As we question our position as humans in a more-than-human world, we need to revise our escapist fantasies of colonizing other planets. We must not turn away from our responsibilities as stewards of an environment we have singularly devastated, and must focus on undoing the damage we have done. A closer look at extremophile bacteria may offer us new ways of being with other organisms and systems, and bring alternatives to the anthropocentric vision of outer space.
Our time is an age of “human disturbance,” writes anthropologist Anna Tsing. It is an era of climate crisis, ecological breakdown, and mass extinction—a set of physical conditions arising from millennia of philosophical thinking that is thoroughly anthropocentric. A continued obsession with technoscientific rationality and the centrality of human agency has necessarily created this increasingly violent epoch. It is the nature of anthropocentric thought and its relationship to the Anthropocene that I seek to interrogate in this text. It does not, however, deal with what Tsing and others might call the art of living on a damaged planet, despite how crucially important such projects might be. It will instead put forward a speculative proposal toward a different ethical endgame. Throughout the text, I speak of responsibility with regards to our entire species, and I do so understanding the problematic nature of doing so. Talking of “humanity” clearly erases great differences in historic culpability and current realities facing people across the globe. However, in the discourse on the fate of the planet, humanity, and other lifeforms, doing so serves to show the universality of the consequences of very particular actions.
“You want to wake up in the morning and think the future is going to be great—and that’s what being a space-faring civilization is all about. It’s about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past. And I can’t think of anything more exciting than going out there and being among the stars.”—Elon Musk
In a recent public appearance, Elon Musk indicated that the motivation behind creating SpaceX, his aerospace company, was to accelerate humanity into becoming a space-faring civilization and multi-planet species. Citing the fossil record as evidence, he speculated that a natural or human-induced catastrophe might end life as we know it, and put this forth as the justification for his rush to “extend life beyond Earth.”
Much of the fervour around the company is driven by the idea that there is a window of opportunity for such a task, one which Musk fears is closing rapidly. As initially envisioned in 2016, the first crewed mission to Mars is expected to depart in 2024, with the primary goal to construct a rudimentary base, propellant plant, and power system. Musk hopes that such an outpost will grow into something much larger and become self-sustaining with ultimately at least one million inhabitants. Along with other private companies like Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, SpaceX’s ambitions run as high as the eventual colonization of the entire solar system.
I would suggest it is not unreasonable to question the providence of Musk’s motives in pushing for the colonization of Mars so aggressively and instead point to SpaceX’s rocketing share price for the real rationale. However, his apocalyptic musings are clearly not without cause. One need only to look at the highly publicized IPCC Special Report on the catastrophic impacts of 1.5° Celsius warming on the global climate. Or the reports of the Global Challenges Foundation which outlined twelve risks threatening human civilization in a 2015 paper, putting the chances of global thermonuclear war in the next century at one in ten. Reading like this might make Musk’s pessimistic outlook seem justified, but it is not his diagnosis with which I take issue.
Instead, it is his solution. SpaceX launches themselves have a significant environmental impact. The Falcon 9 two-stage rocket releases around 9.5 million kilograms of CO2 per launch (in less than ten minutes of burn-time). That’s equivalent to almost five return flights from London to San Francisco with an Airbus A380. Or five times as much as the entire annual carbon footprint of the average Colombian citizen. That might not seem like much when launches are infrequent, but the intention is, of course, to make commercial use of the technology. The contradiction is obvious—with each test flight, SpaceX accelerates the ecological breakdown (and the likelihood of a major catastrophe) for which it is constructing a life raft. SpaceX, as with much of the rhetoric around it, feeds into a narrative which seeks to enable “change without change.” These projects aim to allow lifestyles of consumption to continue whilst seeking capitalist techno-fixes to crises born from centuries of extractive economics.
Musk says that the price of emigrating to Mars will gradually decrease, until it is comparable to the average price of a house in the US. But it is clearly the obscenely wealthy who will be the first to afford such a move. Other entrepreneurs like Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal with Musk, entertain their own escapist plans, albeit marginally more humble. Thiel famously purchased a 477-acre former sheep farm on the South Island of New Zealand to act as his personal doomsday hideout, declaring that he could find “no other country that aligns more with my view of the future than New Zealand.” Fortunately for him, he was granted citizenship by the country after only twelve days of residence, with the government citing “his skills as an entrepreneur and his philanthropy” as exceptional circumstances.
Extremophile bacteria are those which not only survive, but thrive, in physically or geochemically extreme conditions that are otherwise detrimental to most life on Earth. These microbes colonize almost every inch of Earth under conditions of extreme radiation, temperature, pressure, or lack of oxygen. For philosopher Eugene Thacker they are the ideal object through which to interrogate the very notion of life itself. “Extremophiles are anomalous,” he writes, “not simply because they live without light, but because their living-without-light sets them apart from the existing epistemological qualifiers that ground the ability of human beings to identify and know what life is.” Microbes existing in the absence of light—or, rather, flourishing in its absence—represent an anomaly for biological science. This unmooring of the very ability to accurately define what is living and what is not is a crucial wedge in the project of decentering the human from thought.
