should we be trying to improve any one else's lot?" I'm not saying Mars holds the key to feeding the hungry, but if there can be an improvment in the average quality of life by busting up some Mars rocks, what's the problem in trying*? The flaw in the "not everything belongs to us" argument is that it's a moving target: the land under your house doesn't belong to us; humanity as a whole created this phony agreement whereby land could be divided up, bought and owned by anyone willing to register with the local authorities and pay taxes on it. There are no celestial beings approving real estate sales anywhere I know about.

* Yes yes, the unknown, unseeable consequences. But everything we do had a first mover who moved in spite of the unknown consequences.
posted by yerfatma at 11:07 AM on June 21, 2004


Humanity is already a swarm of locusts unlike anything the solar system has seen since the first blue-green algae started poisoning our planetary atmosphere with oxygen.

...so hell, let's just run with it. No life, no problem.

The galaxy is full of gamma-ray bursts that sterilize everything within lightyears; if there's life in the universe then it's being exterminated on a daily basis somewhere. Maybe we're next on the list, maybe not. In the meantime, we may as well start eating our way through the galaxy and spread ourselves around a bit to improve our odds (and the odds of any other organism that piggybacks on our success).

Life spreads & consumes, so let's just get on with it. If we turn a few scorched balls of rock into gardens in the process, so much the better.
posted by aramaic at 11:28 AM on June 21, 2004


In the abstract, nothing. But the attitude that allows you to do that ensures that you'll eventually need to do it to all the planets that have stuff you want and that you can reach and you're still working for a temporary solution.

That's a fallacy, Mayor, similar in structure to saying that if we allow gays to marry, there is nothing stopping people from marrying their dog. It is not that it's not that there is no line being drawn, it's that it's being drawn somewhere you might not like.

Let me try to summarize your argument to make sure I'm clear, though: getting resources from other planets might be wrong, because it allows us to ignore the problems we have made on our own planet. By not changing the systems which brought about our problems, we are not solving them, merely delaying them.

To me, one serious failing of this argument is that it seems like you're drawing a couple arbitrary conclusions and insisting they be enforced.

Mainly, that each planet is a discrete system that includes everything it needs to survive. I'm not even talking about the second law of thermodynamics, I'm just saying there's no basis for assuming that the world is its own toolbox, that I know of. That is, unless you assume not only the existence, but some knowledge as to the ultimate plan of, God--at which point this becomes a moral rather than ethical question.

If you are assuming this (that there is a God and he wants us to fix our planet in a certain way), then it is morally wrong to "rape" other planets.

There is no reason to think of planets as discrete, bounded entities. Space is space. If we have the means to go to other planets, then we no longer have any reason to think of Earth as our only home.

If I am trapped inside my house and need to bake a cake, I'd better hope I have eggs, sugar and flour. If I don't have enough, then I have no grounds for expecting to bake a cake. On the other hand, if I can go to the grocery store, it would be silly of me to think it is ethically wrong to bake a cake just because my cupboard is bare.

Should there be some upper boundary on earth's population that is exactly equal to the amount of resources its own atmosphere can sustain? I mean, in a world where more resources are (let us say) easily available, and the gaining of them cannot be reasonably expected to cause harm? Why? It seems like a totally arbitrary strictness. If you believed this, I would say the burden of proof would be on you to argue why.

Is it that we might someday use all of the universe's resources up, not gradually, but by becoming so ravenous that we gobbled up entire galaxy clusters every second? That is a good point, but I think it is an example of how you can take any reasonably good idea and extend it to absurdity by inflating it with infinity.

In the cake analogy, you could apply this same multiplication ad absurdum and say it is ethically wrong for me to go to the grocery store to restock my pantry because what if I bought all the flour, eggs, and sugar in the world, and nobody could ever bake a cake again?

I mean, fuck the categorical imperative. Philosophy is a process that can go silly if you don't pull the emergency break in time.
posted by Hildago at 11:28 AM on June 21, 2004


Life competes. Just because we are sentient does not mean we are suddenly like gods, choosing what life to preserve and what life to destroy because of our own ethical and moral beliefs. We preserve life because it suits our needs, and we destroy it for the same purpose. I see no reason to behave differently from a shark or bear in this matter.

