Steering the Earth-Ship

‘First, I couldn’t eat the food! It’s not noodles, it’s potatoes. Potatoes, potatoes. Fried potatoes, European style. From the beginning, I said I don’t want to eat potatoes. But after maybe 300 days we had to eat powders mixed with cold water instead and I said: I want potatoes’ complained Wang Yue, in an interview with the New Scientist, on his return to Earth in November 2011. You heard right: The Chinese researcher and his five colleagues were the first humans to travel to the planet Mars, which took them mind-boggling 260 days – and 260 days back. Even though 17-month in windowless isolation, with poor food, weren’t exactly a small step for the volunteers, it was a giant leap for mankind – on its way to colonize the red planet.

Agreed, it is a bit late for April Fool’s day, but if you have followed the news, there was no manned spaceflight to the red planet – yet. The Mars 500 mission was only a simulated round trip to Mars without stepping foot off Earth.

Nevertheless, the idea is as old as science fiction, and neither Ronald Reagan, nor George Bush, nor German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun were shy to proclaim the quick colonization of our brother planet. The idea is not even rocket science – it is rather straightforward.  Currently mankind is using 50% more resources than Earth can sustainably produce and unless we change course, already in 20 years two planets will just be enough. So do the math: If we trash the first planet, we need to get a second one. Then we can live on happily ever after. Business as usual, easy as that.

Or is it?

A pocked-sized mirror image of Earth

As a matter of fact, Mars is the most hospitable planet in the Solar System other than Earth, given its proximity and surface conditions which are similar to Earth, such as the availability of frozen ground water or an existing atmosphere. It is the most hospitable planet, however far from being welcoming, if you are not a big fan of nights below -80 °C, reduced gravity or month-long sandstorms blocking out most of the light and if you do not need oxygen. ‘No big deal’ Reagan or Bush might have said, ‘a little terraforming and we will be fine’. And so man tried. Not ‘earth-shaping’ in a strict sense, to deliberately modify a strange planet to be similar to the biosphere of Earth, in order to make it habitable. But only practice makes the master, right?

Instead of Mars, scientists chose Arizona to spend $200 million, play a little genesis, and built ‘Biosphere 2’. The name is akin to Earth’s life system, Biosphere 1 if you will. Covering an area of two and a half football fields, this research facility is the largest closed system ever created. The millions well spent, the scientist crafted a perfect pocked sized mirror image of Earth, featuring rainforest, an ocean with a coral reef, mangrove wetlands, savannah grassland, fog desert, and an agricultural system.

On the sixth day of creation, how could it be otherwise, mankind entered Biosphere 2, to ‘have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth’. And the crew of eight people, sealed inside for two years from 1991 to 1993, did. Soon, the scientist had to learn the hard way, just how enormously complex the web of interactions within the different life systems was. CO2 levels fluctuated wildly, oxygen dropped, most of the vertebrate species and all of the pollinating insects died, while insect pests, like cockroaches, boomed. Lacking oxygen and running out of food, suffering from malnutrition, fatigue and psychological conflicts, the biospherians could not stay autonomous. Although mission 2 in 1994 achieved complete sufficiency in food production, a severe dispute within the management team ended the experiment after a few months.

What can we learn from this unique experiment and personal hardship of the researchers, making the potato problems of the mars astronauts look like a stroll in the park? That human psychology thwarts a peaceful co-existence, be it within miniature Earth or the real one? Beyond doubt.

However, more importantly, the try out presented lessons learnt by the bookful about Earth, its fragile living systems, and its place in the universe.

 A birds-eye view on the blue planet Earth

The most memorable view on this very place in the universe was certainly provided by the Soviet satellite Sputnik in October 1957. For the first time we were able to see simply how small and delicate our little blue planet in the vastness of space is. This marked a step towards the ‘birds-eye’ principle of Earth System Science, the ability to obtain a panoramic view of the Earth by observing it from a distance. From this distance, the Earth System could be observed as what it really is. A single, self-regulating system comprised of physical, chemical, biological and human components. A coupled human and ecological system. The processes within this system are studied by Earth System Science, emerging as a holistic super-discipline, with Biosphere 2 as a prime example.

