We stand at an inflection point that is unique in human—indeed, in terrestrial—history. Humanity is on the verge of leaving the planet that has been our home for millions of years.

Let’s not forget that it is not only humans who will soon be making this historic departure: it’s life itself, which has been confined to the Earth even longer than we have. So, it is not only us who will become a multiplanet species. As we spread out into the solar system and beyond, other species will surely accompany us as we leave a “multispecies planet” and start creating a “multispecies solar system.”

But wait—are we ready for this historic moment? Just as we are about to leave the Earth, we are also trying to figure out how to repair our home planet, which is in trouble largely because of our actions. We are simultaneously discussing how we can use technology to reverse the impact of global warming (geoengineering), and how we can use technology to alter (terraform) other planets, making them more amenable to human habitation.

All of this begs the question of whether humans have the right to modify other planets, or if planets might have rights that we should not abrogate. Speaking at the recent Harvard Planetary Designs workshop on these topics, I developed an ethical system based on the Overview Effect and the Cosma Hypothesis, culminating in seven principles to help answer the question of whether we could, or should, modify the Earth or other planets like Mars, now that the great out-migration is about to begin.

These are the seven principles:

  • Principle #1: Every entity in the universe, from the smallest atomic particle to the largest galaxy, has a role to play in universal evolution and therefore has the right to exist and evolve.
  • Principle #2: Human beings have the right to modify other entities, insofar as doing so more effectively supports universal evolution.
  • Principle #3: A planet that supports life or has the ability to support life, has a conditional right to existence and evolution without outside interference.
  • Principle #4: A planet that supports intelligent life has an absolute right to existence and evolution without outside interference. (This is essentially the Prime Directive.)
  • Principle #5: A planet that does not support life and/or intelligence, and is not likely to do so, has a right to existence, but may be modified in support of universal evolution.
  • Principle #6: If a planet has previously experienced interference in its evolution, modification in the present is justified to restore the balance, preserving the planet and the life that is on it. However, it is not ethical to interfere simply to continue practices that created the original problems.
  • Principle #7: If a planet’s evolution has been thwarted by natural events in its past, it may be ethical to artificially initiate the evolution again through terraforming. However, consideration should be given to pantropy as an acceptable alternative before embarking on a massive planetary engineering effort.

© Copyright, Frank White, 2018

The complete paper from the workshop is available here: