coe think tank explores habitability

2020-21 COE Think Tank fellows (l to r): Victoria Smolkin, David Grinspoon, Mary-Jane Rubenstein, Antonio Machado-Allison, Helen Poulos, Martha Gilmore.

Each academic year, the COE gathers a small group of Wesleyan faculty members, a scholar of prominence from outside Wesleyan, and undergraduate students into a year-long academic think tank on a critical environmental issue. The aim of the COE Think Tank is not only to generate a deeper understanding of the thematic issue, but also to produce scholarly works that will influence national/international thinking and action on the issue. The Think Tank theme for 2020-21 is Habitability: Cosmological, Planetary & Ethical Perspectives.

Our planet is currently the single piece of evidence that the universe is inhabited. The last century of exploration has allowed us to ask if we are also the only example of a habitable world, or if habitable worlds are common throughout the solar system and galaxy. This iteration of the COE Think Tank is discussing the definition of habitability from several scientific and humanitarian perspectives: biological, environmental, geological, historical, and ethical. Think Tank fellows are asking how these disciplines allow us to recognize a habitable planet, understand our collective investments in this search, and determine how we ought to interact with extra-planetary ecosystems.

New measurements of the evolution of planets from spacecraft allow us to consider the timeframe of habitability: Is habitability transient? Is habitability equivalent to life? We recognize that we are a species that can create habitable environments within almost any environment on Earth. In this case, we redefine habitability in terms of human needs, most often the needs of the colonizer. As we turn our attention to space, we consider more specifically what is required to create a habitable environment on, say, the Moon or Mars and ask: Who defines these environments? Who has access? Who has authority? Who gives consent? Which indigenous formations on these bodies are we entitled to use as “resources”? Three billion years from now, will a human colony on the Moon define a habitable universe in the absence of a life-sustaining Earth? Will Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos succeed in terraforming Mars in the next few decades? How do disaster narratives about climate change, nuclear war, and bioterrorism help feed fantasies of escaping Earth, and who might determine the ethical boundaries of such extra-terrestrial inhabitation?

Recent Think Tank events:

COE interns Jules White and Shaya Tousi had the pleasure of virtually meeting this year’s Think Tank fellows. Two of the more humanities-oriented fellows, Professors Mary-Jane Rubenstein and Victoria Smolkin, discussed their work for this year’s Think Tank and how they see their disciplines as connected to the commitments of the College of the Environment. Professor Rubenstein is a professor of religion at Wesleyan, whose project this year is called “Colonizing Space: Exploration, Extraction, and Inhabitation,” identifying and interrogating continuities between historical white supremacist colonial practices and the emerging field of extraterrestrial extraction. Professor Smolkin is an associate professor of history, specializing in studies of Russia, and the relationship between Russian religion and communist ideology. Her project is called “Imagining Life and Death in the Cosmos: The Soviet Experiment,” centering on Russian perspectives and motivations regarding space travel, habitability, and world-building. 

Jules White: I’d like to ask about the immediate relevance of this year’s theme, “Habitability,” to today. What makes habitability a salient issue for the Think Tank to study?

Mary-Jane Rubenstein: Professor Smolkin and I want to ask social questions about habitability. What is it that makes a terrain livable for certain kinds of humans versus other kinds of humans? What do we mean when we say “I can’t live like this?” Which kind of subjects would say that under which circumstances? There are political and economic factors that make life either livable or unlivable.

One of the things I pay a lot of attention to is the question of rituals of habitability, how a space becomes “ours,” thanks to the rituals we perform around it. In the colonial period, Europe would read proclamations in Latin, stick a flag somewhere, and this would declare that the land was now inhabitable by Europeans. It is striking to me that [Americans] do similar things when we even contemplate inhabiting outer space. For example, when we sent Apollo 8 to the moon, as the astronauts saw the lunar sunrise on Christmas Day, they broadcast a recitation of the first chapter of Genesis to Earth. They told the sacred story, and a couple years later Apollo 11 planted the sacred flag. 

Bizarrely, when we think about how habitability is ritually established, we suddenly collide with people like [George I. Seney Professor of Geology Martha Gilmore working on rocks. It’s certainly ecologically crucial to think about the conditions for livability, in the increasingly hot and unstable climate. It’s also socially and politically important to think about what the conditions of a decent life are in increasingly rabid and violent political circumstances. It is going to be metaphysically important to figure out what we’re doing with outer space. [The question of habitability] is applicable on a whole lot of different levels. 

