The Buddhist View on Terraforming Mars

Hello humans,

I’m one of the respondents for the Ask a Buddhist Program, a fantastic initiative set up by wonderful people at the Metta Centre here in Sydney, to help folks stay connected to the Buddhist community in this time of social distancing during the pandemic.

We received an interesting question recently, which I am re-posting here below with permission, because I thought it might generate an interesting discussion on this theme - which might not have been on your radar, so to speak. Here it is:

… in short my question is about ethics and good practices on another world. While I have done reading into the subject, I have no teacher to ask directly for my knowledge is limited.

You see, in under a decade the colonization of Mars will begin, mostly in part to the work of Elon Musk, with the creation of his new ships that can carry 200 people at a time to the red planet in 90 days. Is it ethical to join these missions? The ability to live simply and aesthetically live and do good deed’s is very difficult in a landscape with few people and very high tech to ensure survival. The ultimate aim for moving to mars is to terraform it into an Earth-like world. I assumed this would be a very good act, as it would bring trees and all animal life to a lifeless world, insuring them against extinction. However, the act of terraforming is the 2nd most destructive act one can do to a planet, (de-construction being the 1st) as it will totally erase its natural character. Is this wrong? Finally, and this is a subject area I have the least knowledge in - would the lack of sacred sites, temples and other markers of the passage of Buddha’s and bodhimandas be an issue?

I hope my questions are not seen as too incidental or speculative, like Malunkyaputta. While no one is on Mars yet, they very soon will be!

Indeed! When I spoke to Bhante @sujato about the question this morning, he also rejected the notion that this is mere speculation, as the human conquest of the galaxy has already begun and space colonies are on the horizon.

Ollie, who posed the question has received a few responses so far,

ranging from the enthusiastic “its no different to long Antarctic mission, so meditation would help everyone and more life everywhere is good” to the more reserved “such matters are too far out in time, and there is work to be done on Earth”.

As D&D is not accepting new members at this time due to the annual Rains Retreat, I will send Ollie the link and he can check in from time to time to see your responses, but wont be able to reply unfortunately, so please keep that in mind.

Looking forward to your responses; the truth is out there!
:alien: :alien: :alien:


That’s an interesting question! A thoughtful response might even make for an article in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. I will limit myself to two preliminary considerations here.

  • Does going to Mars lead to harm? Can we be sure there’s absolutely no life on Mars that might be negatively impacted by human colonization?
  • Is the mission to Mars grounded in (Buddhist or other) ethical principles itself? Or does it exclude certain groups of people who would like to participate or contribute? Can the safety be guaranteed of the people who leave Earth?

Hmm… I’m puzzled, why would it not be ethical to join a colonising mission to Mars or anywhere else? :man_shrugging:

Now, that does not mean that suffering won’t follow! :sweat_smile:

1 Like

From the perspective of Buddhist effective action (i.e. kamma), if life is harmed without us knowing and intending to, there should not be any material kammic effect to worry about.

I think however that the main risk is the way around: whatever alien lifeform we encounter may be deadly to us or the earth-based living organism we depend on (plants, algae, etc).

I suspect that if such a massive endeavour were to become a joint project between nations, as I understand space exploration was first envisaged by USSR, only good would arise from it given the economic stimulus from the massive public spending required and massive potential for economic rewards and benefits in the future.

The economic rewards and benefits would arise mainly from the fact that, without another earth the global debt bubble we are getting ourselves into with an aging population and looming climate catastrophe, a big crisis forming is over the horizon.


There appears to be no life on Mars. If there was life on Mars, terraforming would be a huge ethical question because it could well result in the extinction of alien life.


Fascinating question!

I will ponder further, but a few first thoughts.

  • The evidence is–I believe–at this point conclusive that there is no intelligent life on Mars, so at least we wouldn’t be looking at a scenario similar to European civilizations period of colonizing other parts of Earth, and the horror they inflicted on indigenous populations.
  • Any life on Mars at this point would–if it existed at all–I believe likely be on the level of bacteria and viruses. Does the Buddhist injunction against harm apply to bacteria and viruses? I’ve always assumed it doesn’t–Buddhists take anti-biotics don’t they?–but I’ve never directly asked.
  • Should Mars have rights, for lack of a better word, independent of the life that does or doesn’t live there? Something along the lines of the moral rights a painting has to not be altered by its purchaser?
  • I guess the big question is what we do with Mars. Does it become territory countries fight over? Does it become property of corporations to be sold off and developed? Do we take what we’ve learned from environmentally trashing the Earth and colonize Mars with greater wisdom? Or do we run in thinking “More land and resources to use!”
1 Like

I would argue that the most unethical thing about it is to start such projects that both cost a lot of resources and have little chance of actually becoming a reality (terraforming Mars) while so many humans still suffer from poor living conditions and while we knowingly make life on Earth ever more unsustainable. I would argue it is an ethically wrong way of setting one’s priorities. Reality may catch up with us long before we manage to implement our inadequate dreams.

Mars doesn’t have a magnetosphere and thus it will never be able to sustain life as we know it on Earth. The most likely outcome is that at best, there will be a colony of people living a poor life in tanks. They will suffer from various medical conditions due to low gravity and will be likely to die young due to exposure to deadly radiation. Another guess is that this project will keep getting delayed because the challenges are simply too numerous.


