Thursday, December 15, 2011

Colonizing Other Planets

In the December LOCUS, author Charles Stross pours ice water on a well-established SF trope, extraterrestrial colonization. In his view, colonization (as opposed to simple exploration) of other planets is almost impossible. After a comment about the lethal qualities of even the terrestrial environment for most of Earth’s history, he remarks, “Even now, if you dropped an unprotected human on Earth in a random location, then 90% of them would die. This is because you will have dropped them on an ice cap, or in the ocean. Only about 10% of our planet’s surface area in the current epoch is habitable—even with protective clothing, equipment, and techniques.” I’m reminded of the conversation in Heinlein’s FARMER IN THE SKY where the young narrator tells his father about skeptics who maintain that Ganymede shouldn’t be colonized because it’s not a natural habitat for human beings. His father replies that neither is Los Angeles. Without advanced technology, southern California would support only a tiny fraction of its present population.

Stross denies the common fictional assumption that a colony on another planet could support human life, even in an enclosed habitat, with only a source of oxygen and a way of growing food. He highlights the fact that the micronutrients in the plants and animals we eat depend on the nourishment those organisms absorb from the life forms they consume, and so on all the way down the food chain. To ensure our long-term survival, we couldn’t just raise a select group of plant and animal species in a greenhouse; we’d have to bring along their entire ecosystem. We don’t know enough about the micronutrients we need for life to take short cuts. He contrasts biosphere experiments that have run for a year or less with the demands of supporting a civilization for centuries.

I’d never thought of the colonization problem in these terms. Here’s one of his essays on the topic, although most of it deals with the sheer difficulty of getting people to habitable planets in any reasonable time span. There are lots of interesting comments below his post:

High Frontier Redux

What do you think? Is Stross’s pessimism justified?

Margaret L. Carter
Carter's Crypt


  1. I love the science, but it does kind of take the fun out of the stories. Doesn't it?

  2. I don't think it takes the fun out of the stories. I think this fellow has missed a very important point, perhaps the most important attribute of humanity.


    We are already losing our "ecosystem" on this planet -- have done so a few times before. Micronutrients are something we don't actually understand, true, and I don't think we can reproduce our natural environment. So the question then becomes, "What do we become in order to survive that?"

    "Do not try; do!"

    Jacqueline Lichtenberg