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Monday, June 30, 2008

Asparagus on Mars

Photo: Frank Vincentz

Fighting in the dance hall.
Oh man!
Look at those cavemen go.
It's the freakiest show.
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy.
Oh man!
Wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show.
Is there life on Mars?

As an escape for the fantasy through science fiction or as a literal terraformed escape from an overpopulated Earth, Mars has been our favorite alternate world since long before the wistful and surreal David Bowie song.

Last week, two news stories appeared in quick succession: on Wednesday, the Environmental News Network reported on climatologist James Hansen's speech to the National Press Club, warning of fast-approaching climatic tipping points beyond which global warming will become uncontrollable. Two days later, on Friday, BBC aired a NASA news brief marveling at the unexpected fertility of Martian soil analyzed by the Phoenix lander. Quoted in the article was a NASA chemist, opining that "You might be able to grow asparagus in it really well."

The juxtaposition of events suggested an unstated but irresistible conclusion: at least we have a getaway planet. But soil with some asparagus-friendly nutrients does not guarantee easy living on Mars. As William McDonough and Michael Braungart write in their book Cradle to Cradle, the idea of terraforming of Mars "provides rationalization for destruction, an expression of our hope that we'll find a way to save ourselves if we trash our planet. To this we would respond: If you want the Mars experience, go to Chile and live in a typical copper mine. There are no animals, the landscape is hostile to humans, and it would be a tremendous challenge."

James Hansen's Wednesday warning to the government and public about Earth's climate is dire:

"Animal and plant species are already stressed by climate change. Polar and alpine species will be pushed off the planet, if warming continues. Other species attempt to migrate, but as some are extinguished their interdependencies can cause ecosystem collapse. Mass extinctions, of more than half the species on the planet, have occurred several times when the Earth warmed as much as expected if greenhouse gases continue to increase. Biodiversity recovered, but it required hundreds of thousands of years.

"The disturbing conclusion, documented in a paper I have written with several of the world’s leading climate experts, is that the safe level of atmospheric carbon dioxide is no more than 350 ppm (parts per million) and it may be less. Carbon dioxide amount is already 385 ppm and rising about 2 ppm per year. Stunning corollary: the oft-stated goal to keep global warming less than two degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) is a recipe for global disaster, not salvation."

Beyond simply sounding an alarm, Hansen offers policy proposals and a call to action, specifically in the form of a carbon tax:

"A price on emissions that cause harm is essential. Yes, a carbon tax. Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is needed to wean us off fossil fuel addiction. Tax and dividend allows the marketplace, not politicians, to make investment decisions.

"Carbon tax on coal, oil and gas is simple, applied at the first point of sale or port of entry. The entire tax must be returned to the public, an equal amount to each adult, a half-share for children. This dividend can be deposited monthly in an individual’s bank account.

"Carbon tax with 100 percent dividend is non-regressive. On the contrary, you can bet that low and middle income people will find ways to limit their carbon tax and come out ahead. Profligate energy users will have to pay for their excesses."

Difficult as a carbon tax might initially be to draft into law, compare that effort with the Herculean labor of wrestling Mars into some semblance of habitability. In the words again of McDonough and Braungart,

"Let's not make a big mess here and go somewhere less hospitable even if we figure out how. Let's use our ingenuity to stay here; to become, once again, native to this planet."

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  1. Thanks so much for this great article, Rachel. I really appreciate McDonough and Braungart's comments about the importance of facing what we have here rather than looking elsewhere for an escape from the mess we are making of our planet. We need to find ways not only to stop making a mess, but to learn how to un-trash what we already have trashed. Can we do it? Are we willing to take necessary steps? Just as important as these questions is the challenge to convince governments to take these issues seriously and act on them right now.

  2. Thank *you* for the comment, Marbar! Hansen's speech strongly urges governments to take action now while we still can. However, Hansen had given another speech, a congressional hearing, 20 years (to the day!) before this recent one linked here, also underlining the need to act. There's an interesting and rather dramatic story about the government's reaction to that one, which is nicely told here on the Environmental News Network.

    Let's hope that not only are the twelve climatic tipping points now approaching, but also what Julia Whitty calls "the thirteenth tipping point" is imminent in our awareness, making a more receptive climate for Hansen's second speech.