Victoria Smolkin: I’m thinking there’s a kind of answer the scientists in the group would give to this. I’m not a scientist, I’m a historian. So for me, there’s an urgency because they think there’s an urgency. I’m observing the renewed interest in the question of habitability, and what interests me in particular is the kind of waxing and waning of human interest in the idea of habitability. It isn’t a constant, the amount of enthusiasm generated by the idea of going to Mars or the Moon; these are, to me, historical questions. I don’t know that there’s an objective urgency — it’s always been a subject of interest, but right now there’s more happening that makes this process seem imminent. 

White: Are there any connections between your discipline and the COE’s that might not be immediately obvious?

Smolkin: I’m not an environmental historian, I’m more of a cultural and political historian. I was brought on board because of my interest in the cultural ramifications of space exploration, and the particular importance of the question of the conquest of space for Russia and the Soviet Union. There are closer connections than one might think. For example, I was reading an article by Alexei Yurchak (an anthropologist of the Soviet Union) yesterday called, “Communist Proteins: Lenin’s Skin, Astrobiology, and the Origin of Life.” As it turns out, the whole discipline of astrobiology is the result of scientific questions and discoveries that came out of engagements of scientists with dialectical materialism. In particular, the Soviet Union learned a lot from the process of preserving Lenin’s body intact. There is a direct connection betweens the questions [the scientists] are asking and the history of my part of the world, which has asked those questions in a direct and pragmatic way. Russians tend to leap over theory and go straight to practice.

Rubenstein: One tends to think of the environment as our natural surroundings. The most interesting theories out there say that the natural world itself is shaped by our expectations of the natural world. One thing Religious Studies helps us see is that the Western relationship with the environment is not particularly natural. It’s not universal, it comes out of a long history of thinking about nature. The story the West tells about nature is that a) it is not alive; b) it is not as important as the animals in it; c) humans are the most important animals in it. That was initially a religious story. Originally in the Hebrew Bible, imported into Christianity, it assures us the natural world is there for us to use. There are plenty of other ways to view nature. There are communities that view the rocks and trees as alive, and they don’t mess with them! What we might call religious or theological assumptions about nature endorse certain scientific practices. We wouldn’t have gotten Western science without Christian theology. If we viewed nature external to us as alive, the “objective” model couldn’t have emerged. Even calling the environment “The Environment” assumes it’s something outside of us.

White: Lastly, how has the recent COVID crisis affected both your work at the Think Tank and our understanding of the environment?

Rubenstein: Ordinarily, we’d all be in a seminar room, talking, having coffee, things like that. Most of us would be working in the building and colliding in the hallways. This year we’re meeting remotely. Zoom can get fatiguing, sometimes we’re a little short of 3 hours, but we do asynchronous work too. We’ve instituted a weekly “social hour” Thursday nights so we can all hang out. People’s kids wander in, you see their cats, and you get a sense for who they are, which helps collaboration nicely. We’ve lost spontaneous interactions, but we’ve gained alternative ways of collaboration. The Think Tank’s done a nice job of adapting.

In terms of broader understanding, the circulation of [the novel coronavirus] has made clear some things we’ve been struggling to understand for a long time. One of them is the inseparability of the natural and the cultural. In a vacuum, one might think a virus is a natural problem. It emerges in nature and hits everyone irrespective of social positioning. As all of us have seen, people are wildly disparately affected by this virus, depending precisely on their social positioning, access to work, age, gender. All of those inequities are exacerbated by the policies that have done little to stop the virus. The thing which we now call COVID-19 is not just biological, it is a social, political, technological, racial, gendered, kinship-structured disaster. Intellectually, this is really helpful to illustrate the functioning of the natural world itself, which operates through social structures, and vice versa. This virus has brought that into relief pretty clearly.

Smolkin: To speak to our theme, habitability: When we went into lockdown and we were all grounded, after a few months of it, what I kept thinking about was, “This is how astronauts must feel!” We’re all contained, and the world beyond feels threatening and dangerous, and also very distant. To me, there was an eerie awareness of how attached we are to our world in its material and spacial aspects. Being unable to move around in it without the awareness of a threat, it made me think really hard: “Why would we ever want to live up there?” Why would we ever want to live beyond this planet, when it would look like an even more constrained version of lockdown.” We’ve had a conversation at the Think Tank about surviving versus thriving. All of us have been surviving, biologically waiting this out; I don’t know many people who are thriving in this environment. I don’t share my colleagues’ unbridled enthusiasm for expansion into outer space, because the questions they ask are usually about survival: air, water, etc. There is not a conversation about having peace. I need a reason for actually wanting to go out there! That’s what lockdown has made not only intellectually but physically real for me.

