The Scary Political Logic of Colonizing Mars

Nuclear Terraforming?

In all the fervor about water on Mars and building colonies there, I have been digging through the literature about living on Mars, from non-fiction accounts of the engineering required, to speculation about how such places might work, to science fiction about what those colonies could become. And I’m left with a conclusion I’m not terribly happy about: I think it is impossible to do without some fundamental change to our politics and economy that we have not yet envisioned.

I don’t come to this conclusion lightly. But the problem of menial labor, of labor mobility, of social choice, and of political liberty, are all big question marks in any future Mars colony (or anywhere in space). I think part of that is a lack of imagination about what is really needed to essentially build up a society from scratch (as America has learned in Iraq and Afghanistan: state-building is hard!). But I think part of that is some worrying assumptions built in to the ideology of people who would want to settle somewhere like Mars.

Of course, there’s no way to talk about this without talking about Elon Musk. He’s going to be the referent for would-be colonizers but only because he’s been the most vocal about his plan to colonize the planet; also, many think he’s the one guy who is the most likely to pull it off. So while his ideas are going to be reviewed here, I want to keep in mind that he is not the only one doing this sort of thinking and investing (Jeff Bezos, for example, runs a company meant to mine astroids).

So: Remember that time Elon Musk said he wanted to nuke the Martian polar ice caps? He’s since “clarified” his remarks, but he’s really not very far out of the mainstream on this — nuclear terraforming has a decades-long history in American thought. Nuking Mars, especially the ice caps at the poles, has been at the heart of ideas for shortcutting any terraforming process. And various madcap schemes during the Atomic Age, like Operation Plowshares, envisioned using nuclear weapons to build harbors, reshape landscapes, and re-engineer our geology.

So while it was enjoyable to poke fun at Musk’s blithe ease of nuking another planet, he really isn’t crazy or particularly weird. We have envisioned doing far worse to our own planet. But that’s the problem, in a way. In my post talking about water on Mars, I wondered if it was possible to explore and learn about that planet without irrevocably polluting it with our own germs and waste products. There is an international treaty that obligates all governments to avoid contact with known sources of extraterrestrial water, but I’m not sure someone like Musk would feel particularly bound by that. And the only way to make water on Mars work is to, basically, destroy Mars in the process.

That’s a big issue: lobbing nuclear weapons at Mars’ ice caps is not that much more destructive that industrially mining the only places on the planet where there might conceivably be life; it’s just more dramatic and plays on a more visceral set of collective fears. But either war, Mars is destroyed in the process.

And, as another reminder, there is a big problem about labor division on any Mars colony. I’m sure some very odd people will be happy to push a broom around a Mars colony until they lose the ability to walk; but how many people like that really exist? And, just like with Neal Stephenson’s meganovel about surviving a space catastrophe, there is almost no politics in this discussion. If anything, politics are why it won’t happen, not the means by which it would.

I postulate that one reason wealthy tech-types like Musk don’t really think about any of these things (politics, administration, or even blue collar jobs) is because they live in a closed off bubble where all of the many services that make up our daily existence in society are so well designed and integrated that they are effectively invisible. Musk envisions solar panels, habitats, medical machines, manufactories, and so on, but he does not envision people to actually work at those jobs. There are probably very few plumbers who would pay a million dollars to go to Mars only to keep being a plumber — so who, then, will snake out clogged drains? Lay insulation? Build desks? Sew new pants and jackets?

Frankly, rich people who live in a bubble of other rich people simply do not have to worry about such things because they are invisible. They think all you need is food and water and air and you can live; the reality is drastically different.

A Model of Martian Politics

When Tim Urban asked Musk what he thought the government of Mars would be like, Musk’s answer was fascinating for how much about America he got wrong:

“Creating the Mars government will be like creating the United States. It’s an opportunity to reboot government and say from first principles, ‘What should government look like?’ I suspect people would do more of direct democracy than representative one. In the old days, it would take three months to take a vote—there was no mail system, mail barely worked and would take weeks, and a lot of people couldn’t read or write. It was extremely unwieldy so they had to have a representative democracy. On Mars, there could be instant electronic voting on issues, which would be much less subject to corruption, and laws could be made way simpler—you’d put a word limit on law.”

So… that’s really now how the United States was created. The first colonists at Jamestown actually died off primarily because of political conflicts — they did not show up in Virginia lacking supplies or skills. They bickered to death.

