Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
What if There is Nowhere Else to Go? (2016-10-02)
At least in the north american tech media, the topic of potential "manned" missions to Mars have been a steady boil for the past several years, with not quite periodic sharp peaks. Sometimes the peaks are from the latest expensive sort of success or explosion for today's crop of private companies endeavouring to take over access to space from the military, which so far as I can tell is primarily an american phenomenon due to the cost. Or else they come from the latest project intended to mimic travelling to Mars, since this will take a non-trivial amount of time, although it seems that at least 1 out of 3 of these is usually a hoax. There are naysayers of course, who point out how the Moon is much closer, so if there is going to be "space colonization" that's the place to start. The trouble with the Moon is at least threefold for the folks hoping to at the least send missions to Mars. The Moon is close by, relatively. Men have already been there, literally (this was in the days when women astronauts were considered a joke, not a possibility). No matter how hard anybody looks, the Moon has no water to write home about.
But look at Mars, which you can literally by glancing at my picture taken with my point and shoot camera some time ago. It is far away, though not too far, we're obviously not talking light years here. No man has made it there yet, which gets the mostly male billionaires more interested, especially if they watched the original Star Trek with its (in)famous split infinitive marked introductory voiceover. And there is just enough tantalizing evidence for the possibility of water ice preserved under dirt and rocks against the near vacuum of space to make the whole venture look just plausible in some corners.
Gene Roddenberry, creator of the original Star Trek, passed away in 1991. Regardless of the plausibility or not of his vision of the possible future, as a television writer he got one detail spot on from the beginning for his original audience. The framing narrative, even if never overtly spoken, wasn't there just for the suits when he was pitching his idea: "wagon train to the stars, plucky colonists on the frontier." "Frontier" is a heavily loaded word in the united states legendarium especially, yet it also has deep resonances in most other colonizer cultures on Earth. Many people no doubt consider this a good thing, since supposedly "colonizing new lands" was a mostly noble endeavour with some unfortunate genocide spicing things up. By this logic, struggling to get from Earth to a place lacking the necessities of life and finding a way to live there is somehow heroic. The tie to colonizer rationalizations for invading and stealing the homes and very lives of other people should be making sharp calls on our attention, because again, the tie is not coincidental. The growing interest and excitement about "going to Mars" is not about technology, nobility, or heroism. It is about land, social inequality, and the capitalist hope of somehow finding a way to continue pretending they can always have more money just a little longer.
Social inequality based on a few people maintaining control over most of the land everyone needs to live on, with, and from by means of total violence is not new. The evidence for the length of time it has existed puts it at between 10 000 and 8 000 years old, and at no time, despite the best hopes of today's apologists for colonialism, was it ever universal or inevitable. It remains neither of those things, held together by the slender thread of total and unremitting violence. By nature, social inequality is unstable, precisely because eventually most people are being pushed into poverty so desperate they lose their fear of suffering or using violence themselves. It gets to the point they have nothing to lose, and there are a lot more of them than of the select group who claims to own everything. What is the select group to do, when it looks like their war against everybody else will stop going in their favour? Their favoured solution for a very long time is fundamentally what is politely labelled colonialism: stealing somebody else's land. It doesn't take much time with your favourite search engine to find references to "the colonies" as an excellent means to take care of the "surplus population." Said surplus includes those who become "colonists," the soldiers expected to kill off the opposition, and those who manage to stay home but make a basic living via work supplying the soldiers and the colonists.
Right now, we are living through a period in which social inequality is now so incredibly out of control that it's major economic support system, land exploitation, is collapsing. There is basically no more land left on Earth to mine for trees, or metal, or people, to pick just a few salient examples. A non-trivial number of corporation heads are hoping to mine water and probably clean air next, but the likelihood this would be more than a short term "solution" is small. It doesn't look like a promising way to diffuse frustration and desperation. Worse yet, current winners in the social inequality game are finding the effort to persuade everybody else of the positive benefits of colonialism is nearly impossible nowadays. No one believes there are "empty lands" on Earth anymore, for the very good reason there aren't, and probably never were any, once life happened. So how to recreate the prospect of "free land" and start the pressure release cycle again, without tripping over scruples about genocide and warmongering? Enter Mars.
After all, there are no humans on Mars. The scientists keep looking for signs of life and can't seem to find any convincing evidence. The trip to Mars would probably take at least a year, and the recent "mission to Mars" proposals tend to assume the crews won't be back. Sure Mars is much smaller than Earth, but it has no oceans, its area is close to that of Earth's dry land, and the relief is generally low. Boosters brush aside as a technical difficulty that people would have to live inside some sort of completely controlled capsule environment, and how that is supposed to be built or supplied. So what if it will be difficult, here at last is perfect colonialism, and none of that bullshit Ray Bradbury came up with in the Martian Chronicles either. Whether or not you consider colonizing the Mars (or even the Moon) possible, I think we can agree that this is not an immediate solution to the problems we face here on Earth. So effectively, there is nowhere else to go, and there are plenty of us with no desire to go anywhere, we're fine with Earth. It's the oppression we have and will have an unrelenting issue with until it's gone.
So here's the real question for the space exploration boosters out there: right now we have nowhere else to go. Are you willing to turn your minds and your money to putting an end to the fundamental problem instead of trying to paper it over by finding ways to purge "excess population" and doubling down on viciousness? That's the only guarantee of a future there is.