Mend our Threadbare Fate — Or Mars?

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The topic comes up repeatedly. On websites. On the CBC. In conversation. We’re going to Mars. We’re going to terraform Mars. We need to go to Mars. We have to go to Mars. We have to go to Mars because… it’s there. Because it’s our lifeboat if Earth doesn’t work out. Because it’s our destiny. And I get irritable every time I hear it.

First let me say in preface that I have been a science fiction fan all my long life. I was a Trekkie when Star Trek TOS was barely into its first re-runs. I was born in the year Sputnik was launched: the space program has been, in a way, the story of my life. As a kid I built plastic models, not of planes or boats but of Soyuz and Apollo, the Enterprise and a Klingon battle cruiser. My model of Soyuz even had a removable Yuri Gagarin: many times I tried to imagine his terrifying, thrilling, unprecedented voyage.

So it’s not that I don’t understand the appeal. It’s not that I wouldn’t, personally, give at least one eye-tooth to ride in a rocket and go to Mars, stand for a few hours on that crunchy red sand, stare at that awesome night sky, use my binoculars to find Earth distant and luminous among the stars. Sure I would, and how. And if it were only sold as such — as that ineradicable human itch to explore just a bit further, to see around the next corner, to climb that interesting rock outcrop and see the view from the top — then I’d be, more or less, in sympathy. I understand wanting to go to Mars because it’s cool, because it’s exciting, because it’s there.

But when I hear words like “lifeboat” and “alternative” and “destiny,” my tail starts to twitch and my bullshit detector starts bleeping. When I hear “we have to do this, for the Future of Humanity,” I get seriously angry.


First, because it’s beyond irony, beyond mere hubris, beyond satire and into some weird super-dense trans-ironic dimension, for us to talk about “terraforming” Mars. The only major planet-altering capability our species has demonstrated so far, our only track record, is the on-going human achievement of de-terraforming Earth. Our success in this project is so spectacular as to menace our other hard-won achievements, like agriculture and civilisation. If we could terraform Mars, if we had that kind of understanding and ability, then we could repair the damage we’ve done to our home planet.

Remodelling Mars as a primate-friendly habitat would require untold billions of dollars, years and decades of effort — always supposing it can be done at all. If we had that kind of understanding and ability and resources, then it would be downright criminal not to devote them to cleaning up our mess here at home.

But that choice doesn’t really arise, because evidently we don’t have the understanding or the ability, possibly not the resources, and certainly not the will, to terraform a planet. If we did, we’d be doing it. Here. Now. And any number of environmental crises unfolding around us today would not be happening. Do I have to list them?

Aside from the insane chutzpah of the proposition, there is to my ear a more sinister subtext to these discussions. Various qualified persons sit around and consider seriously the design of Mars colonies. They ponder the engineering challenges: inflated domes to maintain breathable atmosphere, water-making machinery, hydroponic food production. They ponder the human element, the psychology, the isolation of the colony at the end of such a long communication and supply line back to Earth: what kind of people might be selected to minimize conflict and increase the chance of success? How would it be organized?

What they don’t talk about much is the math. It’s implicit, but it’s hiding in plain sight. They talk about a couple of hundred people, maybe a thousand people, maybe two thousand — maybe more later, someday. Maybe ten thousand. Maybe even a million, someday.

There are seven billion human souls on Earth. Does anyone believe for one split second that moving a couple of thousand of them to Mars can legitimately be called “rescuing” the human race? Does anyone seriously believe that we have the energy resources to relocate even a million people? When the word “lifeboat” is used in this context, think Titanic. Those in steerage are not invited. Which in this case means, almost all of us.

So here is what I think, these days, when I hear these cheerful discussions of the necessity, the destiny, that impels us “inevitably” to settle Mars. I think of a small cadre of privileged technocrats, dreaming wistfully of an escape from Earth and its human predicament — an escape for them personally, maybe for their families, certainly for people like them. And I suspect (human nature being what it is) that just having that consolatory narrative in their heads, cherishing the notion that there is an escape, a lifeboat, is enough to reduce significantly the sense of urgency and responsibility they feel for solving the problems of Earth. If you imagine that you personally have a way off the sinking ship — a lifeboat — aren’t you going to bail a little less enthusiastically, give up bailing a little sooner?

Roman generals understood this wrinkle in human nature very well. When their troops crossed a river into enemy territory, the generals notoriously ordered the bridges burnt behind them (hence our cliche, “burning your bridges”). They understood that troops who knew there was a back door, a way out, would fight less desperately, less passionately, than those who knew they were irrevocably committed.

[Actually, I suspect that many of those subscribing to this dream may get quite a surprise if they ever do manage to pull it off; history suggests they may discover that to those with real money, real power, real clout in this world, the dreaming technocrats themselves are merely steerage passengers and will not be wanted in the lifeboats — not, that is, after they’re done risking their lives to beta-test them. That back door they are so keen on building may be, in the end, intended for someone else.]

Anyway, here’s my challenge to the “Mars or Bust” brigade.

Let’s see you re-terraform Earth, first. If you prove you can do that — and in the process restore a livable environment and future for billions of people now enduring varying degrees of misery and precarity, cool off the tension at borders besieged by enviro-refugees, and save heaven knows how many species besides our own — then I might just soften my assessment of the folly, waste, and wickedness of the “lifeboat Mars” project.

If we can figure out how to live on Earth without wrecking it, we won’t be needing any lifeboats, so you might have to re-brand the project and admit that it’s adventurism more than noble altruism that motivates you. But if you still want to go, for fun, to see the view, because it’s there — and we can still afford it — then why not? I’ll wish you the very best of luck. Send me a postcard.

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the title: the reference is to the phrase “What planet mends thy threadbare fate, or mars,” a line from a fragment of verse by Kipling, used as a chapter heading in Kim. The theme is astrology. As a child I was much puzzled by the syntax, reading “mars” as the name of the planet.
the most appropriate background music for reading this rant: probably not Also Sprach Zarathustra, but rather Gil Scott-Heron’s classic “Whitey’s On The Moon.”
the illustration: apologies to the unidentified cartoonist. I found this image much repeated in Google Images, but not attributed. If anyone knows who drew it, I would be delighted to attribute properly.

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