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Principles of Terraforming

Darwin's artificial forest captures moisture from clouds that drift over Ascension's peaks (Source: BBC news)

A few months back I started exploring the idea of terraforming. In this post I’d like to consider two important questions about it. First, what is terraforming, anyway? And second, why should we do it? Oddly enough, it seems to me that the second question is easier to answer than the first because even with a vague sense of what terraforming entails, it seems clear that there are many degraded ecosystems around us in the industrialized world today, ecosystems that could use what is conventionally termed “restoration”. (I hesitate to use the term “restoration” as most ecosystems will never be returned to what they once were before being overtaken by human interests, and since my goal isn’t to live apart from nature — there are way too many people on the planet for that — but rather to live among nature and with nature better than we have in the past.)

Why terraform?
I believe we should terraform the lands around us, however small or large. It seems to me that the first step to living with the natural world is to cultivate non-human life in it, and to come to better understand its natural patterns, its needs, and its constraints. This also seems, in the larger sense, to be a matter of self preservation, as it’s unlikely that global human society can keep on interacting with the natural world the way we have for the last couple of centuries without being felled by Limits to Growth.

Terraforming is a twin of conservation. That is, terraforming is a matter of us increasing what some ecological economists call “ecosystem services” while at the same time, through conservation, decreasing our footprints upon those same ecosystems.

What constitutes terraforming?
I’d like to define what I consider terraforming next. I know the term has all sorts of meanings, and in the past has most commonly been applied to the science fiction idea of transforming the environments of other planets to make them suitable for human inhabitation. The kind of terraforming I consider here is about small-scale ecosystem modification on Earth. Specifically, I’d like to lay out principles that might be worth following.

In presenting my thinking on this to Adam, he made the important point that principles can be of different sorts. Sometimes a list of principles defines hard and fast rules that place something in or out of some category (e.g., I could imagine this being like “well my technique of digging holes using a backhoe violates principle X of terraforming, so what I’m doing isn’t terraforming”). My aim isn’t that kind of list of principles, but rather one, as Adam put it, with scalar dimensions (e.g., the principles guide actions towards best practices, so there are better and worse instances of terraforming, relative to some local setting). In that sense, any action that changes the ecosystem in some way can be evaluated using the principles, and in this framing geoengineering is one kind of terraforming (one that does not adhere to the best practices very well). We could broadly term those efforts that adhere to the best practices as ecological terraforming.

One starting point is to consider two axes that might help separate, say, swale building from pumping sulfates into the stratosphere: 1) the duration of the action and 2) the human-derived energy flow to make that happen. It seems ecological terraforming is about kick starting natural cycles and systems that, once started, can continue on their own, so for 1) the duration is long and for 2) the human-derived energy flow is hopefully one-time. Conventional geoengineering schemes, from what I’ve seen, tend to be the other way around: 1) the duration is short (e.g., dump iron in one spot in the ocean, potentially sequester carbon, and that’s it; pump sulfates into the stratosphere, temporarily cool the planet) and 2) it’s all human energy required to make it have a positive effect. (The case could be made that, in a very indirect manner, conventional geoengineering schemes help kick start natural processes, since there’s a remote possibility that dumping iron into the ocean could revive a food web that had collapsed; this is why I don’t want to approach principles from a categorization perspective.)

I’ve been trying to tease this apart and come up with a set of guiding principles for terraforming. Some of these follow from the 12 permaculture principles, while others align with them but don’t really follow directly. Greer has suggested that one of the things that defines what he terms the ecotechnic crafts (a term that is a natural successor to Mumford’s -technic phases) is that it is about making subtle (maybe minimal?) changes to the web of connections that make up a local ecosystem to bring and/or keep things in balance (but with the intended effect).

My main concern is that the list as it stands might have false positives (i.e., questionable geoengineering schemes that are “good” by the principles) and false negatives (i.e., worthwhile terraforming actions that are in conflict with the principles). So please consider this a work in progress.

Terraforming principles.
1. Terraform for the long term: design and build expecting the terraforming to outlive everyone alive today.

2. Terraform to initiate natural ecosystem function and biogeochemical cycles: avoid actions that will require constant and ongoing human intervention.

3. Terraform degraded lands and immature ecosystems first: per Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden (adapted from Drury and Nisbet), immature ecosystems are characterized by low biomass productivity, low organic matter, open mineral cycles, high nutrient loss, few microclimates, annual plants, low biodiversity, short/simple food chains, few ecological niches, few symbiotic relationships, low stability, and low complexity.

4. Terrform at the small scale: increase the scale of terraforming only when smaller-scale terraforming has been tried and has failed.

5. Prefer terraforming with natural power to human power, and human power to mechanical power: prefer digging a trench with running water to using a shovel to using a backhoe.

6. Prefer the maximal set, rather than the minimal set, of individual terraforming techniques to meet a goal: more techniques likely increase the resilience of the action.

7. Prefer terraforming actions that result in an ecosystem resilient to rapid and unpredictable changes in the local climate: plan for climate change and changes in land use patterns in the selection of plants and forms.


I also need to write up some examples of terraforming (and evaluate them under these principles), and describe how they can be used, but that’s for another time — maybe when I write about how the idea of programmable permaculture wasn’t intended to just be a strange computing analogy but actually an application of ideas from computer science to the challenges of terraforming. In that followup post I hope to also consider how Meadows’s list of places to intervene in a system can be applied to terraforming.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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