The Morality and Ethics of Terraforming and Environmental Manipulation

You are orphans, earthdeirdre, your homeworld already buried so young among the aeons. Yet now you fill the skies where we watched a million sunsets with flame and contrails, paying no heed to the hard lessons the universe has tried to teach you. Are you a breath of life to invigorate a complacent world, you earthhumans, or an insidious cancer which must be excised?

Lady Deirdre Skye
"Conversations With Planet"
Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

From the very beginning of human history, humans have always desired to improve their physical surroundings as they see fit. The manipulation of the environment is certainly not limited to humans, however; we can see in the ways birds create nests and beavers make dams that changing the environment to suit your needs is a instinctive drive of many forms of life here on Earth. However, as a sentient species, humanity has a special duty to consider the moral and ethical ramifications of their actions. As technology develops and our abilities at environmental manipulation have ever longer-reaching consequences, the ethical and moral issues weigh upon us ever more heavily. And, as it can in so many other cases, science fiction is available to us as a tool to let us see where we as a people might go and the consequences our actions may have.

One of the most standard aspects of science fiction—not found universally, but certainly very common—is the settlement of humans on other planets. In most cases, these planets are originally either inhospitable to humans or not entirely suitable in some fashion. At this point, terraforming is usually brought into the picture. defines terraforming as “To transform (a landscape) on another planet into one having the characteristics of landscapes on Earth.” Terraforming traditionally renders alien planets Earthlike enough to sustain human or other Earth-based lifeforms; however, in modern usage terraforming continues to evolve. Many now use it to mean the wide-scale modification of a planet to any state, even a non-Earth-like state as happened in Chapterhouse: Dune.

As sentient creatures, humans must consider the ethical and moral issues behind any act such as terraforming. As one of the most wide-ranging and potentially destructive acts humanity is capable of doing, I believe that there are a wide variety of moral and ethical issues surrounding terraforming, and that people must consider them all carefully and with regard to the circumstances before embarking on such an extreme action. Furthermore, many of these ethical and moral issues can be raised by works of science fiction. As Dune was a good introduction to general themes of sustainability, it is also a good introduction to terraforming and the moral and ethical issues involved.


Resources exist to be consumed. And consumed they will be, if not by this generation then by some future. By what right does this forgotten future seek to deny us our birthright? None I say! Let us take what is ours, chew and eat our fill.

CEO Nwabudike Morgan
"The Ethics of Greed"
Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Dune. Arrakis. Desert planet. This seminal work delves deeply into terraforming, along with the issues of ethics and morality that accompany it. The planet Arrakis is highly inhospitable to humans, both the off-worlders that come to harvest the spice and the Fremen who live in and with the desert. It would be either a premiere target of terraforming or a world simply left alone and forgotten about if not for one thing: the spice. Though a complex cycle of life involving many of the life stages of the giant sand worms, spice is created on Arrakis, and only on Arrakis. Not only does it make the planet the most valuable in the galaxy, but it also, to those who know the secret, makes it impossible to completely terraform. By destroying the deserts, the worms will also be destroyed; without the worms, there is no spice, and interstellar commerce would come to an abrupt end.

It is the Fremen, along with Liet Kynes, who know the secret of the spice. It is also the Fremen who are the best adapted to harsh Dune; while the off-worlders struggle to survive, the Fremen prosper in the desert. Thus, it is somewhat unexpected that the Fremen, thanks to Kynes, are the ones to have a massive plan to terraform Arrakis. By storing away their delicately conserved water, they plan to one day be able to turn the planet into a place where plants grow freely, water is abundant, and only the deep desert remains covered in sand.

Paul Atreides, once he becomes the leader of the Fremen, also holds an amazingly destructive terraforming tool. By releasing the water of the Little Maker onto a spice blow, he can create a chain reaction where the worms, and therefore the spice, are quickly driven to extinction. By threat of this destructive terraforming procedure, he is able to marry the Padishah Emperor's daughter and gain virtual control over the galaxy. All parties recognized the threat this posed.

