Life on Mars?

Guest blog by Rev Dr Frances Ward

NASA/JPL-Caltech

Why, oh why, are we so bothered about life on Mars?

Perseverance, which launched in July 2020, cost US$2.4 billion to build and launch and will cost another $300 million to land and operate during its first year on Mars. It is the third mission to reach the red planet this month — following spacecraft from the United Arab Emirates and China, which are both now in orbit.

(From Nature)

Despite the enormous skill, and extraordinary testimony to human endeavour – why does my heart cry aloud in protest?

Photo by Apollo 17 Earth

What heroic, pioneering, male spirit is at work here, that cares so little for Earth? It can only be escapism on an interstellar scale, that propels ‘man’ away from the earth he captured so beautifully – that iconic photo of Earth taken on December 7, 1972, by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the Moon. From a distance of 18,000 miles from the planet’s surface, the Earth is a Blue Marble – a precious jewel, a thing of wonder and beauty, to be treasured and cared for with love and adoration. Forget the Red Planet. Remember the blue and green of our fragile earth.

I am overwhelmed in lament for this beautiful home which we are destroying faster than we know.

Sometimes the grief is too much. It has me sobbing myself to sleep; waking with a churning desperate anxiety. How can we, as we must, stop the burning of the rain forests? How can we, as we must, stop the destruction of countless species of plants and animals? Every day there is news of another species, gone. How can we, as we must, hear the cries of the peoples who live in symbiosis with their environment, and are forced to flee or face death? How can we, as we must, preserve and love this earth, its rain forests, for itself, for its own sake, without that oh-so-human instrumental mindset?  How can we, for we must, love our forests which absorb millions of tonnes of carbon, and not burn and slash, releasing carbon and carbon dioxide, to compound global emissions, already too high? How can we fail to realise how the moisture and water that the trees absorb mean these enormous areas are like reservoirs, cooling the earth and keeping it fertile? The result of destruction, without the rain forest around, simply means desertification, not fertile arable land.

I can’t stay with the pain. I want to run away, unable to cope with the despair. It burns within me, making my muscles tense with frustration and helplessness. I want to scream. I know why people self-harm. The pain is intense as I imagine the forest all flame, creatures destroyed by fume and fire. Indigenous peoples deciding not to run. Where would they go? I don’t know how to contain this intensity within me.

Perseverance is the rover, the runner in each of us. But Life on Mars is not the answer. We must listen and hear the silent sobbing of the earth. 

I am the little girl of the lyrics,[1] for it is a God-awful small affair – this trip to Mars, when the world should be whole-hearted about the perfect planet.

I’m walking through my sunken dreams, too easily hooked to the silver screen.

I want the seat with the clearest view to see a world turned around, to know hope again, to anticipate children and grandchildren living in security across all nations. I want rid of the saddening bore of that sense of deadened despair as yet another story of climate catastrophe is told, the stories that we live ten times or more. Like the lyrics of the song, I am cut up, and pasted together into a sense of unreality, with an emotion that cannot be contained by grief. Only the power of deep lament can begin to express the pain, the frustration, the anger.

I understand escapism. But it won’t do. The price is too high.

I want a seat with the clearest view of the nations of the world pulling together to save us all – to meet the 1.5oC target, from the 51 billion tons we currently add to the atmosphere,[2] to net zero emissions by 2030, taking our entire carbon footprint into account. Is that too much to ask? Oh, that the power of the human intellect, the wealth of the world, is turned to this.

Oliver Rackham is optimistic about woodland. He reckons that it’s reviving, not least due to the success of the Woodland Trust, founded in Devon in 1972, and a change of direction in the Forestry Commission which is now fully committed to woodland conservation.[3] Woods and forests are now valued and the ability for trees to capture carbon is accepted widely. Cost? It’s estimated that a trillion seedlings, which would remove two-thirds of all the carbon dioxide that human beings have ever released into the atmosphere, would cost a minimum of £240 billion. That’s nothing, compared to what is spent on escapism, including trips to find life on Mars. 

