On October 21, U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Jim Bridenstine told the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology that he foresees NASA will land astronauts on the moon by 2035. “We need to learn how to live and work in another world,” he told lawmakers. “The moon is the best place to prove those capabilities and technologies.”
The article that follows comprises the third instalment in “Our Martian Moment,” a multi-part Quillette series in which our authors discuss what kind of society humans should build on Mars if and when we succeed in colonizing the red planet. Our editors invite submissions to this series, which may be directed to email@example.com.
A century from now, Mars is a desert world dotted with autonomous, corporatocratic, oases-like city states in competition with each other for citizen customers. Land ownership is anathema to Martian identity, and notions of democracy are quaint artifacts from terrestrial history. Voting is a thing that cavemen did. Weird? Absolutely. But where imagining the future is concerned, if it isn’t weird it isn’t relevant.
Even the most vocal mission-to-Mars skeptics often have a strong opinion on Martian government. We will never get to Mars, they say. And if we do get to Mars, we will never terraform Mars, or colonize Mars. But if we do colonize Mars, the government should certainly be socialist, anarchist, populist, globalist. It should be run by humanities majors, controlled by robots, managed by lottery!
When we think about the future, we tend only to abstract a colorful but nonetheless straightforward projection of ourselves, from our morality and our immediate desires to our twenty-first-century political, environmental and spiritual struggles. As such, depictions of the future in popular culture tend not to be so “alien” at all. The crowded, polluted, war-torn dystopian view that dominates our media today reflects a series of anxieties about our world as it currently stands. The most popular, ostensibly utopian view of our future is no less grounded in the present: look, a sparsely populated city of towering glass, endless green fields, and a few flying cars flit across a rainbow sky.
In our well-storied Tomorrowland, skyscrapers are still the same height. We may be flying through the air, but automobiles remain our chosen mode of transportation, and our demographic fears are all assuaged in an antiseptic 1940s vision of the future that was only ever superficially different from the present.
This is not to say prediction of the future, especially shorter-term prediction, is impossible, but rather only to stress the importance of our attempting a prediction of future challenges before we speculate on any possible solution to such challenges. Government on Mars will not—cannot —look like government on Earth because the challenges mankind faces on Mars are alien. Our progress on that planet can therefore only be alien in kind.
The American metaphor has informed our dreams about the future of space exploration since the emergence of modern rocketry, but the challenges we face on Mars will be nothing like the challenges Europeans faced when they settled their New World. America has a temperate climate with abundant natural resources. Mars is a barren, frozen, highly-irradiated hellscape with no breathable atmosphere. It is absolutely lethal to every known living creature. Settlers can terraform the planet into something similar to Earth—big, puffy, white clouds, an ocean, genetically-modified fields and forests—but given present technology, this process might take hundreds of years.
Early Martians will therefore look nothing like early Americans. The technological requirements of survival will be too high for a first-wave population of religious refugees and impoverished explorers. If such a population is ever included on Mars, it will only be alongside a highly-skilled population of professionals in every field from chemistry and botany (including synthetic biology) to engineering, medicine and robotics.
As technology has advanced in complexity these past several hundred years, so, too, has the specialization of labor. The co-operative needs of modern humans are already far greater than they were among colonial Americans (many of whom could make their own homes and clothes, and grow their own food). And on Mars, these needs can only be greatly exacerbated, with success weighted strongly in favor of proximity to other people. Higher concentrations of people lead to higher degrees of urbanization, and successful urbanization on an inhospitable planet will likely require a powerful central authority. So while any given Martian city may be free in many, or even most, dimensions, it is impossible that any early Martian city would be democratic.
From our first steps across the rust-red regolith, human survival on Mars will require considerable and constant protection in the form of body suits, specialized transport and smaller, temporary habitats. But no technological challenge will be as ambitious as the construction of the first Martian city—an intricate, delicate clockwork whose malfunction could mean death for thousands, if not tens of thousands of people. The production of such technology requires a highly-coordinated application of resources and skill from legions of people. And as large state governments have thus far managed the human journey through space, it is generally assumed they will manage this process.
But even were some government from Earth willing to fund a single trip to Mars—a fairly popular project that NASA has been pretending to work toward for many decades—full-scale Martian colonization is just not politically viable. With the cost of building even a single Martian city so high, and the fruits of Martian colonization so initially ambiguous, it is unfathomable that a majority of voters in any nation capable of managing such expense would accept the burden. Our great, Martian task therefore falls to a different kind of co-operative body capable of managing such a production: the corporation.
For the first time in history, the cost of rocket transport is rapidly falling, and with it the once seemingly insurmountable barrier of entry to Martian colonization. The catalyst for improved efficiency was the emergence of a private space industry in the 2010s, and its positive impact on the probability of Martian colonization has been no accident. From the time SpaceX was founded, Elon Musk argued that a reduction in the cost of one-way Martian passage to something close to the median price of an American home, say $200,000, would almost invariably lead to a mass migration of humans from Earth to Mars. This was, and remains, an explicit goal of his company.
If a market incentive is the only thing capable of motivating humanity forward, we need not lament our culture’s formerly lacklustre efforts in the race to space; we need only build a market incentive. Once the private space industry succeeds, and cost of one-way passage to Mars is within financial reach of the average person, only a tiny fraction of the human population will find attractive the prospects of an historical life on a new world. But a tiny fraction of 7.5-billion people could still populate a small country—or a large Martian city.
