Considering Martian Rebel Scum

A guest post by Michael Hikari Cecire.

There are many dif­fer­ent ways to think about the prospect of long term human set­tle­ment on Mars. Elon Musk, whose com­pa­ny SpaceX has vowed to col­o­nize the Red Plan­et, couch­es Mar­t­ian col­o­niza­tion as a crit­i­cal piece in ensur­ing the long-term sur­vival of the human race. In sci­ence fic­tion author Kim Stan­ley Robin­son’s Red Mars, the jus­ti­fi­ca­tions turn out to be more pro­sa­ic, as pri­vate enter­pris­es flock to Fourth Rock from the Sun for its min­er­al boun­ty. Viewscreen’s own Joshua Foust, writ­ing on his (high­ly rec­om­mend­ed!) per­son­al blog, takes a rather more con­trar­i­an view, not­ing that even many of the most opti­mistic pro­jec­tions for space colonies are eco­nom­i­cal­ly implau­si­ble.

Putting aside our pitch­forks for a moment, eco­nom­i­cal­ly jus­ti­fi­able or not, there still appears to be a con­sol­i­dat­ing con­sen­sus with­in the sci­en­tif­ic, gov­ern­men­tal, and, increas­ing­ly, busi­ness com­mu­ni­ties that a Mar­t­ian colony is going to hap­pen, or at least a con­ceiv­able like­li­hood. This may be large­ly a con­se­quence of the cul­tur­al zeit­geist, in which con­tem­po­rary cul­tur­al touch­stones — like Andy Weir’s (excel­lent) hard sci-fi nov­el The Mar­t­ian (and its ser­vice­able and decep­tive­ly re-watch­able 2015 film adap­ta­tion) — have helped launch Musk’s var­i­ous mad sci­en­tist schemes  (and, pre­sum­ably, vice ver­sa) into the glob­al pub­lic con­scious­ness like a sling­shot tra­jec­to­ry on a grav­i­ta­tion­al assist.

So, let’s say, costs be damned, a Mar­t­ian colony is going to hap­pen. What will it look like? Is it going to be a U.S. gov­ern­ment-fund­ed research sta­tion, of the sorts in Antarc­ti­ca? Will it be a ven­ture of pri­vate enter­prise? Will it be an inde­pen­dent poli­ty in its own right?

That lat­ter propo­si­tion is the sub­ject of a poignant essay over at The Strat­e­gy Bridge, where author James Gilley makes a force­ful legal, strate­gic, and philo­soph­i­cal case for Mar­t­ian inde­pen­dence. It’s a com­pelling idea, made all the more so by the ele­gant sim­plic­i­ty of the notion: the dizzy­ing array of legal hur­dles, strate­gic headaches, and the like­li­hood of Ter­ran-Mar­t­ian phys­i­o­log­i­cal diver­gence (if not out­right pro­to-spe­ci­a­tion) are addressed, if not entire­ly solved, by grant­i­ng Mars polit­i­cal inde­pen­dence.

By the sheer tyran­ny of dis­tance, any Mars colony will need to not only be self-suf­fi­cient to a degree, but would also demand some form of auton­o­my in deci­sion-mak­ing. This is not just because of extend­ed trav­el times; even trans­mit­ting between Earth and Mars can be time delayed any­where between approx­i­mate­ly 4 to 20 min­utes, depend­ing on the rel­a­tive posi­tions of the two plan­ets. Every­thing from sched­ul­ing rou­tine sup­ply runs to beam­ing over the lat­est sea­son of Suits would be ham­pered with­out some good old fash­ioned Mar­t­ian self-reliance.

But that’s a far cry from full-on polit­i­cal inde­pen­dence. The idea that Earth author­i­ties would con­cede ulti­mate sway over the first extra-plan­e­tary colony to its hand­ful of res­i­dents, whether a few hun­dred or a sev­er­al thou­sand, seems unlike­ly, despite what­ev­er tech­ni­cal advan­tages such an arrange­ment might hypo­thet­i­cal­ly yield. In a way, Mars is cap­tive in this respect to not only its dis­tance, but its rel­a­tive prox­im­i­ty. One could cer­tain­ly imag­ine a more hands-off approach to colonies in the out­er plan­ets or beyond, just as a mat­ter of prac­ti­cal­i­ty. With­out enor­mous advances in space propul­sion tech­nol­o­gy, any col­o­niza­tion efforts in the out­er plan­et regions would nec­es­sar­i­ly have to be almost entire­ly self-reliant. Mars, by con­trast, seems just close enough — in our imag­i­na­tions, if maybe not in its actu­al posi­tion­ing — to remain under Ter­ran suzerain­ty. But a Mar­t­ian colony of any appre­cia­ble size, at best a mul­ti-month voy­age from Earth at its clos­est using cur­rent propul­sion tech­nol­o­gy, may chafe fierce­ly at such an arrange­ment.