Two of the COE fellows in the hard sciences, Professors Helen Poulos and Antonio Machado-Allison, shared their projects for the year, as well as their experiences dealing with the challenges presented by the pandemic. Helen Poulos specializes in plant ecology, and her work with the Think Tank this year so far concerns the mechanisms by which plants compete in the changing climate of the American Southwest. She has over 30 peer-reviewed publications, and has expertise with fire and restoration ecology. Antonio Machado-Allison is a Professor Emeritus of the Central University of Venezuela, and serves the Think Tank as a research fellow in the College of the Environment at Wesleuyan. He specializes in the study of fish and aquatic ecology, and has written numerous books and articles published in both Venezuelan and international presses.

White: What is your project for this year’s Think Tank, and how does it relate to habitability? Do you see an urgency to the issue of habitability?

Helen Poulos: This year, the topic of habitability is particularly relevant for me because I work in these sky island systems in the Southwestern United States, both north and south of the US-Mexico border. During the Pleistocene, we know forests covered the entire landscape of the Southwestern United States. With the melting of the ice sheets and climatic warming, the forests have shrunk up into the mountaintops. When you’re in one of these forests, you can look down and see the desert surrounding you, hence the name “sky islands.” These systems are really important regionally because of their high diversity and quantity of endemic species. For a long time I’ve been working in these systems, and in recent decades many things have happened in these ecosystems. In fact, recently, a lot of these places have burned up. I’m trying to think about habitability through the lens of these recent disturbances of plant ecosystems. During the last couple of years I’ve been trying to quantify these changes and predict the trajectory of these forests: Are we going to lose species? Habitats? What I’m finding is that there’s a shift towards drought-tolerant species at the expense of pines. Everybody likes pines, but they’re not doing so well in the face of increasing aridity and fire prevalence. Through the lens of habitability, I’m asking: What kind of plants are going to survive in the future? 

Right now, I’m investigating this issue with satellite imagery and earth observations. I have a NASA grant I’m working on that uses a sensor called ECOSTRESS on the International Space Station. Most satellites only take images from the same position once every day, but the diurnal cycle of water balance is really important in my studies. ECOSTRESS allows me to see the whole cycle of plant water use over the day. This lets me see how plants are recovering from and competing in the wake of wildfires. Different plants have different strategies to deal with plant water stress, and we’re seeing dominance of some species over others as a result of the changes occurring in the field. We’ve gone from mixed-species forests to comparatively more drought tolerant, shrubby forests. ECOSTRESS lets me see the mechanisms of that process. There aren’t a whole lot of people looking at these ecosystem shifts through the lens of plant physiology, so I’m one of the few people who are actually looking at these mechanisms, and not just documenting their results.

Related to habitability, the question is: Which trees are going to be actors in the future forests of this planet? Some people might ask: “Why does this matter, who cares?” The answer is that humans are responsible for a lot of the changes we’re seeing. The increase in wildfire activity is a result of more ignitions, the “Smokey the Bear” practice of piling fuel loads up, and increasing aridity due to climate change. The why-should-we-care factor is that we did this to these forests!

Antonio Machado-Allison: Everything has to do with the environment. Every discipline at Wesleyan can connect, in some way, tangentially with the environment, and it’s no different with this year’s topic, habitability. Habitability is a good theme from different points of view. With the different people invited to join the Think Tank, we learn that habitability is as much a concept in natural biology as it is in missions to other planets. Along those lines, I’m working with fish in strange systems that might seem uninhabitable: acidic rivers and lagoons in South America. I’m interested in answering how fish can live in these environments, how their physiology makes these environments habitable for them. Martha Gilmore and David Grinspoon are engaging with the concept of life on other planets, and I’m working on life on this planet. We’re having great discussions about what habitability means philosophically, religiously, and so on. 

One of the things that always surprises me working with the Think Tank is that we’re always learning. Learning about other academics’ perspectives on the same issue. There’s an interchange of knowledge and information in every discussion. It’s very useful for students, because for them it’s a surprise that we in academia have these kinds of interdisciplinary discussions to improve our work in the university. 