One such type of extremophile, the lithoautotroph, is a bacterium that exists and persists in subsurface ecosystems independently of the products of photosynthesis, sustaining itself by harnessing the energy of chemicals inside rock. Lithoautotrophs obtain energy from the oxidation of soluble inorganic compounds deep inside the ground, encased within substances such as granite, basalt, or sandstone. These organisms vary, some utilizing reduced sulfur compounds, others breathing iron, manganese, arsenic, and even uranium. From single cells permanently isolated from all other life to almost 100 million lifeforms per gram of rock, lithoautotrophs exist in a vast range of densities within ecosystems deep underground known as Lithobiontic Communities. A recent estimate put the number of microbes that live in the continental subsurface at between 200 and 600 octillion. This would represent about four to thirteen petagrams of carbon, with each petagram equaling about one billion tons or more than five million blue whales. Research suggests these organisms constitute the largest portion of biomass in the deep subsurface biosphere and potentially that of the entire Earth.
Despite their abundance, some examples such as “Candidatus Desulforudis audaxviator” represent a unique phenomenon regarding the arrangement of their ecosystem. Found up to three kilometers below ground, these sulfur-reducing bacteria take their name from Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. The novel’s protagonist finds a secret inscription in Latin that reads: “Descende, audax viator, et terrestre centrum attinges” (descend, bold traveler, and you will attain the center of the Earth). Considered primary producers, they come into contact with no other organism and exist in what is essentially an ecosystem-of-one. Can we call such an arrangement an ecosystem at all?
The Anthropocene speaks of our relationship to rocks. It is a term which originates in the geological field, describing the climatic, biological, and geochemical signatures of human activity left in sediments that together represent a geological epoch distinct from the preceding Holocene. In the case of lithoautotrophs, we find a similar but different entanglement of life and rock. These bacteria reside deep inside the Earth, dependent on it for sustenance, and likewise we are beholden to the Earth as the habitat for our survival. I wish to suggest that rather than providing a metaphorical alternative, they might offer a way we might materially formulate new ways of being with other organisms, ones which would bring into question our position as humans in a more-than-human world.
Might we radically reimagine the relationship between humanity, the Earth, and other lifeforms—even organisms that are profoundly different from ourselves?
As well as unsettling the schema with which we use to understand both the notion and organization of life, extremophiles also call into question our understanding of its origins. Billions of years ago, before the abundance of oxygen, Earth’s early chemistry may have been similar to the deep subsurface biosphere in which Lithobiontic communities exist. For this reason, some scientists have come to consider such places to be where life began, rather than the conventional primordial soup. Other scientists, however, ponder a different source of abiogenesis.
The panspermia hypothesis posits that life—rather than evolving ex-nihilo here on Earth–exists across the universe, distributed amongst asteroids, space dust, and on other planets, and that it is from here that we find our roots. Mars, for example, may have regions in its deep subsurface permafrost that could and might still harbor Lithobiontic communities. Likewise, the subsurface oceans of Jupiter's moon Europa may hold life similar to that found in hydrothermal vents on the ocean floors of Earth.
Lithopanspermia is the more specific theory that life on Earth originated from bacteria that were carried here either on or inside an extraterrestrial rock, such as an asteroid. For lithopanspermia to have occured, researchers suggest that microorganisms must have survived three distinct stages. The first is the initial ejection from a planetary surface, involving extreme forces of acceleration and shock. Second is the survival in transit of microorganisms through the icy vacuum of space. Astro-microbiologists have undergone such tests using both simulated facilities and in low-Earth orbit. However, much of the research has been directed toward human-borne microorganisms, rather than extremophiles (with a focus on human welfare during future manned missions). The final and most difficult challenge would be that of atmospheric entry and the associated hypervelocity. Broadly speaking, ejection, entry, and impact are considered survivable for some simple organisms, particularly those protected from the heat, deep inside a rock as research. One such successful experiment subjected spores, inoculated onto granite domes, to launch to an altitude of 120 kilometers on an Orion two-stage rocket. Owing to temperatures as high as 145° Celsius that were generated on re-entry, the specimens on the forward-facing surface of the rock were destroyed, but others situated on the side survived.
Multi-Species Justice for Multi-Planetary Species
What would multispecies justice look like on a post-cataclysmic planet? Or, more accurately, beyond a cataclysmic planet? If we were to entertain the idea that the Earth is irreversibly damaged and its life-sustaining capacity is waning, how might we rethink the notion of colonization? Crucially, might we ask, should it be humans that do the living? As is abundantly clear, it is humans who are responsible for the catastrophic position we find ourselves and much of life on Earth to be in. Therefore, do we really have the moral authority to take on the privilege of being the first multi-planet species? Why not relinquish that title to others less accountable and far more physically suited?
