Mark Whittington links to this article at SpaceDaily.com: Can Mars Be Made Into An Oasis For Goldilocks?. The article covers the notion of “terraforming” Mars in piecewise fashion, under large bubbles, rather than the whole planet at the same time.
The minimum size of the oasis extends to the diameter of a dome-shaped plastic cover, much like a greenhouse with a space heater. In this way, microterraforming is the smaller alternative for a planet that otherwise is an open system leaking to space. Diaz contrasts the way a physicist might change Mars with industrial tools to the hothouse methods of a biologist.
Reading this story set me to ruminating on the “social experimentation” argument for Mars settlement and space migration generally: the idea that settling the space frontier would allow for experimentation with old and new forms of social organization (particularly governance) along the lines of the North American colonies of the 17th and 18th Centuries, with the surviving forms feeding back to and improving existing societies on Earth.
With terraforming as typically conceived, the effort is intended to affect the planet as a whole, steering the entire planetary environment to some preconceived desirable state. In the social experimentation metaphor, this might be reflected as a social system imposed on the whole planet from the beginning, intended to guide the development of the new branch of civilization towards some desirable form.
A properly-structured “social terraforming” approach could yield positive results. By prescribing the outlines and generic common features of the planet-wide social system(s), such an approach could allow for a bounded but still wide range of experimentation among settlements.
On the other hand, it may be unrealistic to expect any a priori arrangement to be flexible enough. The limitations within which settlements would be expected to organize and conduct themselves may be too restrictive to permit settlements sufficient latitude to experiment with truly novel forms (or new variants or combinations) of social organization. By proscribing certain arrangements (e.g.: hereditary rule, direct democracy, certain specific activities, etc.) or mandating others (e.g.: proportional representation in legislatures, legislatures themselves, recognition of certain specific rights, etc.), settlers may be deprived of the opportunity to discover new arrangements which work under Martian conditions despite having failed on Earth.
The answer to this, in ideal terms, might be the social microterraforming approach, where each settlement would be free to organize and conduct itself as it saw fit, absent any direction from a higher-level political authority. In practical terms, it is unlikely that the settlements could actually achieve such isolation, as interaction between them (trade in goods, information, and skills, for example) would motivate at least some harmonization, for moral and economic reasons (a settlement founded on chattel slavery might have some trouble trading with free settlements, for example). But rather than a flaw, this seeming retreat from the ideal would be a feature of the approach: some desirable form of civilization, suited to the circumstances on Mars and not possible to conceive of beforehand, could emerge from the experimentation within and interaction among these independent settlements.
Rather than a well-intentioned imposed order that may not fit the circumstances of living and working on another planet, and which may thereby restrict the ability of settlers to adapt and/or create institutions to fit those new circumstances, “social microterraforming” might permit a stable and desirable order to evolve organically.