As our western belief in democracy is sacred, speculation concerning its erosion far from home may come as shocking—perhaps frightening. But democracy and freedom are not synonyms, and a world without a vote is not necessarily a world without choice. On Mars, that choice will be between habitats, the habitats will be run by companies, and we’ll be voting with our pocketbooks.
There is a great libertarian belief in emergent civilization, not entirely unlike the popular notion in Silicon Valley that one can iterate a company to success. Central to both beliefs is a trust in a selection process that emerges from randomness. And neither the ideologically motivated libertarian nor the profit-seeking Silicon Valley entrepreneur is wrong to think that good things do often randomly occur—on Earth. In a world of relative abundance there are as many examples of random, fortunate phenomena as there are counterexamples; and intelligent people will surely be arguing whether success is determined primarily by luck or planning for generations to come. But when it comes to Mars, our questions now are not pertaining to patterns of street, to density of building, or to acreage of park, all of which come in great variety of acceptable possibilities. There is no such flexibility on an alien world. To survive on Mars we need in-tandem machines that generate oxygen, carbon dioxide and water; that protect people from radiation; that generate food (along with the abundant nitrogen and other essential organic elements required for such generation); and that provide a highly reliable source of energy, many times redundant, to power this slender thread between life and death. In any single piece of this, a belief in luck is lethal. Every Martian city must be planned.
Government of the Martian city will be deeply shaped by these precarious circumstances. Differences from government in America, for example, will manifest well beyond the skillset of Martian leadership. For instance, there will very likely be a preference for engineers, architects, and proven operators over lawyers, celebrities and charismatic bartenders.
More important than the realities of Martian dependence on strong management, however, will be the utter rarity of private land ownership. Even on Earth, as urbanization increases, the partitioning off of land in densely populated regions is increasingly problematic. How many of our infrastructural problems can be ascribed to an inability to build, rebuild, and reimagine the world around us as we meet problems the likes of which men and women a hundred years ago—a thousand years ago!—could not even dream?
In San Francisco, where I live, an utterly suffocating torrent of corrupt supervisors and hysterical public meetings prevent even a thing so overwhelmingly popular as the construction of new housing. San Franciscans accept such incompetence and outright antagonism from their government because their life is not literally dependent on their government’s success. On Mars, the opposite will be true. If a Martian neighborhood needs to be rearranged in order to adequately protect it from lethal radiation, the neighborhood will be rearranged. If new housing or nuclear power plants need to be built, they will be built. If the city itself needs to move, which will likely be the case as Mars is terraformed and environmental conditions dramatically change the Martian geography, the city will be moved.
Such dynamic flexibility in government requires an incredible deal of managerial authority. To maintain such authority, the city, which will be a corporate entity and managed as such, will never sell land. Citizens of such a city, comprised in significant part of employees, will naturally desire some assurance of the company’s benevolence, and an alternative to the vote will be normalized. The obvious solution is still in private ownership, just not in private ownership of land. The employees will receive an ownership stake in the company with their moving costs and salary, benefits not entirely unlike what they would receive for a new job at a big, American technology company that requires relocation to the other side of the country. But non-employee citizens may need to own a piece of it as well—not a lot, or a building, but a share of the city itself.
The Chief Executive is responsible to the shareholder, and on a desert world of many cities in competition for talent and citizens, the only thing that could possibly impress a shareholder is effectiveness at building and managing an incredible place to live. The essentials of life all earlier listed will of course be met, and structurally the city will likely be modular, and mobile. Possibly domed for protection, and semi-covered underground until the Martian atmosphere is thickened up enough to provide some protection from radiation, every city will support a complex tapestry of hydroponic gardens, desalination plants (for the perchlorates in the regolith), recycling and waste management centers, power plants, self-driving cars and—possibly underground—habitats and gardens.
But cities will vary, and compete, on culture and aesthetic. Cities might be themed. There could be highly-religious cities, or microcities within cities built for hippies or scientists or the eternally young, newly gifted with prodigious genetic therapy, who just want to party. Imagine medieval cities, gothic cities, goth cities. With no ownership of land, people can grow emotionally, or philosophically, and simply move—physically—to areas populated by like-minded neighbours.
What’s your fantasy? Because in a world where physical spaces are competing for your attention, the construction of such fantasies in our physical reality will be powerfully incentivized, and incentives shape civilization.
There’s an XKCD comic strip that speaks well to the youthful heart of this wild cosmic trip. In the first panel, a boy approaches a girl wading through a room of rainbow colors. Shocked, he asks her what she did to her apartment. “I filled it with playpen balls,” she says. “Why,” he asks. “Because,” she says, “we’re grown-ups now, and it’s our turn to decide what that means.”
If you could start the world over, what would you build? Fundamentally, the question itself is the answer: the future is a malleable world that changes for its living citizens, a world where asking this kind of question—how do you want to live?—is more than a fun thought experiment. It’s a practical component of the human condition. The future is a world shaped by our current needs, desires and curiosities. The future is a hundred such worlds, a thousand, and they dot the stars as cities dot their terraforming fields and forests. We follow our hearts through the galaxy to like-hearted brothers and sisters, and we live together as we choose.
The universe is a big place. To the question of what we want to be, and how we want to express that being, compromise is canceled.
Michael Solana lives in San Francisco and works for Founders Fund, a venture capital firm committed to the investment in and support of radical technological innovation. He Tweets at @micsolana.
Featured Image: Still frame image from 2017 KieranTimberlake conceptual video, Mars City.