Per­haps the more press­ing polit­i­cal ques­tion over Mar­t­ian col­o­niza­tion isn’t over its inde­pen­dence, but how to fore­stall it.

The Revolt

Imag­ine you’re a polit­i­cal appointee in one of the hand­ful of space-far­ing nations con­tribut­ing to the estab­lish­ment of a per­ma­nent Mar­t­ian colony. You believe in the sci­en­tif­ic, eco­nom­ic, and moral worth of the endeav­or. You have bud­getary line items, all kinds of embar­rass­ing­ly cool gear for lift­ing your hand­picked pio­neers into the heav­ens, and the back­ing of your polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment. You are also, how­ev­er, pre­sent­ed with a trou­bling con­clu­sion by social sci­en­tists that have been con­tract­ed — for the sake of cus­tom­ary due dili­gence, of course — to exam­ine the antic­i­pat­ed polit­i­cal dynam­ics of a Mar­t­ian colony: they will revolt.

It won’t hap­pen imme­di­ate­ly, and maybe not even in your life­time. But it will hap­pen, the researchers from the Viewscreen Group, LLC assure you. Why? Because the moment most of those ex-Ter­rans make Mar­t­ian land­fall, they will expe­ri­ence an intense, pro­longed, and like­ly com­pound­ing sense of iso­la­tion from the plan­et of their birth. Not because they won’t miss Earth — it’s gen­tle breezes, vast seas, or lush green­ery — but because every day of their exis­tence will be an affir­ma­tion of their sep­a­ra­tion from it, and even the mildest direc­tives from home will seem like unten­able med­dling from alien func­tionar­ies with lit­tle gen­uine knowl­edge or under­stand­ing of the colonists’ gen­uine­ly extrater­res­tri­al lives.

It would be only mod­er­ate­ly irri­tat­ing at first, their resis­tance. A delayed trans­mis­sion here, some mod­est mis­al­lo­ca­tion of resources there. Who approved that exper­i­ment? No one. We nev­er dis­cussed expand­ing the habi­tat in that way. They nev­er asked.

Efforts to stamp out insub­or­di­na­tion — pas­sive and large­ly admin­is­tra­tive at first — would only aggra­vate colo­nial griev­ances. If the acri­mo­ny reached a fever pitch, the Mar­tians would­n’t need to hold ral­lies, or broad­cast their griev­ances, or ink a dec­la­ra­tion of inde­pen­dence. They would only need to turn off their receivers — and it would be months, if not years, before Earth knew exact­ly what was actu­al­ly hap­pen­ing over on the Mar­t­ian sur­face, much less regain con­trol over the restive colony. New ships would have to be dis­patched, and maybe they would be able to reestab­lish order, but not with­out major invest­ments of time, resources, and the inher­ent risk that comes with nav­i­gat­ing the chop­py seas of the black.

Leav­ing the colony to its own devices would not be an option. Not only because of the mind-bog­gling invest­ments that a Mars colony will have eat­en in the course of its estab­lish­ment, but the polit­i­cal pres­sure on Ter­ran elites to reestab­lish sov­er­eign­ty over the Mar­t­ian colo­nial rab­ble would like­ly be enor­mous (though, this being Earth, the Mar­t­ian putschists would almost cer­tain­ly have their own small con­tin­gent of back­ers as well). But on a human­i­tar­i­an lev­el, it’s worth con­sid­er­ing that in the event of an unsanc­tioned Mar­t­ian sep­a­ra­tion, the real­i­ty of acute resource bot­tle­necks — of air, water, food­stuffs, etc. — lend con­di­tions that are ripe for author­i­tar­i­an­ism, and not the rosy com­mu­ni­tar­i­an visions var­i­ous­ly telegraphed in Robin­son’s Mars Tril­o­gy and which form a sta­ple of the sci­ence fic­tion genre.

Because of the numer­ous daunt­ing tech­ni­cal, finan­cial, psy­cho­log­i­cal, and, yes, epis­te­mo­log­i­cal ques­tions that are inevitably raised by the idea of col­o­niz­ing Mars, even oth­er­wise polit­i­cal­ly pro­sa­ic con­sid­er­a­tions as insur­rec­tion are fre­quent­ly glossed over. But for gov­ern­ments or com­pa­nies or groups seri­ous­ly plan­ning a per­ma­nent Mar­t­ian colony, the risk can­not be dis­count­ed. From the very begin­ning, any Mar­t­ian colony would have to be designed to not only accom­mo­date frag­ile human phys­i­ol­o­gy and max­i­mize sci­en­tif­ic or eco­nom­ic val­ue, but to struc­tural­ly under­mine the very sug­ges­tion of rebel­lion. That will take some doing, but there may be some cre­ative ways to do it — albeit not with­out their own costs and trade-offs.

Joshua Foust used to be a foreign policy maven. Now he helps organizations communicate strategically and build audiences.