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Mars and Microbes

Excellent news: NASA is off to Jupiter’s moon Europa to scour beneath its icy surface for microscopic organisms. The United States, it seems, is determined to treat us to the most stylish insolvency in history: a country trillions of dollars in debt and yet prepared to borrow even more to maintain a generous budget for spaceships must surely convince a cynical world that Uncle Sam would, in contrast to the melancholy Victorian hymns of the British orchestra, have organised the greatest party in history on the listing deck of RMS Titanic. We are struck, though, by one line in particular from NASA’s press release: “spacecraft must meet planetary protection requirements…These requirements are very strict and involve ensuring that a viable Earth organism is not introduced into the Europa ocean.”

In spite of the unimaginable scale of the universe confounding even our ability to feel dwarfed, we are apparently concerned that some microscopic snowflake lost in the inky blackness might be in any way changed by the Hand of Man. Our ancestors dreamed of terraforming Mars; we have nightmares about distressing a Jovian bacterium. What changed, we suspect, is the way in which environmental or ecological history has been integrated into the historiography of colonialism, and the blending of the ethical with the scientific to the point that some people seriously contend that we have no right to interfere with some dead rock which only meaningfully exists in humanity’s ability to conceive of it. This, then, is a timely opportunity to consider how we came to be so psychologically traumatised by biogeographical change. Read more