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'X-Men Red': on terraforming, climate change, and collective will

Comic Books

‘X-Men Red’: on terraforming, climate change, and collective will

Achieving the insurmountable, with or without superpowers.

Planet-Sized X-Men #1 captivated me. It happened suddenly, without warning. Not only because the idea of mutants terraforming Mars tweaked all the right places in my nerdy climate scientist brain, but because it demonstrated that ambitious vision and cooperation were prerequisites to the creation of planet Arakko.

A hallmark of X-men comics tends to be the dissonant mutant voices and visions acting to foil one another, often before any significant or lasting progress can be achieved. Mutant shelters are historically either tenuous or outright dubious — the Xavier school has been attacked and/or destroyed no less than seven times! The vision for a safe haven, as heralded and fought for by Magneto in the opening pages of Planet-Sized X-Men, brings sharp relief to the dichotomous rift in mutant philosophy: mutants are either conquerors or conquered, so they should choose victory.

Magneto’s pitch to create a new mutant home is met with sincerity, curiosity, and support. In less than a week, nearly the full cast of Omega-level mutants are recruited to be on hand during the Hellfire Gala. The team called to terraform Mars represent the full weight, power, and authority that Krakoa’s strategic resources can bring to bear, but despite their incredible powers, not one of them can do it alone; it takes a mutant circuit. And to form the comprehensive circuit takes committed and trusting resolve.

A timeless story about a generational challenge

In contrast to the narrative ease with which it’s accomplished over 48 pages, terraforming Mars would be an extremely complex and difficult undertaking. Atmospheric temperatures and pressures must be raised to habitable levels for plants and animals. The planet needs a source of enough liquid water to support a healthy ecosystem. The concentrations of atmospheric and oceanic chemicals must be tuned to adequately maintain life. But even when those things are accomplished, there are still problems.

For starters, a whole new ecosystem needs to be developed and harnessed to regulate the atmosphere and local vegetation. What’s worse, Mars lacks a proper magnetic field, which is a prerequisite for maintaining that atmosphere and preserving ecological gains made over time. It’s also needed to protect Martian residents from harmful, high-energy radiation.

At the scale needed on Mars, any one of these challenges would require technological advancements and resource aggregation — not to mention focused ambition — that would be staggeringly difficult to achieve today. Using their collective powers, though, the Omegas solve these challenges in just a handful of panels, and the depiction of these feats by Pepe Larraz and Marte Gracia is breathtaking.

Magneto terraforming Mars in Planet-Size X-Men

Don’t mind me, I’m casually creating a magnetosphere. Did I mention you have new gods now? (Marvel Comics)

But beyond this (by no means exhaustive) list of physical science barriers, there are human dimensions of the terraforming problem that are arguably more difficult to solve. Even making space for technological advancements, it would likely take centuries of sustained effort and financing to complete the project. “Sustained” is an absolutely vital characteristic of the work that would be required to terraform Mars — many generations over at least centuries (some estimates indicate multiple millennia) will need to prioritize turning the Red Planet blue. And we haven’t the space (nor do I have the expertise) to discuss the ethical questions terraforming might raise.

While our species has faced problems requiring long-term and cooperative solutions time and again, our track record on solving them is mixed. Our destruction of the ozone layer by manufactured chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) was identified by scientists within years of its appearance, and in less than a decade an international treaty banned CFC use. The ban remains in effect, and today there are already clear signs that the ozone layer is recovering. But then, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our will to sustain mitigation efforts over long periods of time (particularly if they’re seen as having little immediate personal gain) waxes and wanes, like Phobos in the Martian sky.

An inspirational metaphor for a species-wide opportunity

Climate change is the single most comprehensive and impactful challenge we face as a civilization today. Burning of fossil fuels emits greenhouse gasses into Earth’s atmosphere, which trap heat like a blanket, increasing the average temperature and changing the environment we’re familiar with. These changes disrupt the human systems we’ve built or adapted, including agriculture, coastlines, and weather. More precisely stated by the U.S. National Climate Assessment released in 2018, “Climate change creates new risks and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities in communities across the United States, presenting growing challenges to human health and safety, quality of life, and the rate of economic growth.”

Addressing climate change is an enormous and difficult endeavor. While we’ve understood the fundamental science of global warming since the mid-19th century (thanks in part to ground-breaking scientist Eunice Foote), it’s only in recent decades the world has agreed that international cooperation is required to solve it. Like the mutants terraforming Mars, no individual nation or person can solely end climate change. It will take sustained, multilateral, and multigenerational efforts to slow what we’ve already caused, and to move toward a future where our reliance on processes that produce greenhouse gas emissions is greatly reduced or eliminated.

Despite its ideal beginnings, the future of Arakko will not remain perfect, and conflict already stirs on the first mutant planet. It mimics our reality, pitting the authors of a planet against one another and external threats alike. With the release of X-Men Red #1, we’ll no doubt find disagreements, doubts, and detriments in the story to come, threatening what mutants have worked so well together to build.

'X-Men Red': on terraforming, climate change, and collective will

It’s not quite that simple for us, Ororo. (Marvel Comics)

Our future as humans is not so different. Things won’t always go smoothly. Our efforts and engagement will waver. We won’t always agree. But we have an opportunity and a hope. We can find inspiration in the incredibly arduous terraforming of an alien world to fix our own. We can together combine knowledge, resources, and partnerships over generations to sustain our climate for generations to come.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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