Nature will find a way to collect if we do something truly stupid (which, of course, we're getting close to doing right about... oh... now).

Strip-mining a lifeless planet? Sure, that's what it's there for, like a gold or silver mine.

And I agree, the whole concept of the universe not belong to us just doesn't fly with me. As mentioned above, we just need a flag.
More to the point, the universe is as much ours as anyone else's, and if no one is there to dispute the claim, then hey, free planet. And if someone is there, then I suppose we can deal with the particular ethical issues for that particular situation.
posted by linux at 11:30 AM on June 21, 2004


Also, the emergency brake.
posted by Hildago at 11:30 AM on June 21, 2004


Since there is at least some serious consideration of the idea that life on Earth may have come from Mars or elsewhere, does that put your question and the interesting word choice in a new light?
posted by Stoatfarm at 11:41 AM on June 21, 2004


If mars isn't our's whose is it? We're the only sentient life in our solar system (except for the europan fish people). So we are the caretakers of the only life we're aware of, possibly the only life in the universe. With that in mind I think it's not only ok to take mars, it is our moral imperative. As Life's caretakers we have to spread and make sure we don't get wiped out, not spread humans, but our entire ecosystem. We'll take life with us wherever we go. I think once we get to mars we might be surprised to find our bacteria does a much better job at colonization than we do.

Meeting other life is more tricky, if it's some non-sentient tiny thing barely living on a barren planet then probably our bacteria will eat it, and it will be integrated into the biosphere that way. If we encounter a fully developed ecosystem though that might be dangerous, we should probably try and find some way to help our team eat them. :P

Life isn't some delicate flower that has to be protected, it's ravenous. Some species are very delicate, and systems like rain-forests should be protected, but I think all the talk about environmentalism makes people think life in general is more delicate than it is. If there is life on mars it will almost certainly be devoured, and not by humans. Our greed for nutrients is nothing compared to earth's single celled friends. And they won't be wasting time with moral discussions.
posted by rhyax at 11:58 AM on June 21, 2004


Well now we have it, don't we: It's the GM foods argument again in a different disguise. "I'm perfectly well-off, so why should we be trying to improve any one else's lot?"

I assure you that the only "else" whose lot will be improved by stripping resources outside our atmosphere already have plenty.

But, I'm convinced. Why stop at dragging our polluted asses into the sea? There are whole other planets to drag our polluted ass onto. I'm completely embracing this notion of tossing out conservation in favor of finding new places to exploit. The solution to an energy crisis is more drilling, and then finding new worlds to drill on-- I have conveniences to maintain. If I embrace space exploration wholeheartedly, perhaps I can one day have a huge family on Mars and we'll join in the great human game of pulling up everything valuable and casting it aside when we're done with it. I and my litter of human termites will have a blast! If I'm resolute enough, I may be the first person who gets to dump his used motor oil into the martian soil of his backyard!

And by the time we've pissed over every square inch of our new home, humanity will be ready to branch out and blacken places in other solar systems! Better watch out for me, Alpha Centauri-looking motherfuckers!
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:34 PM on June 21, 2004


And my remark about fat inbreds in pickups was purely a retort to this comment by bondcliff. And please don't think that I have an actual aversion to space exploration-- I expend energy on things that are essentially a diversionary waste, too. However, I am opposed to it as an alternative to picking up after oneself or as a way to find new spaces to stuff the already-too-numerous human population. We all know that we'll do our best to fill those new spaces up to overflowing, too.
posted by Mayor Curley at 12:43 PM on June 21, 2004


So what we've gotten from you today is not to have kids and your thoughts here about stopping the advancement of science as of 2004 because everything is good enough and you're content with things. I'll compose a memo to the four corners of the World.
posted by yerfatma at 1:29 PM on June 21, 2004


Curley: so the human race is a plague upon the universe and should contain itself before it blights any more planets?

How the heck do you propose to find more new spaces to stuff the population, without spreading to space, if not by further "raping" of this one?
posted by casarkos at 1:31 PM on June 21, 2004


Perhaps making explicit that moral condemnation could be found in the type of person willing to"rape" a planet vs. the actual "rape-age", per se, would prove enlightening.