But the acts of the Fremen and Paul raise the issue of morality in terraforming. The Fremen's act of terraforming plans for a remaining desert for the worms; however, such wide-scale actions are not always accurate, and the odds of accidentally destroying the worms are high. Paul's actions would, of course, intentionally wipe out the worms. Also, the Fremen's actions are, in effect, cultural suicide; once their environment changes, their culture will have to change to match. In both the movie and the book, it does not appear that the characters take much time to consider the moral implications of the actions that they are planning. To kill a culture or a species for a little comfort or a nasty threat does not seem to balance in the moral equations.

Additionally, Chapterhouse: Dune delves into another moral issue of terraforming. To sustain the last worm in existence, the Bene Gesserit are turning their planet Chapterhouse into another Dune. As opposed to the other terraforming issues raised by earlier Dune works, this one seems well thought-out; though it is causing their people much hardship as they manipulate their environment, they are doing it to keep the last of a species alive. Morally speaking, I feel that this choice is on much more solid ground than that of the Fremen or Paul discussed earlier.

The Dune series has introduced us to a number of the moral issues involved with terraforming. Now, with the aid of other works of science fiction, we can look at some of these individual issues more closely.

The Issue of Life

We welcome you, earthdeirdre and earthwheat and earthtree as
honored guests, for you add great power to our ancient song--
planetfungus and planetworm and planetmind sing and play
here, and you are welcome among us.

Lady Deirdre Skye
"Conversations with Planet"
Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Currently, astronomers tell us that no other planet in our solar system has life of any kind. However, the idea that man will one day step on a planet that already has its own life is one that creators of science fiction works have used again and again. When man finds life on another planet, moral issues loom large; when man decides he wants to terraform that planet, they become gigantic.

Dune introduced this idea for us. In each of the three aspects of terraforming we looked at, life was a vital part of the equation. The Fremen's choice had the possibility of exterminating the worms; Paul's threat had the certainty of it. The Bene Gesserit, however, were willing to undergo suffering to transform their planet into a desert so that the last worm life form could survive.

Jules Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea is not, strictly speaking, a story about another world. However, to the people of Captain Nemo's day, the deep ocean might as well have been a different planet. They could sail on top of it, and they could fish from it, but that was the limit of their reach. They could barely scratch the surface of the ocean. The Nautilus, on the other hand, lived in the deep ocean. Not only did it, as a submarine, travel in the deep ocean, but it was specially designed to be able to live from the deep ocean. By farming the sea and using something similar to nuclear power, Captain Nemo was able to cut himself off from Earth and travel to stay at the “planet” of the bottom of the sea.

Nemo takes a different approach to terraforming than many other characters of science fiction works. In a way, his job is easier; the bottom of the ocean is still filled with earth life of all kinds, most of which are able to be eaten by humans freely. Furthermore, the natural ecological cycle was already in place. Still, Nemo and his crew did have some needs the ocean could not naturally provide. However, Nemo did not change the ocean; rather, he adapted his men and his ship to match what the ocean could provide. By changing himself instead of his world, Nemo was able to live in a different “world” with very little effect on the local life—far less effect than humans were having on life above the sea. In his dealings with the sea, at least, Nemo's choices could be shown to be highly ethical.

The Mars of The Martian Chronicles was another world that was easily adaptable to humans. After the death of the majority of the Martians, as people began to settle the world, very little terraforming was needed. However, terraforming did occur in one dramatic instance. One man decided to plant some trees to eventually bring a bit of Earth to Mars; to his surprise, nearly overnight an entire forest sprung up. Some combination of conditions on Mars made trees from Earth grow at astonishing rates. No mention is made of what happened to the forest when almost everyone on the planet returned to Earth. It is not unreasonable to assume that the forest would continue to grow, overtaking and driving to extinction the vast majority of Martian plant and animal life. The one man who planted the trees almost certainly could not foresee this coming, but his simple actions, desiring to spread life, might have been the cause of the destruction of much life. This is one of the reasons that even the simplest act of terraforming on an alien planet where life exists must be very carefully considered, from both a scientific and an ethical standpoint. By rushing into terraforming, disasters like this can occur.