But there’s more to Musk’s breezy ahistorical political analysis, and it requires us to unpack a bundle of Silicon Valley horseshit. The United States was not created because the Founding Fathers thought really hard and came up with some sui generis concept of what a government should be. They essentially took the British system, thought up the opposite of that, and declared it their new method of self-rule. It failed miserably, and resulted in interstate conflict of the kind we wouldn’t see again until the Civil War. The final Constitution was a mixture of Britain’s formal and common laws, with rejiggered bits the Founders didn’t like, plus some philosophy and a good heaping dose of black-people-as-property to placate the slave owners, and then left to fester for a few decades before being dramatically reordered again after 1865 when most of the provisions about states’ rights were discarded during the centralization of power in the federal government during Reconstruction.

People who’ve never seriously studied American history or political science never seem to grasp that American government took a LOT of revision to get right, and even then it has fundamental weaknesses that impede basic functions (which we all complain about ad nauseum), and even then it took almost a century for our modern political system to take shape from all of that.

Okay, so a breezy technocratic view of American independence is nonsense. So let’s look at this idea of direct democracy. It’s a great way for small communities to govern themselves, but direct democracy becomes burdensome anytime you have even a medium-sized population. For Musk’s vision of a million people on Mars, there are basic questions of leadership he doesn’t even mention — who puts ideas on the ballot? Who enforces the votes?

One of James Madison’s most brilliant insights was in recognizing the fundamental illiberty of a tyranny of the majority, whereby 51% of the population could vote to give the other 49% of the population a gut-punch, and that would technically be a democracy in action. In the U.S., we have complicated ways of preventing a direct democracy (at the federal level at least), so that minorities cannot be oppressed through a simple plebiscite. More to the point, Musk doesn’t understand why the United States rejected direct democracy. Contra his assertion that it was because the mail was slow “in the old days” and people were illiterate so therefore democracy was unwieldy (people had to take literacy tests to vote in those days anyway), the Federalist Papers were rather explicit in the need for representational democracy to make sure no one got oppressed through popular vote (obviously this idea needed to be refined, and we are still working it out in this country).

Musk would do away with all that. And worse still, he’d impose a word limit on laws. This is madness: the law creating Obamacare is something like 11,588,500 words long. It isn’t that long out of some intrinsic misanthropic principle guiding the Congressional staffers who wrote it, but rather because it is an extremely complex problem balancing a lot of competing interests that are meant to apply universally to a country of 300,000,000 people. There is no way on earth a law can be made arbitrarily short. Laws are as long as they are because centuries of legislative experience have shown that short laws are prone to abuse or expansive interpretation (such as how the 2001 AUMF against al Qaeda has been tortured into authorizing all sorts of other wars), and that opportunistic gasbags will sue over the slightest misphrasing even if the intent of the law is clear (as was the case with King v. Burwell). So how will a word limit affect that?

No one knows. That is because Elon Musk’s idea for governance on Mars is anarchism, not governance. He envisions no police, no administration, no leadership, and no representatives (why bother having a mayor, a council, a legislature, a governor, if everyone direct-votes anyway). Musk would never in a million years run his company that way — he is a notorious micromanager — but he would, for some reason, want to run a society that way.

If that’s a model you’d sign up for, then be my guest, I guess.

Space Colonization Requires Tyranny

So who would run the Mars colony? Who knows. If we were to draw from recent science fiction — say Seveneves, but also many others — there is a built-in assumption that you need to have a commander-like figure, an autocrat really, who will be the final executive authority and make all the really hard decisions. Who is nominating Elon Musk to make all of the decisions about a Mars Colony? He makes no case for why he gets to be in charge. Do the wealthy rule (is that a meaningful question in a society of mostly wealthy people)? Does building spaceships grant him the power of government? Assuming it’s rule-by-election, how are electoral disputes decided? Who are the judges (and do they also have to purchase tickets, and how does that distort their rulings)?

Musk’s ideas are not those of a society pioneer, but rather those of a tyrant. This is because a lot of Silicon Valley politics, where Musk is from, are fundamentally illiberal. As I explained in a long essay about the politics of silicon valley, technology libertarianism has its roots in the counterculture of the 1960s — this desire to cast off a corrupted society and live in a harmonious new society with newer, better values. The communes that came out of the socialist movements of the 60s all failed to varying degrees. In many cases, they lead to quasi-totalitarianism before collapsing, whether from mass exodus or when law enforcement breaks them apart. The idea of the earth-based utopian commune died away; but the space commune is alive and well (seasteading is a similar effort to cast off all the mess of politics, different and poor people, and need for empathy and just live in a wealthy paradise away from all the plebes).

Libertarian anarchic communes are an idea that appeals to some people, but I cannot fathom why. Henry Farrell catalogued one such community, the Silk Road nodes of the Tor networks. In it, he describes how a utopian libertarian community online quickly became a tyrannical community run by pirates who extracted extreme rents and tried to murder those who broke from orthodoxy. There are many reasons for why this transition occurred, but you could see a similar process at play in Somalia, during the extreme anarchy of the early 2000s. A completely anarchic, unregulated environment actually does not create a free flow of goods, because some people win and some people lose, and the winners want to win more. Those winners then manipulate the unspoken rules of society, whether through punishing resource extraction or the direct application of lethal force, to increase their share of winning. In Somalia that resulted in horrific violence and the rise of various millenarian groups promising stability and predictability in return for various moral and ethical compromises.