Sounds odd, but there are analagous situations. One could say that being willing to consume the flesh of animals for the pleasure of the experience betrays a kind of sick sensibility that vegan's (which I am not, this is just an example) might condemn one for.

Even if we can't make the stronger claim that it is the mindset not the act that is morally reprehensible, if we so chose I think that at the least we could argue that the mindset is at least as bad if not greater than act itself. At the very least, we're trying to stay as far away from the slippery slope as we can.

However, we then enter into evualative territory concerning the morality of thoughts/actions. On the one hand, some might claim that actions possess quantifiably greater moral weight that thought. However, critics could in turn point out that there is a sense that a morally diseased mind is never truly "good", even if the actions originating in that mind are morally neutral.
posted by cohappy at 1:39 PM on June 21, 2004


There have been a lot of really awesome questions today. Pat yourselves on the back.
posted by Quartermass at 1:40 PM on June 21, 2004


yerfatma: No, no. Have a kid or even two if you're inclined. Then stop.

And that I want to stop scientific advancement is a mistreatment of what I've said and "everything is good enough" is a complete perverison of it. I've said that everything is bad and we should either get our shit together here or die off before we spread our infection to other planets.

How the heck do you propose to find more new spaces to stuff the population, without spreading to space, if not by further "raping" of this one?

We'll use all the fuel and also find out if Malthus was right long before we're able to do that. Then people might actually regret being wasteful and overly fecund. So this whole discussion is all posturing anyway (including and maybe especially my remarks). We won't make it to the point of having sustainable colonies before we're totally fucked.
posted by Mayor Curley at 1:52 PM on June 21, 2004


We won't make it to the point of having sustainable colonies before we're totally fucked.

I disagree. Building a sustainable colony sure isn't easy, but it's possible. We just don't have a very pressing reason to do so, so we don't. The cost/benefit ratio is completely askew; it would cost far far far more to establish a colony than it might possibly be worth (economically or politically).

...now, if we're suddenly worried about dying off as a species within a relatively short span of time, well, then the cost/benefit ratio suddenly changes and all manner of things become possible. We could toss up a few dozen colonies a year, watch them fail and kill everyone on board, and still do it again next year (with more volunteers than we'd know what to do with). Eventually we'd get it right.

One of the main reasons space exploration is so freaking expensive is that we try to remove every possible point of failure. Once failure isn't such a problem, the horizons open right up.
posted by aramaic at 2:08 PM on June 21, 2004


Why stop at dragging our polluted asses into the sea? There are whole other planets to drag our polluted ass onto.

The problem, curley, is that you seem to be advocating that people do without stuff simply for the sake of doing without stuff, or because having stuff is somehow inherently bad. But with lifeless space bodies, there's no tradeoff for the stuff. People can have more stuff without digging a hole into a life-covered mountain, without pumping filth into a life-giving atmosphere. Why not do this, unless you think that people having stuff is inherently objectionable?

If there's a lifeless lump of rock out there, there's no environment to despoil, no ecosystem to unbalance, nothing there to violate. All it is is a big lump of resource. You could use it for nothing, just leave it there as a small gravity well that might be pretty, or you could turn it into stuff that people would rather have. It might even be the case that its aesthetic value if left alone would outweight its value as raw materials; I'd probably argue that this is the case for earth-side Luna.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:09 PM on June 21, 2004


You guys can go ahead and exploit any planets you find, and it would be especially nice if you did so with the wellbeing of the human species (and Earth life in general) in mind. If anyone else felt the need to use the rest of the universe, they'd be using those bits now.

However, attempt no landings on Europa.
posted by majick at 2:12 PM on June 21, 2004


that I want to stop scientific advancement is a mistreatment of what I've said and "everything is good enough" is a complete perverison of it.

It's the only style I know. And we already know whether or not Malthus was right. If you want to feel guilty for having "stuff", I won't stop you. In fact, feel free to send on anything valuable that's weighing down your conscience.
posted by yerfatma at 2:23 PM on June 21, 2004


If there's a lifeless lump of rock out there, there's no environment to despoil, no ecosystem to unbalance, nothing there to violate.