A. E. van Vogt's short story “Enchanted Village” takes an interesting spin on terraforming and life. In most works of science fiction, terraforming is accomplished by great machines that change the planet through brute force. However, Bill Jenner, the lone survivor of a spaceship crash on Mars, discovers that he has the ability to transform a living village. When he first stumbles across the Martian village, he assumes it to be run by machines of some sort. After all, it automatically turns showers on and off and sends food into feeding troughs. Unfortunately, the showers and food available are designed for the extinct Martian biology; to his human body, they are either poisonous or worthless. However, when he breaks a piece of the marble-like surface the village is built on, he discovers that the village itself is alive. By dropping water and food crumbs onto it, he teaches the village what he needs to survive, and the village recreates the water and food for him. However, he soon discovers that the village is using itself up to provide water for him, and is faced with an ethical issue.

He can prolong his life at the expense of the village. However, he knows that he has no hope of rescue and the village cannot sustain him forever. Alternatively, he can stop using the village's resources and allow the village to go on living while he dies. Such self-sacrifice for another human is rare, though not unheard-of; for a life-form as alien as a village, it is quite a moral challenge. However, Jenner rightly determines that the village is a living being and decides to let it continue living, and even climbs up on a dangerously-hot dais so the village can reabsorb the water he has taken from it.

The ending itself is strange; the village turns Jenner into a Martian, so both can be sustained. However, the ending itself is not needed to grasp the central moral issue, that of the sacrifice of one life for another. Jenner, it seems, makes the correct moral choice to keep the village alive when he could have chosen himself, and is rewarded for his moral strength in the issues of terraforming and life.

The Potential for Destruction

In the years since our arrival, we have foolishly disrupted so many of Planet's ecosystems that entire species may vanish without our ever having understood, or even known them. We must halt this plunder, and halt it immediately, for our own survival as a species depends on our ability to strike a balance on this world.

Commissioner Pravin Lal
"Mind Worm, Mind Worm"
Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Terraforming is not an exact science. The potential for unintentional destruction is high when dealing with forces of such power on such a scale. The examples of the Fremen's plan and the Martian tree-planter, both of which we have already examined, show us clearly some of the problems that may arise from terraforming. Of course, an even graver ethical issue is intentional destruction, as Paul's threat would have brought about. Since the potential for this destruction should be obvious to anyone who is in a position to contemplate terraforming, it becomes one of the moral and ethical issues that must be resolved.

Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars deals heavily with the morality of this particular aspect to terraforming. In one portion of the book, Ann is strongly opposed to the terraforming efforts already underway on the lifeless Mars. Even though there is no life that they can possibly endanger, Ann is in love with Mars itself in its current state; she is opposed to any change to it. When an expedition discovers large amounts of water for use in the colony, Ann is unhappy. She knows that the forces that wish to terraform the planet will want to vaporize it to increase the density of the atmosphere. She sees the ultimate goal of the water as to further exploration, while others see exploration as the means to get water. Later, we are introduced to John, who gives a human face to the terraformers. Ann and her team are looking for evidence of an oceanic past; if such a past exists, it could give the terraformers more moral support, since they could claim they wished to return the planet to how it used to be rather than a state totally new to it. Ann, however, states that she would kill John if she thought it would help people to leave the planet alone.

From a moral standpoint, I find Ann to be on shaky ground. Certainly, the current state of Mars should be examined and even preserved in some places. However, to hold back terraforming of a lifeless planet for so little reason, and to be so strong in your convictions as to be willing to kill another person to keep the planet from being terraformed, does not seem to hold up ethically to me. Especially when we consider the necessity of terraforming described in the next section of this writeup, I believe Ann is morally in the wrong in this instance.

Of course, this does not mean that the choice not to terraform is unethical. In fact, in many circumstances it may be the most ethical choice. The citizens of the planet Norstrilia, in the book of the same name by Cordwainer Smith, have chosen not to terraform their gray, harsh planet. It is an especially interesting choice, because as the source of stroon, Norstrilia has enough money to have anything that they want. Total terraforming cost would be only a drop in the bucket to them. However, they have chosen not to terraform, and to limit the importation of any devices that would significantly change either the physical or the cultural makeup of the planet. To preserve their culture, as well as prevent any possible mistake which could cause the end of the stroon and their financial state, they keep their planet how it is. The vast majority of the citizens of Norstrilia are in agreement with this view. I feel that this is an excellently reasoned moral and ethical position on refusing terraforming. There is already life; the planet, while not necessarily comfortable to humans, can definitely sustain them; and the majority of the people are in agreement with the position. All three of these elements are missing from Ann's position; this is why I consider her position not to be ethical, while the Norstrilians' is.