As there is no life on Mars (that we know of) it is, essentially, just a lifeless rock with a thin atmosphere. I see no ethical dilemmas in terraforming it. It would be no different to building on a barren piece of land on Earth. There are also lots of resources that we can extract from the planet. This could, in the long term, lead to cheaper goods.

1 Like

To quote Star trek: “It’s life Jim but not as we know it…”

And H G Wells: “The chances of anything coming from Mars was a million to one they said… But still they come!”

It’s still just an assumption that Mars has no life. We haven’t actually gone there to see it all for ourself. People often say that deserts are “barren” but closer inspection reveals deserts are in fact teeming with life. Same with other extreme locations on earth.

Another thing is the the convenience of declaring something barren for the sake of colonisation, which actually happened here in Australia, with the concept of Terra Nullius. This implied that the land was empty and unowned which of course was just a lie.

So visible or hidden visible life aside… What about non-visible beings like devas? Such beings are common in classical Theravada thought and those beings are not limited to this world. They always despaired when their environment was ruined. Should we not care about them?! :cry:

There are also other planets and objects within reach that have oceans and greater chance of life, so it might be interesting to extend the question of Terraforming to other planets too?

Note I did edit this post quite a bit.

:alien: :space_invader: :flying_saucer:


That’s a fascinating point.

I guess another version of that is the idea of intelligent life. Declare chimpanzees not intelligent life so we can use them in experiments. Declare the life forms on another planet not intelligent and you don’t have to worry about the idea of rights.

We’ve even made an argument of this form about fellow humans. Show up someplace, find it already has people there, and declare those people sub-human so we can colonize their land.


Did the Buddha say that beings are infinite?

Buddhist cosmology

if there is life on other planets and in other dimensions. Why don’t these beings visit our planet?

Because governments hide this information … they only release this little information … in droppers …

There is Life exists on many Planets and in Many Dimensions!

Official Evidence on ETs!

Youtube - Google


The Disclosure Project (2001)

The Secret NASA Transmissions The Smoking Gun - Martyn Stubbs (1999)

Moon Rising - Jose Escamilla (2009)

Youtube - Google

Another reason I like these Official Proofs … is that I started studying spirituality and found Theravada Buddhism after I got to know these Official Evidence on ETs!


Well, since Elon’s motivation seems to be the survival of the human race I would say that’s a good thing, but this plan is unlikely to succeed and will more likely just result in a lot more fossil fuels being burned as we send more and more and larger and larger rockets into space, inadvertently contributing to the (negative) terraforming of Earth.

As always, wrong view (for-profit, technocratic, neoliberal materialism) takes the lead here in turning a good intention (save the species!) into a negative result (more global warming, wealth inequality, unsustainable resource exploitation, etc).


Very true.

All that expenditure would do wonders for research on sustainable fuel sources, terrestrial and oceanic pollutant mitigation efforts, ecosystem conservation, improving reproductive health resources, and ultimately the elephant in the room…curbing human population growth .


That’s right. And it turns out, the best way to do that is to empower women.


My reply was based on the assumption that there is no life on Mars. As for devas and the like, not being able to perceive them I cannot assess if they are there or not. Kamma is intention. Not knowing if there are devas there it is therefore, as far as I can see, not an unwholesome act to colonise Mars.

Chimpanzees do not have rights as they are not human. Animals have no rights. If they did it would lead to some rather bizarre and unappealing situations. Pet ownership would be slavery, you would have to seek permission for every trip to the vets and medical research would grind to a halt (not that consequentalist concerns determines rights of course).

I am, however, getting into other topics here.

There might not be any need for that:

For the first time in modern history, the world’s population is expected to virtually stop growing by the end of this century, due in large part to falling global fertility rates, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of new data from the United Nations.

1 Like

Hi @Ceisiwr. I just wanted to tell you I enjoy reading your posts. You are a very logical thinker. I believe we have come to the opposite conclusion on a wide range of issues. :wink: But one learns a lot reading logical thinkers who come to the opposite conclusion as oneself. It is a great way to identify values and assumptions that may stay tacit when discussing issues with people who have drawn the same conclusion as oneself. :slightly_smiling_face:

Yes, currently animals do not have rights. Even laws which are set up to protect animals are framed in terms of animal welfare, not animal rights. (There might be exceptions, but I am not off the top of my head aware of any.)

That is a decision societies have made. Given the high degree of intelligence of chimpanzees, and their ability to suffer, it might not be the best decision. I don’t see any a priori reason that only humans can have rights. It seems like one of those areas we should be open to changing our concepts of rights as new evidence about animal intelligence, experience, and suffering comes in. And it would not necessarily be a decision about all species–it would just be seeing where our values and the evidence lead us. If you take a snapshot any point in history, you would probably find their concept of rights woefully inadequate. I see no reason to assume we’ve 100% nailed it at this point in time.


In the interest of not derailing the thread I’ll simply say thank you for the compliment and that you raise some good points even if I do not fully agree. I would like to clarify that by saying animals have no rights I’m not for mistreating animals.

1 Like

I never for a second thought you were. :slightly_smiling_face:

1 Like