You make an interesting point. If people had to work to make an area hospitable and sustainable, they might be inclined to work towards keeping it that way and respect the available resources. Then my objections would dissolve.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:29 PM on June 21, 2004


respect the available resources

I'm not sure what's meant by this. What constitutes a resource, and how would I respect it? ...I'm completely serious & I am genuinely interested in the answer...

For example, is sand a resource? How do I respect sand?

Is it a question of usage (using sand in a way that correlates to some intrinsic quality of sand) or a question of not despoiling the "extra" sand that I don't use (or of not allowing my sand usage to despoil other non-sand resources)?
posted by aramaic at 2:33 PM on June 21, 2004


majick, who died and made YOU a perfectly black n-dimensional parallelepiped whose sides are proportioned by the first primes?
posted by signal at 2:37 PM on June 21, 2004


Oh, and all lightness aside, many arguments here and the spaceflight thread in the blue are guilty of category errors, IMO, as they speak of space as being "noble", "virginal", et al., which aren't really attributes that a near-vacuum could posses.
posted by signal at 2:52 PM on June 21, 2004


For example, is sand a resource? How do I respect sand?


Lets say that you extracted energy from sand in a way that was damaging to the air and water of a colony, but it was the most effective energy source there. Let's also say that sand was initially plentiful, but not inexhaustible.

Would the colonists try to use as little sand as necessary in order to preserve their air and water, or would they drive their big sand-powered rovers across the colony just for something to do and tell others who were worried about all this sand use to shut up?

Would the colonists be mindful of the growth of the colony, or would they have large families because, at least initially, sand was plentiful?

Would the colonists use up all the sand through mismanagement that they had plenty of prior warning of, and then decide to make another colony and use up all the sand there?

My guess is that initial founders of the colony would be very moderate, but the subsequent generations wouldn't remember the struggle of starting the colony and would make themselves believe that the sand would always be there despite the evidence. Then they'd move further out from Earth and the cycle would begin again.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:58 PM on June 21, 2004


Then they'd move further out from Earth and the cycle would begin again.

OK, I think I see your point vis-a-vis "respect", but now I'm not sure I understand why this outcome (above) is a bad thing. Space is huge; if we burn one lifeless rock after another looking for sand, what's the problem?
posted by aramaic at 3:05 PM on June 21, 2004


if we burn one lifeless rock after another looking for sand, what's the problem?

I don't know. "Take everything and use it up or destroy it" is a sound military strategy, but it seems a distasteful concept upon which to base future humanity.
posted by Mayor Curley at 3:22 PM on June 21, 2004


Why? That's what we've always done. It's what every other organism on this planet does. Next time you're up, I want you to have a heart-to-heart with the local ant population. They seem lacking in self-reflection and do not respect my property.
posted by yerfatma at 4:22 PM on June 21, 2004


How do I respect sand?

Aesthetic reason (see "Red Mars"):
As they start to colonize Mars, a lot of resources are extracted and the whole colony (Underhill) looks like a mining enterprise (one cannot expect any art from Sax). Arkady stays on Phobos and mines it, but decorates the tunnels maintaining the style and color of the original material. He criticizes the main colony and suggests changes. Soon, people start imitating his art on Earth.

Otherwise, I see no problem.
posted by MzB at 6:32 PM on June 21, 2004


I'm not sure this analytical framework applies here, for several reasons

1. Once technology is advanced enough for colonies to be set up (and colonies are hugely hugely expensive), we should have much more efficient ways of getting energy. We're talking a century or two.

2. Again, a couple centuries. Culture will be different (perhaps, coupled with technology, unimaginably so -- genetic and neural alterations, etc.). The SUV-sand-driver analogy doesn't hold up.

3. It's not easy to pick up an entire population and move to another planet; it's not like depleting an inner-city and going to a suburb (or depleting an entire half-continent; it's happened). The distances and energies involved are many, many orders of magnitude greater. I can see seed colonies spreading across whole planets over generations, but we won't purge-and-move-on across the galaxy any more than the bacteria colony on your bagel will suddenly decide to relocate en mass to a bagel in South Australia.
posted by Tlogmer at 9:44 PM on June 21, 2004


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