Of course, as Paul's threat shows us, intentional destruction is also a possibility. The short story “Rappaccini's Daughter” illustrates this for us in greater detail. Though this work does not deal with terraforming per se, Dr. Rappaccini does deal with extensive environmental manipulation, by creating a number of deadly, poisonous flowers and plants, along with manipulating the physiology of his daughter. In his lust for power, he has perverted a number of plants and inflicted a horrible curse upon his daughter. There can be little doubt that this man has used environmental manipulation immorally; he is much worse than Paul, who only used the extinction of the worms as a threat which was never carried through.

The Necessity

The Earth is the cradle of the mind, but one cannot stay in the cradle forever.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
The Father of Rocketry

With the many moral issues that arise with terraforming even a lifeless planet, much less one on which life has already sprung, it may be wondered if simply choosing not to terraform may always be the better ethical choice. However, that is not the case; humans will, shortly in the future, have a necessity to terraform. The video game “Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri,” the source of the quotes in my writeup, is an excellent example both of this necessity to terraform and how the various moral and ethical issues come together at one place.

“Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri” is a turn-based strategy game set on a planet in the Alpha Centauri solar system. In the game setting, Earth has been destroyed through pollution and other excesses of mankind, and a starship is sent to Alpha Centauri to start humanity again on a new world. The player can take control of one of a number of different factions; one specializes in military matters, another in politics, another in economy, another in research, another in biology and so on. In addition to these human factions, there are also the life-forms native to “Planet”, as the planet the humans land on is called. These are first seen in the form of attacking mind worms and pink fungal blooms, which become stronger as the game progresses.

The simplest way to win the game is the military victory by defeating the other humans, but there is another way. As your terraformers plant farms, build roads, and dig mines, the native fungal blooms respond by growing. The more you terraform the planet, the more the blooms grow and the more mind worms attack you. Soon, you discover that there is an hive mind, a sentient being controlling all of Planet's native life. It is possible to achieve Transcendence and merge with this hive mind; this Transcendence Victory is more difficult than a simple military victory, but it is seen as one of the best ways to win the game.

The simple fact of the game is that it is necessary to terraform Planet. Earth has been destroyed, and if humanity is to survive, you must change Planet so it can sustain human life. However, the game brings the ethical issue of terraforming to the front by creating a reaction when Planet is “hurt” by your terraformers. You can choose to fight this by terraforming back and destroying the mind worms and the blooms, or you can accept the hive mind of Planet and achieve transcendence with it. The choice is the players'. For me, this brings the moral and ethical issues of terraforming and environmental manipulation to reality. I must consider how much I am willing to damage the planet to improve my faction of humanity. I must decide if I will fight the fungal blooms or find a way to live in harmony with them.

In reality, as in the game, it will be necessary to terraform; humanity cannot stay on Earth forever, and no planet we have found yet will naturally be able to sustain us. We may not be forced to act soon due to a dying Earth, but we will need to venture out to the stars permanently. And when we do, we cannot leave the issues of ethics and morality behind, but we will bring them with us as we seek to make new homes for humanity.


I shall not confront Planet as an enemy, but shall accept its mysteries as gifts to be cherished. Nor shall I crudely seek to peel the layers away like the skin from an onion. Instead I shall gather them together as the tree gathers the breeze. The wind shall blow and I shall bend. The sky shall open and I shall drink my fill.

Gaian Acolyte's Prayer
Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Dune has once again introduced us to one of the moral and ethical issues that science fiction can help us explore. The morality of terraforming and extreme environmental manipulation is seen in several aspects. First, if life exists on the planet, moral issues are prevalent: how do we deal with these life forms? Should we terraform and change how they live in order to satisfy our needs? If the planet does not contain life, we still must carefully consider the potential for destruction that terraforming can bring. Before any terraforming, careful scientific and ethical evaluation must be done. Nonetheless, terraforming is a necessity humans will one day be facing. Until that day comes, science fiction can help us prepare for both the scientific and the ethical and moral issues that will come with it. Our generation should heed the lessons that science fiction can teach us well, for it may be us or our children who will have to make the ethical and moral decisions on terraforming.

Eternity lies ahead of us, and behind.
Have you drunk your fill?

Lady Deirdre Skye
"Conversations with Planet", Epilogue
Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.