Silk Road obviously had less violence, but the people who used the site certainly appreciated having a petty mob boss there to use force to ensure contracts get fulfilled. On Elon Musk’s Mars, who are the cops that will pay even $500,000 to go enforce laws? Because I think it’s a safe bet that once people on Mars realize that surviving a horrible desert where the air outside is poison and the sun gives you instant cancer and nothing grows and everything you know and remember is a hundred million miles away is not best achieved through a drum circle-like sense of self-sacrifice but rather a rigid hierarchy with defined roles and curtailed liberties.

Sometimes I wonder if that is the point. Obviously someone like Musk would assume he would remain in charge — the wealthy always find a way to, especially in an expeditionary environment like a Martian colony. And since Musk is a self-made billionaire, he therefore will think he knows what is best, from the chemical makeup of rocket boosters to the marketing schema of electric cars, from payment systems on the internet to social mechanisms of control in space.

From its founding, libertarianism, especially when paired to a utopian belief in technology, is at its core fundamentally totalitarian. Whittaker Chambers noted as much fifty years ago when excoriating the libertarian hedonism of Atlas Shrugged:

Systems of philosophic materialism, so long as they merely circle outside this world’s atmosphere, matter little to most of us. The trouble is that they keep coming down to earth. It is when a system of materialist ideas presumes to give positive answers to real problems of our real life that mischief starts. In an age like ours, in which a highly complex technological society is everywhere in a high state of instability, such answers, however philosophic, translate quickly into political realities. And in the degree to which problems of complexity and instability are most bewildering to masses of men, a temptation sets in to let some species of Big Brother solve and supervise them.

Big Brother can, of course, take many forms beyond Orwell: a monied elite that enforces norms and rules is just as totalitarian as a pervasive government surveillance; so, too, is the religious belief in the power of selfishness and money to achieve a positive outcome. To put it directly: Somali gang lords selfishly pursued their own financial self-interest without a government to tell them “no,” and the rest was hundreds of thousands of dead people.

I doubt Elon Musk really wants that kind of an outcome on Mars, but I also don’t think he’s bothered to think his ideas through very much. Nerds have a tendency to write off politics as being either too hard, or too mushy (since computers aren’t mushy like people, they are precise), or too tedious, even as they work off of political assumptions and deliberately act in a political way. But it is rare to see tech nerds organize into a voting caucus the way, say, old people do in the AARP. It is rare to see them form pressure groups to directly bully elected representatives to achieve their goals (the EFF is sort of like that but they do nothing on the scale of the NRA). Fundamental beliefs, like an imagined right to absolute privacy (defined loosely) or the right to pursue business ideas without copyright laws, are political in nature and often revisionist — but you’ll never hear a tech nerd unpacking their own politics to explain it as such.

But just because someone has poorly thought out politics does not mean those politics don’t matter. No, the problem is that people like Elon Musk and other Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have politics that are sharply at odds with the rest of our society (to the point of talking seriously of secession), but they also have the power, influence, and money to impose it on everyone else.

Think of the internet blackout of 2012. To lay my cards on the table, I did not think laws like the Stop Online Piracy Act were terribly good pieces of legislation but I do think they came from appropriate places. As a person who relies on copyright to secure proper compensation for my work, I have been frustrated and often victimized by those who would steal my work to enrich themselves, all while paying me nothing in return. There are many websites that seemingly exist for the sole purpose of pilfering other people’s efforts and monetizing them in a way that does not benefit the content producer, whether it is videos being reposted on Youtube, songs pirated on torrents, or photos on a Buzzfeed listicle. In other words, the internet, fundamentally, requires copyright theft to exist as it currently does.

So when SOPA came up for a vote, the tech firms of Silicon Valley did not debate the issue. They did not make a reasoned case for securing some copyright protections while preserving the sharing-and-building nature of the internet that makes new things fun. Instead, they launched a massive protest effort to kill the very idea of copyright protection, saying it was anti-progress, and the issue has never been revisited.

Silicon Valley has politics, and they are not above massive disruptions to enforce them, but people from Silicon Valley don’t want to admit that they do. And if those politics are going to determine the makeup and outlook of a Martian colony, then they are worth interrogating.

Grow, Or Die

Lastly, the idea that a colony is needed for planetary survival needs to be revisited. When describing his plan to have a “back up” for earth, to Aeon Magazine, Musk said:

He did not sell space as an R & D lab, a font for spin-off technologies like astronaut food and wilderness blankets. He did not say that space is the ultimate testing ground for the human intellect. Instead, he said that going to Mars is as urgent and crucial as lifting billions out of poverty, or eradicating deadly disease.