Using existing technologies, might we instead of attempting to send humans into the solar system, choose a different passenger? Might we, in an act of total inversion, of artificial panspermia, remove rock from deep within the Earth and cast it back into space, onto another celestial body from where it might have come? If then the worst were to happen and our planet was left uninhabitable, life would at least endure elsewhere in some nonhuman form. This would constitute a decision not to privilege the survival of the human species, but rather to commit to the proliferation of another form of life, one radically different from our own—an act of profound solidarity with non-human peoples. This would take the form of a program for the active distribution of Extremophilic bacteria across the solar system through the systematic launching of samples to potential habitats (as has been determined, Mars or Europa represent promising homes for such lifeforms). From a solely practical perspective, there can be no argument that there are any other candidates on Earth more suited for the task.
Such a proposal is indeed radical and protocols exist which specifically prohibit the contamination of outer space by Earthly bacteria. International policy began in 1967 with the United Nations Outer Space Treaty (OST), more specifically Article IX, which says that “States shall pursue studies of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, and conduct exploration of them so as to avoid their harmful contamination…” As such, a basic tenet of space exploration was adopted, the practice of sterilizing all spacecraft to avoid the potential contamination of space.
In April 2019, however, these protocols were intentionally flouted, when the Israeli lunar lander Beresheet (unintentionally) crashed into the moon’s surface. Unbeknownst to most of the team and without any governmental approval, American entrepreneur Nova Spivack added to the lander a payload of dehydrated “tardigrades.” While not considered extremophiles, the eight-legged micro-animals can survive in extreme environments and are known to enter dormant states in which all metabolic processes stop and the water in their cells is replaced by a protein, essentially turning their cells into glass. Although there has been much outrage at the unsanctioned transportation of the organisms, the controversy is likely to fade as the moon, which has few of the necessary conditions for life, isn’t considered at risk of contamination.
While the current rules are a set of well-intentioned and logical protocols, a study published in FEMS Microbiology Ecology journal in October 2019 is one of the first to criticize them and propose a starkly alternative perspective. Because of “the near impossibility of exploring new planets without carrying and/or delivering any microbial travelers…” the authors write, “microbial introduction should not be considered accidental but inevitable.” Although they admit that much research still needs to be done before entertaining the unrecoverable possibility, the publication represents a paradigm shift in thinking regarding planetary protection policy.
Although both of the above examples seem to show a loosening of dogma when it comes to non-human space travel, neither fundamentally readdresses the relationship between our species and the others involved. In the FEMS journal entry, bacteria are encouraged to be thought of as “assets, rather than serendipitous accidents,” and always in relation to the betterment of human colonization. Their proposal represents, at worst, a simple removal of “red tape” (a capitulation to the difficulty of maintaining a sterile environment) and at best an instrumentalization of organisms for our own survival.
What would it mean for anthropocentric projects such as SpaceX’s to reorientate themselves toward the proliferation of non-human life across the solar system? Such an alternative could be accomplished with little cost and damage to the planet—relative to moving a million people to Mars. While the ethics surrounding the microbial contamination of other worlds remain tricky, wouldn’t the millionaire settlers and the capitalist logic they carry with them be a more violent imposition—one that would likely survive the inhospitable surface of Mars?
Donna J. Haraway suggests that during our current epoch we ought to “stay with the trouble.” Escapist fantasies steeped in human hubris are not a viable solution. They represent a turn away from our responsibilities as stewards of an environment we have singularly devastated. Haraway says: “Who and whatever we are, we need to make-with—become-with, compose-with—the Earth-bound.” But we can go further. While we pick up the pieces of planetary destruction, our ethical imperative should be to allow non-human life to make-without—become-without, compose-without— humanity, whilst bound for worlds other than Earth.
Despite their fascinating qualities and relevance, our knowledge of lithobiontic communities is in its infancy and their role in the global carbon cycle is unclear. Not only do their biospheres constitute an enormous subsurface reservoir of organic carbon, but their metabolic activities also appear to impact the cycling of carbon in the subsurface. The climate crisis we find ourselves in can largely be put down to the catastrophic quantity of carbon we continue to pump into the atmosphere. Earth’s vast reservoirs of hydrocarbons have been exploited as its principal energy sources, and in turn we have transferred this carbon to the skies. It has to date been difficult to estimate how much hydrocarbons have been affected by subsurface microorganisms, but scientists are currently attempting to understand the potentially important role they might play in deep hydrocarbon behavior. The ultimate revenge of the lithoautotrophs might be their survival of ecological breakdown, which we have instigated. Not only that, but their continued existence might over millennia adjust the carbon levels to such an extent that something we might recognize as life would return to the Earth’s surface, without us to bear witness to it.
Cover image: Concept art of SpaceX’s Starship. Image courtesy of SpaceX