I’m very happy for the invitation from [College of the Environment Director and Environmental Studies Chair] Barry Chernoff to be here. It’s a very new spirit [at the Wesleyan COE]. My work in Venezuela was at an orthodox university, with strict separation between departments at the school. Here, with the liberal arts model, it makes our work much more rich, and gives us a wider scope. It’s very difficult to limit our frontiers here. There are no frontiers between our disciplines. I am very happy to be in this kind of environment. 

White: How has COVID affected your work process? Are you able to conduct field work?

Poulos: I wasn’t able to go in the field this summer, because I’m a mom, I’ve got kids, and the virus blew up in Arizona where I was supposed to be working. I have a team of male researchers who are my collaborators who are less attached, didn’t have young kids, and they were able to go to the field site. I sort of transitioned my focus to write papers on other things.

It’s funny, a lot of people think that fieldwork would be great — ‘you’re socially distanced, you’re outside, what could be better than that!’ The problem for me is to get to those sites. I have a lot of researchers on both sides of the border that I’ve developed relationships with over the last two decades, and I rely on them. And they’re mostly men. As a female research scientist with family and kids, you have to think of really creative ways to get work done. For my dissertation I spent nine months in the back-country, doing fieldwork, use mules to hike there… but that’s not possible for a mom with young kids. I go for a few weeks, but I have a network of folks who can help me out. So it’s had an impact. I definitely have a lot more fieldwork to do next summer, and if this [COVID] thing is still happening, I might not be able to take students in the field with me, which is a bummer. A really rewarding part of the work I do is to take undergrads to far-flung places, it’s a real life experience for them. I have more students in my life than I’ve ever had before, because all the juniors had their study-abroad programs cancelled and are looking to write a thesis. That’s been a silver lining of this experience. I’ve made connections with seniors this year, and I’m teaching a senior colloquium in person. So that’s awesome. I didn’t realize how much I missed students until I came back for my first COVID test here . The situation has certainly forced me, and every faculty member, to re-think their teaching. 

For a long time, I’ve wanted to implement practices that they have in the Dance Department, like incorporating embodiment and mindfulness exercises into my classes, but I wasn’t sure how to do that because I’m a science teacher. Since COVID, I’ve developed a whole series of outdoor exercises I’ve had my students do in both of my classes. It’s become a part of my teaching now, to help students connect with the outdoors and the environment in meaningful ways. I’ve also transitioned my teaching style from a lecture to seminar, because nobody wants to see 50 slide powerpoints on Zoom. Every single faculty member on campus has thought deeply about how to adapt and improve their teaching. That’s a good thing.

Machado-Allison: As for Think Tank meetings: Meeting in person is always more emotional than meeting on Zoom. We’re adaptive as humans to new conditions, and the university is definitely helping us adapt to the “new normal,” if you want to put it that way. There are no big problems with the technology we’re using; Zoom is a very user-friendly technology. Even in the seminar, we have people contributing from other parts of the university and even outside the university. In that regard, the pandemic has not been a big obstacle.

In terms of my work, it is a bit of an obstacle. The students were prepared to do fieldwork, which they can no longer do. Obviously going to the field is the best part of our work, especially for the students. For us professors, working in the field is like fresh air, oxygen. The pandemic prohibited us from attending an international lecture in Colombia this year, so we had to shift gears, and Barry Chernoff decided we should go to the University of Michigan and examine a group of fish that he’d been interested in for years. So we worked there for a week, until the Michigan people said we had to go home, because Ann Arbor was becoming a [COVID] hotspot. We completed our work there and, long story short,  the work resulted in a paper describing two new species in a tiny genus. It was very productive, and these seniors and juniors we collaborated with already have a paper published. They were very excited about that! We have several students doing genetic work in the laboratory, and we have a student studying morphology of fish, using samples we gathered years ago. The pandemic has been an obstacle, sure, but it hasn’t stopped us from doing our work. We gathered plenty of material to work with here at the university, so there’s not necessarily a need for fieldwork. We’ve done the best we can with the new normal situation.

White: How has COVID as a publicly experienced and understood phenomenon cast environmental issues in a new light?