Just like in the experiment, scientist soon realized what this close interlinkage between nature and society also meant. As foreseen in the book of genesis, mankind now has dominion over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth. Since the industrialization in the 18th Century, human exploitation of the Earth’s resources has increased dramatically and is now so pervasive and profound in its consequences that it is influencing the very dynamics and functioning of Earth itself. And this does not even require rockets from Cuba or Pyongyang. With human population growth, modern technology, over-consumption, fossil fuel use, land cover changes, and the dispersal of chemicals, mankind started to make more than history — it made geological history. We opened the Anthopocene, the era of ‘men’, as Eva Lövbrand from the Centre for Climate Science and Policy Research, Sweden puts it.

And, unlike the six daring scientist of the mockup Mars 500 mission, we are really steering ‘spaceship Earth’ through the Anthropocene era.

A second Copernican revolution

Understanding this astonishing fact, at the end of the Cold War the U.S. decided to take the pulse of the planet via NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth program. The resulting international partnership to build a ‘Global Earth Observation System of Systems’ (GEOSS) aims to exchange and coordinate the data obtained from all Earth observation satellites. It sets out to monitor the entire Earth, to provide ‘the full picture’, which was, according to the renowned climate scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, a second Copernican revolution.

Just like in the 16th century Copernicus removed the Earth from the center of the galaxy, now the human-centered world view gets questioned. The understanding of ‘nature’ and ‘society’ as distinct domains dissolve, the ‘natural order of things’ is challenged. Humbled by the scale, complexity and vulnerability of the Earth we now need a new ethical framework for Earth stewardship. An eco-centric philosophy, so to speak. An understanding of the world as an intrinsically dynamic, interconnected web of relations in which there are no dividing lines between the living and non-living, or the human and non-human, says Lövbrand. And in which Men is certainly not the dominator but on a par with all other elements of the global ecosystem.

The Fragile Cargo of Spaceship Earth

For this endeavor a flag showing the Earth, as seen from space, seems appropriate. Tomorrow you are likely to see this flag waving all over the world, for it is Earth Day, the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a billion people every year. It is observed in 192 countries, and coordinated by the nonprofit Earth Day Network, chaired by the first Earth Day 1970 organizer Denis Hayes. Across the globe, individuals, communities, organizations, and governments acknowledge the amazing planet we call home and take action to protect it.

This April, 22 will show ‘The Face of Climate Change’. A climate change just like the biospherians experienced, but on a much bigger scale, an Earth scale. Earth Day will tell the world the stories of people, animals and places affected by climate change – and of those stepping up to do something about it.

A man in Vietnam worried about relocating his family as sea levels rise, a farmer in Thailand struggling to make ends meet as prolonged drought ravages the crops, a fisherman on Sumatra whose nets often come up empty, a child in the Philippines who lost her home to a super-storm, a woman in East Timor who can’t get fresh water due to more frequent flooding and cyclones. These many different faces of climate change, especially in the ASEAN region, are also at the core of the Biodiversity and Climate Change Project (BCCP) of GIZ, the German development cooperation arm. GIZ supports the institutionalization of the ASEAN Center for Biodiversity (ACB), based in Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines. An interactive digital display of all the images will be shown at thousands of events around the world, including next to federal government buildings in countries that produce the most carbon pollution, calling on our leaders to act boldly together.

The first call was voiced by UN Secretary-General U Thant when he officially established the international Earth Day in 1971: ‘May there be only peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful Spaceship Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life’.

Indeed, if we do not manage to safely steer spaceship Earth and its cargo, there might only be one escape capsule. This job advertisement of Mars One, a nonprofit organization based in the Netherlands, which intends to establish a human settlement on Mars in 2023, all of a sudden sounds tempting, doesn’t it?

You are resilient, adaptable, curious, creative and resourceful? You have a deep sense of purpose, the capacity for self-reflection and ability to trust? You are over 18 years old? And you are looking for a lifetime adventure? Look no further, you have found your dream job: Astronaut on a mission to Mars. And be sure, on the 260 day flight there will be plenty of potatoes. There is just on catch: Mars One only provides a one-way ticket.

First published on Saturday, 20 April 2013 18:32 Written by Philipp Gassner / Special to the BusinessMirror