Whenever we see an environment that is apparently empty of human occupation we treat the area as terra nullus and assume that it is open for exploitation. History demonstrates that along with the expansion of human settlement across the globe there followed mass extinction and environmental degradation. Indigenous peoples were not even recognised as people let alone afforded the dignity of initial “ownership”.
To export our continuing failure of sensitivity to the more delicate nuances in the world around us is risking the endangerment of yet another – this time planet-wide – environment. Assuming that we know enough about Mars to treat it with the respect that it deserves is symptomatic of our typical human arrogance. Just as likely is that this same arrogance would assume that Mars – being devoid of detectable life – can be treated with little or no respect at all.
In making a discussion about people living on Mars, one must ask to what purpose would they be there in the first place? The Martian environment is so incompatible to life as we know it that to live there simply as an alternative to living on Earth is preposterous. The moon is only a little more unfriendly, having no atmosphere at all., but being much closer to earth is a much more likely candidate for an insulated community. One would assume that such a community would consist of scientists there for the purpose of study and research – as would also be the case for a similar instance on Mars. Examples of such scientific communities exist in Antarctica. Each scientist residing in Antarctica does so for a specific purpose and for a limited tenure: they do not bring their family, and they do not treat it like their backyard. There is room for such a disciplined community both on the moon and on Mars. In fact theirs would be a sacrifice (in terms of time) that would likely benefit the knowledge of all mankind.
There are only two other reasons that people would be sent to live on Mars. One would be for the purpose of exploiting the environment in the form of mining; the other would be to initiate terraforming of the planet in preparation for further and more extensive human settlement. Both notions carry a sense of entitlement that we do not deserve to assume. Just look at our track record.
Mars should – like Antarctica – be declared sacrosanct to human development at least until our knowledge (which currently is minimal) can guarantee that more extensive exploitation and settlement will not damage an as yet unspoiled and little known environment.