Poulos: It was funny. In the beginning of the lockdown everyone was saying, “Oh, look at nature, nature’s coming back!” So I could see this potentially as a pivotal point, where transformation is possible. But the question is whether we’ll really learn from this. I don’t have an answer. The EU, for example, has a stimulus plan to invest in renewable technologies and green energy. That’s an example of really positive ramifications of this outbreak, but I’m not sure our government will do the same. Maybe people will realize they don’t have to fly everywhere all the time, but also a lot of people I know are dying to vacation. It’s not clear if these lessons are really going to stick. There’s a lot of talk in the environmental movement about degrowing the economy. We’re degrowing the economy to be sure, but are we creating a pathway forward that’s going to be more carbon-neutral? That all depends on governance of our country and others going forward. 

Machado-Allison: You know, the basic problem that most people don’t know that this pandemic is the result of we humans changing the environment. Not many people are explaining exactly how this virus entered our lives. The protocols for domesticated animals, the animals we use for our food, are not very careful. Every day we’re transforming the environment, and if we’re not careful enough about what we’re doing, we get this kind of infection. Years ago, the physicians and scientists said this in reference to the first SARS. Our responsibility now, as scientists, is to tell the world with data: “Look what we’re doing!” If we don’t do that, the next pandemic attack will be worse. Instead of one percent dead in the world, we might be looking at ten percent, or more. The plague in the Middle Ages occurred because of the same reason: the disturbing of the environment. Rats spread the plague because kings kept their castles very clean, and had their subjects living in miserable conditions.

Professors Martha Gilmore and David Grinspoon spoke about their research, habitability in the context of planetary science, and interdisciplinary work with the COE. Martha Gilmore is a planetary geologist who, as the George I. Seney Professor of Geology, co-heads the Planetary Science department at Wesleyan. She has contributed significantly to the study of Venus’s habitability. David Grinspoon is a Senior Scientist at the Planetary Science Institute. He has also been the NASA Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress.

Shaya Tousi: Could you explain what your research for the Think Tank is focused on and how it relates to this year’s theme of “Habitability”? 

Martha Gilmore: I’m a geologist, and I study the surfaces of planets. I look at the morphology of the features from satellite observations, and I look at the spectroscopy which tells you about composition. I’ve worked on Venus and Mars, and lately I’ve been doing a lot of Venus work because I’m working on some missions to Venus that are in competition. We’re hoping that by the summer we should know if they’re selected. Actually, [Professor David Grinspoon] is on one of those missions as well […].

For me, Venus is important because it is an Earth-sized planet, and as we look across the galaxy, we’re seeing lots of Earth-sized planets…and we want to understand what circumstances lead to an Earth-sized planet becoming Earth. How is it that this planet is inhabited, and other planets are not, or were not throughout their entire history? The size of a planet is meaningful for how much energy it has to maintain an atmosphere, and to have volcanism, and all of these things that operate on Earth that no longer operate on Mars or on the moon, for example, are really critical to the habitability of the Earth. And so, Venus offers us this example of a planet that has the same amount of energy, essentially, to drive geologic process and maintain an atmosphere, but it suffered a different fate. [For 25 years,] my work has been about the oldest rocks on Venus. We are learning more and more that Venus was likely to have been habitable for perhaps a significant portion of its history, and so I want to understand as much as I can about those old rocks, because those are the rocks that are most likely to have been present on Venus when it was habitable. I’m working on a book chapter about the habitability of Venus, looking at the questions: What does that mean? How do we define it? How do we measure it? What measurements do we need to make to try to constrain what Venus’s past history was, and can we determine whether Venus was a habitable planet? What happened to it, and why did it diverge from Earth?

David Grinspoon: My project has to do with looking at idealism in how we think about humans and other species living in space [or] different planetary environments, and how those views have changed over time. That’s pretty vague and pretty broad, but it’s a project that’s been evolving as I’ve learned more and as I’ve been interacting with the other members of the Think Tank. But as far as how it relates to my work in general, I’m an astrobiologist and planetary scientist, so I study habitability, which before the Think Tank I defined in a certain way. I’ve been given a lot to think about how I might refine that definition, but, basically, in a planetary science sense, habitability is the ability of a planetary environment to support life. Astrobiology is the science of trying to understand the potential for life elsewhere in the universe. We study both the history and nature of life on our planet, and its limits: what it can survive and what makes it thrive. We also study other environments in the universe, and we have this growing knowledge of what other planets are like and what other planets there are. We sort of try to map the two together—our knowledge of life and our knowledge of other environments—to extrapolate and formulate an idea of where in the universe there may be life and how we may be able to go about finding it.