I could spit in the eyes of the fools who can’t, won’t see, how absolute, how ultimate is the threat, the need. The tortured brows of the nations of the world are in the best-selling show in Glasgow.

Forget life on Mars. Let’s have life on Earth – for now, for the future.

Rev Dr Frances Ward is author of Like There’s No Tomorrow: Climate crisis, eco-anxiety and God (Sacristy Press).  She is on the editorial team for our Green Christian magazine


[1]Life on Mars? Source: LyricFind Songwriters: David Bowie lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, BMG Rights Management, Ultra Tunes, which Neil McCormick of The Daily Telegraph ranked no. 1 in his “100 Greatest Songs of All Time” list, describing it thus:

accessed 23/02/2021Gloriously strange sci-fi anthem. A stirring, yearning melody combines with vivid, poetic imagery to accomplish a trick very particular to the art of the song: to be at once completely impenetrable and yet resonant with personal meaning. You want to raise your voice and sing along, yet Bowie’s abstract cut-up lyrics force you to invest the song with something of yourself just to make sense of the experience, and then carries you away to a place resonant with intense, individual emotion. The magic and mystery of music and lyrics. It is something to behold.  McCormick, Neil. “100 greatest songs of all time”. Telegraph, 24 June 2012.

[2] Bill Gates. How to Avoid A Climate Disaster, Allen Lane, 2021

[3] Oliver Rackham, Woodlands (London: William Collins, 2015), p. 61.


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Author: Ruth Jarman | Date: 6 March, 2021 | Category: Climate Emergency Opinion | Comments: 4


Comments on "Life on Mars?"

Iain Climie:

March 8, 2021

Hi Stephen, While I agree that religion can and should take a moral high ground on green issues, there can be problems of interpretation. Do you remember Ronald Reagan's appointment James Gaius Watt saying something like "If God hadn't wanted us to use open cast mining, he wouldn't have put coal seems close to the surface ". infamous "

Jeremy:

March 8, 2021

I agree with much of this, but I wonder if the key motivation is actually escape. I don't think that's what NASA is out to do, and their work seems more motivated by discovery. From that point of view, there is more to appreciate from a Christian point of view - if the universe declares the glory of God, then surely that's the universe beyond earth too! We don't know yet what new perspectives and truths will be discovered by investigating Mars. After all, the desire to investigate the moon gave us that blue marble image that you reference - and gave us a vivid new view of our planetary home, and our responsibilities to it.

Stephen Johnson:

March 8, 2021

It is certainly required of humanity to evolve, like everything else in this universe, to become more aware of the consequences of its' actions. This implies becoming more conscious which comes with maturity and a way of accessing a higher consciousness by way of a spiritual practice. All religions hold the earth and all life as precious and sacred so given their numbers of followers and believers in this fundamental tenet, these religions must lead the way in reversing this downward spiral in this treatment of 'home'. I think exploring Mars is justified in that humans may need another place to live and it is part of their DNA to be curious and to explore and to migrate and to wander. I agree though that to live on this Earth in the 21st century does and will require great changes in social and moral behaviour and again it is religion that holds all the cards on the high ground.

Iain Climie:

March 6, 2021

I wholeheartedly agree and have recently crossed swords surprisingly amicably with some intelligent climate change sceptics. I simply pointed out that many ideas essential if mainstream views are correct make sense even if climate change were a damp squib or temperatures fell e.g following a major volcanic eruption like Tambora in 1815 or if a major food crop failed. Obvious actions include reducing waste, restoring fish stocks, combining conservation with careful use, reducing the impact per head and probably numbers of conventional livestock (methane-reducing feed additives like Asparogopsis taxiformis have existed for decades but not been adopted even though some boost growth), fewer cash crops, less overeating and an economic system which doesn't boil down to "make more money then buy mire stuff". Surprising levels of acceptance in some cases whereas the general approach is to argue furiously one way or the other instead of adopting such win-win options. Is humanity really cursed by original sin here or us it mire repeated stupidity coupled with sloping shoulders about who funds these ideas?


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