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.

One 1958 scheme to build a massive harbor at Cape Thompson on the North Slope of Alaska by chaining together five thermonuclear explosions.
One 1958 scheme to build a mas­sive har­bor at Cape Thomp­son on the North Slope of Alas­ka by chain­ing togeth­er five ther­monu­clear explo­sions.

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? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ If we were to draw from recent sci­ence fic­tion — say Sev­en­evesbut 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.

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