‘I think there is a strong humanitarian argument for making life multi-planetary,’ he told me, ‘in order to safeguard the existence of humanity in the event that something catastrophic were to happen, in which case being poor or having a disease would be irrelevant, because humanity would be extinct. It would be like, “Good news, the problems of poverty and disease have been solved, but the bad news is there aren’t any humans left.”’

Let’s think about this. In what scenario is not just the surface of our planet rendered inhospitable, but its oceans, cave networks, and isolated areas? That’s fairly hard to imagine. And if the planet itself is destroyed — a catastrophe beyond imagining — then in what way would Mars be any safer?

This is the big problem with the “colonize space for survival” idea that Musk and people like Stephen Hawking push all the time. The same limitations and difficulties apply to living in a cave as they do to living in space… only living in a cave is a thousand times easier. There is no massive push up a gravity well, difficult orbital mechanics, and hyper-toxic environment in a cave; a colony build on the seabed would have unlimited water all around it for distilling and purifying (along with endless biomass for food production). Every single thing that is impossibly hard to do on Mars is relatively easy to do in the oceans or deep underground, especially when compared to each other. In fact, the only reason to go to Mars are the reasons Musk himself disdains: a unique R&D environment, expanding the human intellect, discovering new frontiers of biology.

So what is behind this belief? I think it is a new form of lebensraum, or living space. The German Empire claimed lebensraum as the ideology behind the German state during World War 1 (the Septemberprogramm). The Nazis picked up lebensraum as a concept during the Weimar Republic and used it to brutalize the people nearby — Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians and other slavs, and so on.

Lebensraum has a horrible history, but its intellectual forefathers go a long ways back: American colonists came here looking for room to grow and live away from either stifled opportunity back in Europe, or from religious persecution. Many of the early 17th century settlers of Virginia were the so-called “Second Sons” of Britain, since their first-born brothers were the sole inheritors of their fathers’ estates and thus had to join the colonies, the military, or the clergy, to make their living. America was literally settled because of poor economic prospects for the aristocracy in Europe.

But the idea of expanding to a new area, so that you can grow and thus avoid death as a society, is more recent as well. During the height of neoconservative domination in U.S. national security discourse, people would talk openly of annexing sovereign countries to provide new growth areas for American businesses and communities (Pentagon advisor Thomas PM Barnett was one of the most famous and most visible).

This idea that you either grow or die is built into the genome of market capitalism: as a business, you either grow or you die. You either grow income or you become poor. You either expand or you contract. There is no existence in a capitalist system like that, your only options are to flourish or to wither. And that’s fine, really (any critical discussion of capitalism is wayyyyyyy outside scope here), but it’s important to acknowledge it. And of course, it is important to acknowledge that the wealthy tycoons who want to do this sort of colonization are steeped in this line of thinking to such a degree that they don’t even see it; they see it as natural that they will  profit handsomely from the affair. It is no different from other gold rushes. The Pacific Mail Steamship Company made gobs of cash from the California Gold Rush, but the individual miners really did not. So, too, will it be in privatized for-profit space colonies like the one Musk wants to build.

When you combine the technolibertarian dreams of a Silicon Valley commune, where you don’t need an expensive government program to get to Mars, only (very highly) paying customers, who will somehow create their own economy and somehow sustain themselves through reality TV without having politics or currency (or passports?), with the urge to grow and expand while telling yourself it is for the good of humanity, that is the space where really bad things happen, where half-baked ideas develop real world horrors and hurt or kill people.

The reality,  no matter how Musk and Hawking try to spin it, is that anything you build away from Earth would need to have a lifeline to earth. Any realistic plan for a space colony on Mars would include decades, and possibly centuries, of supply shipments from Earth. We need a healthy, functioning Earth if we are ever to make Mars habitable. But by shortcutting that first part, by saying “well fixing Earth is hard so let’s just go live in Mars,” all you accomplish is repeating the same sins that endless growth and expansion created on our planet: a permanent underclass to function, generating  huge amounts of waste.

I think we can do better. Or rather, that we need to. But that needs to start with fixing what’s going wrong on our own planet. A half-baked colony on Mars, cut off from any of the biodiversity, wealth, and water of Earth, would never thrive. And until we can resolve how our societies function without indentured labor (to make clothes, wash the tables, mop the floors, empty the trash, and so on), we have no business exporting our own problems to another planet.

Does that mean we should not explore Mars? Absolutely not! It just means we need to think a lot more until we should bother with moving there. Anything less is just vanity, promoted at tremendous expensive and horrendous risk.

comments powered by Disqus