So, in a strictly astrobiological sense, when we talk about habitability, we’re not usually talking about humans going elsewhere in space, or we may—that’s a subset, but it’s largely a question of just biology in general and how that can fit in with planets elsewhere and their conditions. A lot of the conversations in the Think Tank have gone in the direction of thinking about humans in space, which, for astrobiology, is an aspect of habitability. Astrobiology is also about the future of life, and therefore it’s also about the future of human life and the possibility that some or much of that future might be off Earth. Then habitability gets into these questions of what kinds of environments can humans survive in and will humans thrive in. If those environments don’t exist elsewhere, how do we make those environments artificially? Or, how do we modify other planets to suit our needs?

In addition to just the physical questions of how we would do that, that gets into a lot of fascinating ethical questions of whether it’s a good idea for humans to modify other environments in the universe. A lot of our discussions in the Think Tank have gone in that direction, in part because the Think Tank, of course, is this interdisciplinary collaboration, and when an astrobiologist starts communicating and collaborating with a historian and scholar of religious studies and an ecologist and so forth, the conversation often naturally goes to these questions of humans going elsewhere and how that fits in with our history. On this planet of “colonizing,” do we want to “colonize” elsewhere in the universe? There are questions of what would we think about an ecology on Mars: Does it have its own inherent rights, independent of humans?

Tousi: What do you think makes the theme of Habitability an urgent or immediately relevant issue for the Think Tank to study? 

Gilmore: We all have to come to terms with how we are defining the terminology of what we mean. When I talk about habitability, I have a very concrete set of criteria that have nothing to do with humans, actually. When [other members of the Think Tank] talk about habitability, it’s a more human-centric endeavor, a human construct. So, then, we have to talk about how habitability means different things to different people […]. What are the limits of habitability, and what needs to be preserved? The College of the Environment is designed to think about how we assess, how we interpret, how we protect our environments. When we’re talking about habitability, we’re bringing that to a planetary scale. We have discussions like with Dr. Moriba Jah from UT Austin: How do we value and define near-Earth space? Who does it belong to? And, by extension, for the surfaces of planets, as people are thinking about — NASA’s thinking about people sending people to the moon again, which is great. There’s this push from private companies now to send people to Mars, like SpaceX is trying to do. So, who’s the boss of space? Who are the people who are having discussions about what we should be doing in space? Who gets to go, and what do we do when we get there? What does environment even mean on Mars?

A lot of people think, “Well, it’s uninhabited, uninhabitable, so who cares?” But for me as a geologist, it matters a lot, because we need to understand what’s there and what’s not there so we can understand why we have what we have. It’s absolutely fascinating to talk to my wonderful colleagues about these concepts of habitability. Something [Professor Mary-Jane Rubenstein] talks about a lot are the parallels between colonialism and the way that we think about going into space. It’s like, there’s this better place out there, and we’re going to get it, everything else be damned. We’ve done that many, many times over the history of humanity. Are we seeing [space exploration] for what it is? There are many topics that are prescient for preserving environments, for how we communicate among ourselves as a species on this planet and decide what we’re going to do with resources and motivation. It’s a constant problem in environmental work: What’s the right thing to do? The right thing to do, if we ask 10 people on the street, can be very different. Or just a fantasy, or “that sounds great as long as I don’t have to do it,” and so we’re applying these same types of questions to thinking about how we access the solar system, which is fascinating.  

Grinspoon: The question of urgency is really an interesting one, because it’s a question that I encounter a lot as a space scientist. Space science can seem pretty esoteric and separate from our urgent human concerns…on this planet, where we’re struggling with environmental problems and problems of justice. So why are we worrying about other planets and sending spacecraft elsewhere? […] I have a few responses, and one is to point out that we do live in space! I’m not even trying to be funny here — though it is sort of a funny thing to say, that the Earth actually is a planet in the solar system. Outer space isn’t something that’s out there, and we’re over here. When you’ve realized that, you realize that in order to fully understand our situation here on this planet, we can’t ignore the rest of the universe and, in fact, by exploring space, we learn a lot about our own planet. There’s a lot in terms of really basic environmental knowledge that we’ve learned by looking at other planets that have led to major insights that have helped us [understand] the environmental challenges and how to meet them here on Earth.

