Verb [with object]
Definition: (especially in science fiction) transform (a planet) so as to resemble the earth, especially so that it can support human life.
Origin: 1940s: from Latin terra ‘earth’ + the verb form
Terraform. It means to alter another planet so that it can mimic the conditions of Earth in such a way that it is habitable for humans. But with the emphasis on other planets, have we missed seeing that we have reengineered our own planet to the point that we have essentially been terraforming it? Moreover, instead of making the Earth more habitable, have all these changes cumulatively been making the Earth less habitable, for us and for other species?
I think the answers to those questions are in the affirmative. Thus, we might say that we have been reverse terraforming the Earth. But even that doesn’t quite capture the slow-motion ecological horrors we have caused or set in motion – maybe it would be appropriate to say that we have “terror-formed” the Earth.
The term “terraform” was apparently coined by Jack Williamson in his 1942 short story “Collision Orbit” (though some argue that he was just the first to use the word in a prominent setting). Here’s an excerpt from “Collision Orbit”:
He had been the original claimant of Obania, forty years ago; and Drake was the young spatial engineer he employed to terraform the little rock, only two kilometers through—by sinking a shaft to its heart for the paragravity installation, generating oxygen and water from mineral oxides, releasing absorptive gases to trap the feeble heat of the far-off Sun.
Terraforming became a staple of science fiction, written and on the TV/silver screen. It is featured in Star Trek movies, most prominently in The Wrath of Khan, and the Matt Damon character altering Mars in the movie of the same name (and there’s a board game based on this premise, too).
But aside of aliens changing our planet to suit them, such as in H.G. Wells’s 1898 War of the Worlds (which I ate up as a kid, and then was turned into a Tom Cruise-starring movie picture not too long ago), the focus of terraforming is generally what can be done to make other planets habitable for humans.
Of course, in recent decades this has been taken out of the realm of science fiction by those who argue that we can just terraform other planets when we exhaust the Earth. The need, and ability, to change other parts of the solar system to make them potentially habitable for human life is no longer just a utopian (or dystopian) fantasy. Just Google “terraform other planets” or something similar and you’ll see all sorts of serious proposals.
Terraforming another planet might not be as challenging as it seems at first blush (not that I want to encourage this perspective, since it is all too often tied to prometheanism or nonchalance about the sustainability of our practices on this planet). After all, we’ve been terraforming the Earth for a long time. We just haven’t thought of it that way.
But during my research on the modern remaking of Niagara Falls, it occurred to me that the Niagara Fallscape – the interacting water, terrestrial, and infrastructural elements – was being customized by engineers and designers to such an extent and on such a scale that it seemed to constitute terraforming. And that was in the 1950s. The manipulation of Niagara Falls may have been a fairly extreme mid-20th century example, but it gave governments and planners the confidence and skills to extend the same practices to the rest of the Earth.
We are clearly in the age of the Anthropocene. Since the term is here to stay, let’s leave aside questions of when it began, whether it should be called the Capitalocene or something else, whether it is the same thing as the Great Acceleration, or potentially problematic aspects of the concept. Half of the discussion is academics posturing and competing to coin the newest neologism or make a name for themselves anyway (granted, maybe I’m doing the same here in this post).
Whatever you think of the term, that humans have become the chief changers of Earth processes seems indisputable – as does the notion that the Anthropocene was in effect by the time Canada and the United States remade Niagara Falls to hide all the water they were diverting for hydropower.
To illustrate some characteristics of this new age of anthropogenic impact, here’s some quick and dirty stats, none of which will be news to students of the Anthropocene concept:
- Upwards of 80% of Earth’s land surface has been directly affected by humans
- Humans have built so many dams that nearly six times as much water is held in storage as flows freely in rivers
- About a quarter of the earth’s surface is used to grow crops
- We’ve clearcut just under half of all the trees on the planet since the Industrial Revolution began
Considering the wide-ranging impacts of agriculture, urbanization, and deforestation, wouldn’t it be fair to say that we have terraformed the very Earth itself? In the modern period we have so changed the apparent surface of the planet – as revealed by the view from an airplane, or Google Earth, of a farming area, or tar sands, or coal strip mining, or urban conglomerations – that it maybe constitutes a new entity. The title of a 2010 book I still use in my Introduction to Environmental Studies class, Bill McKibben’s “Eaarth” (with a double-a to signify it is kind of the same planet but also not) seems prescient.
But this isn’t just about appearances. We haven’t just cosmetically altered the planet’s skin. We have been altering many invisible elements, including fundamental biological, stratigraphical, and geochemical processes: e.g., nutrient cycling, carbon content of the atmosphere, acidification of the oceans, plastic layers for future geologist to find. We’ve created so much plastic that geologists think it will show up in future rock strata as “technofossils.”
Predictions about future impacts of our playing the role of primary geomorphic agents are a bit of a fool’s game. The particulars will probably be wrong, in part because nature is a lot more powerful and complicated than we can comprehend. But there is nonetheless a laundry list of potential ecological collapses and unintended consequences that are looming on the horizon from loss of habitat and biodiversity, species extinctions, climate change, and major alterations to biochemical and nutrient cycling.
Since we have been changing the earth to resemble something else, we could call it “reverse” terraforming. The brutal irony is that this terraforming has actually served to make the Earth less habitable for humans, as well as many other species, making it even more of a reversal of terraforming.
But maybe reverse terraforming doesn’t even do it justice. Considering the ecological horrors we have unleashed, and are in the process of unleashing since we have likely started a train of feedback loops that would continue even if humanity disappeared from the face of the earth right now, it might be apt to say that humanity has terror-formed the earth.
…it might be apt to say that humanity has terror-formed the earth.
Like the Anthropocene, we can debate when terror-forming became a thing. One might make a case for 1492, when colonizers started anthro-forming the New World to turn it into, as Alfred Crosby put it, Neo-Europes.  Or the rise of the Industrial Revolution and fossil fuels. Or the detonation of the first nuclear weapon in 1945, plus also the other technological, agricultural, and demographic changes that took place in its wake? I’m partial to a mid-20th century dating, since what preceded it – e.g., imperialism and colonization, initial industrialization, spread of agriculture – are, to my mind, necessary but not sufficient causes. We weren’t manipulating our planet on a big enough scale until the twentieth century. (OK, maybe I fibbed a bit when I said I wouldn’t get into taking sides in the Anthropocene debates. But I didn’t intend to when I wrote those previous paragraphs).
As advocates of the Capitalocene concept point out, the notion of the Anthropocene risks obscuring that a minority of humans are responsible for the majority of environmental impacts, even though in most cases those least responsible for global warming will bear the brunt of it (encapsulated by the recent NiCHE exchange on the “Alanthropocene“). The same is true of terror-forming.
But at the risk of being an alarmist and pessimist, the type of ecological degradations I’m envisioning with terror-forming aren’t gradual changes that just require adaptation by those who can afford it (e.g., move your house up or back a few feet from the water). These are tipping-point catastrophes, collapses, and cascades that will affect humans, and other species, across the board. We’re talking the collapse of entire ecosystems.
I’m not sure humanity is capable of choosing to be sustainable – all our destructive inventions and technologies are just too seductive, and we’re too short-sighted. The good news is that nature, on its own time and terms, will enforce limits on us. The bad news is that, if we continue to manipulate the Earth on the same scale and with the same intensity we have been, those “limits” are going to involve a lot of terror.
 Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010).
 Alfred Crosby, Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004). I should note that the term “anthro-forming” was suggested by my NiCHE colleague Sean Kheraj while we were discussing this blog post.
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