In terms of habitability, when we think about how we would potentially build a habitat in space that humans could live in, or build a habitat on the surface of another planet that humans could live in… When you think about it deeply, you start realizing that what you’re thinking about is ecology — the interdependence of life. Some of our early ideas about going to live in space were very naïve, because we didn’t realize we were thinking about ecology and that, ultimately, solving the problem of how to live sustainably anywhere in the universe is the same as, and in a lot of ways, solving the problem of , how to live sustainably on Earth. There was this experiment called Biosphere Two, in Arizona, where they decided that they would seal themselves into this glass container with all these other species for a year to simulate the way a biosphere works. They called it Biosphere 2 because where we live, the Earth, is biosphere one, and the experiment failed miserably! It failed because they didn’t fully realize how complex the ecological interactions between organisms and one another and their environment really are. It’s kind of a useful failure because we learn more about the true nature of ecologies. So again, even when we do the thought experiments of well, how would we design a habitat where humans could go elsewhere? We didn’t realize this in the 1970s, but the only way we could do that is by bringing a lot of organisms with us, and they’d have to be happy, and we’d have to be happy. That means we’d have to understand all the interactions between all these organisms.

Frankly, we don’t know enough to really do that yet. So, my own feeling is that if Elon Musk or somebody goes and tries to build a city on Mars anytime soon, they will fail. It won’t work. In fact, I predict they will try to do it, and they’ll fail because they think it’s just an engineering problem: “Oh, you need to build this thing and pump in the oxygen and the water and grow some potatoes and everything will be fine,” but in reality, they’re trying to create Biosphere 3, and they don’t know how to do it. To me, some of the urgency, why I think it’s important to think about this, is because in the larger sense, what you’re thinking about when you think about the habitability of elsewhere [is] understanding habitability on Earth, and our lives, the well-being of our civilization, or whatever that is. Our cultures depend on that kind of knowledge, so to me that’s where the urgency would come in.

ST: Do you think there are any connections between your research discipline and the College of the Environment that may not be immediately obvious or that you want to draw attention to?

Gilmore: I honestly think that everything I’ve learned being in the Think Tank this year was not immediately obvious to me. [Professor Barry Chernoff] is in my department, right? So Barry was like, “You should join the Think Tank!,” and I’m like, “Barry, come on! [Laughs] I study space!” He persisted, to his credit, and I am so grateful to have this opportunity to have a year to think about what I do in another context. Honestly, I never worry about people! I just do my Venus science. People want to do things, who cares? I’m just doing my science. But this whole colonizing angle — it keeps turning in my mind. And I don’t think I would have recognized that without the Think Tank, and so I’m really happy to have had this opportunity to think about these things with my colleagues.

Grinspoon: I’ve learned so much this semester from talking to people from the College of the Environment […] because they think about different situations then I think about. There are these surprising connections: Some of my colleagues and I are interested in the sort of exotic possibility that there could be life in the clouds of Venus. […] Up in the clouds it’s cool, and so potentially you could have organisms floating in the clouds — except, they might be too acidic for any life to survive. [Professor Antonio Machado-Allison] gave a talk for the Think Tank about some work he’s doing, looking at how fish survive in very acid waters in the Amazon. He and some other biologists have been looking at the mechanisms the fish used to survive. And when I was listening to that, I was thinking, wow, this is the same kind of problem that we’re wondering about of survival in the clouds of Venus. That’s a very specific example, but I think whenever you get different people together who think about different problems in a similar enough way, these light bulbs go off.

Tousi: Do you think that the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our cultural understanding of the environment, particularly through the lens of planetary science?

Grinspoon: I think it’s going to take a while to tease out what we’ve learned from it. […] As far as public appreciation of the ways in which we’re all physically connected, from a planetary science perspective, it’s very obvious—there’s the overview effect. You look at Earth from space and you see that we’re all one. When you think about ecological problems, you realize there’s no way to address some of these global problems without global-scale solutions, and one likes to think that the scientific, global view from planetary science and ecology helps people to realize, well, we really are all one, and we all have the same problems. At the same time, we’re in this time period of history where things are really splintering, and there’s a lot of nationalism and factionalism and “me first.” These are global problems, and they require global solutions, and so one would like to think that when the world faces a global pandemic it helps people to realize that. I certainly see that the pandemic affects these modes of thinking, which ultimately are very important for how we as a species address these environmental problems.

Dr. Victoria Smolkin is associate professor of history and Russian, East European, and Eurasian studies at Wesleyan University. A scholar of Communism, the Cold War, and Russia and the former Soviet Union, her work focuses on the intersections of politics with religion and ideology, including atheism, secularism, and nationalism. Smolkin’s recent book, A Sacred Space Is Never Empty: A History of Soviet Atheism (Princeton University Press, 2018; in paperback 2019), explores the meaning of atheism for religion, ideology, and politics in the USSR, and and was a finalist for the Wayne S. Vucinich Book Prize for the most important contribution to Russian, Eurasian, and East European studies in any discipline of the humanities or social sciences. A Russian translation is forthcoming from the Russian publishing house New Literary Observer in Fall 2020. She has also appeared in a number of media outlets, including the BBC (“Belief and Unbelief in Russia”), National Public Radio’s Weekend Edition, the New Books Network, the Immanent Frame Blog, The Conversation, and the Washington Post. Her research has been supported by Princeton University’s Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies; Social Science Research Council; Sherman Emerging Scholar Lectureship; Newcombe Dissertation Fellowship in Religion and Ethics; Fulbright-Hays Fellowship; Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C., among others. She is currently at work on two projects: “The Crusade Against Godlessness: Religion, Communism, and the Cold War Order” and “The Wall of Memory: Life, Death, and the Impossibility of History.”

Mary-Jane Rubenstein is a professor of Religion at Wesleyan University; core faculty in the Science and Society Program; and affiliated faculty in the Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program. She holds a B.A. in Religion and English from Williams College, an M.Phil. in Philosophical Theology from Cambridge University, and a Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion from Columbia University. Her areas of research include continental philosophy, gender and sexuality studies, science and religion, and the history and philosophy of physics, ecology, and cosmology. She is the author of Strange Wonder: The Closure of Metaphysics and the Opening of Awe (2009) Worlds without End: The Many Lives of the Multiverse (2014), and Pantheologies: Gods, Worlds, Monsters (2018). She is also co-editor with Catherine Keller of Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms (2017).

Helen Poulos is a plant ecologist who examines the influences of natural and anthropogenic disturbances on local-, landscape-, and regional-scale plant distribution patterns. Her work explores the mechanisms underscoring such patterns through the lenses of plant ecophysiology, biogeochemistry, and community ecology. The overarching goal of Professor Poulos’s research is to understand spatiotemporal patterns of plant diversity and community organization as well as examining the relationships between humans and ecosystem function. She has worked in diverse ecosystems including forests, deserts, rivers, and estuaries across North America and has field expertise in fire ecology, rapid assessments, restoration ecology, coastal marine carbon sequestration, and aquatic community dynamics. Dr. Poulos has a master’s degrees in geography from Penn State and a PhD from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. She has authored over 30 peer-reviewed publications and popular articles on a range of environmental topics.

Antonio Machado-AllisonAntonio Machado-Allison is a Research Fellow at the College of the Environment. He was the Essel and Menakka Bailey ’66 Distinguished Visiting Fellow of the College of the Environment for the 2018-2019 academic year. Dr. Machado is an Emeritus Professor in the Faculty of Sciences, Institute of Tropical Zoology and Ecology, of the Universidad Central de Venezuela, Caracas, Venezuela. Machado received his PhD from George Washington University in Washington, DC, doing his research on piranhas and their allies at the US National Museum, Smithsonian Institution. For his extensive and far-reaching scholarship, his service to scientific and humanitarian programs, Machado was elected to the Venezuelan Academy of Physics, Mathematics and Natural Sciences; he was a former Academic Secretary of the Academy and Publications Director/editor. He has authored over 100 peer/reviewed publications on biosystematics, life history, and the ecology of fish. Most recently, he published several book chapters on biodiversity and aquatic environment conservation.

Martha Gilmore is a planetary geologist who studies the surface morphology and composition of Venus, Mars and Earth.  Using surface mapping and orbital VNIR spectroscopy, Gilmore looks at some of the oldest rocks on Venus and Mars in order to evaluate rock composition and constrain the history of water on these two planets. These investigations are supported by laboratory studies of minerals formed and/or weathered under Venus and Mars conditions. Gilmore also uses spectroscopy to evaluate the extent and health of plant species local to Conn.  

David Grinspoon is the Menakka and Essel Bailey ’66 Distinguished Visiting Scholar in the College of the Environment and a senior scientist studying surface-atmospheric interactions on terrestrial planets, atmospheric evolution and habitability, and planetary-scale human influences on the Earth system. He is the former inaugural Baruch S. Blumberg NASA/Library of Congress Chair in Astrobiology for 2012-2013.