Natural Limits

Musk is not from Mars, but he and Sagan do seem to come from different worlds. Like Sagan, Musk exhibits a religious-like devotion to space, a fervent desire to go there, but their purposes are entirely divergent. Sagan inspired generations of writers, scientists, and engineers who felt compelled to chase the awe that he dug up from the depths of their heart. Everyone who references Sagan as a reason they are in their field connects to the wonder of being human, and marvels at the luck of having grown up and evolved on such a beautiful, rare planet.

The influence Musk is having on a generation of people could not be more different. Musk has used the medium of dreaming and exploration to wrap up a package of entitlement, greed, and ego. He has no longing for scientific discovery, no desire to understand what makes Earth so different from Mars, how we all fit together and relate. Musk is no explorer; he is a flag planter. He seems to have missed one of the other lines from Pale Blue Dot: “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.”

In the passage above, Stirone effectively captures just one of the dizzying panoply of ways in which Elon Musk is wrong. For a person with so much money, it’s frankly impressive to me, in a macabre sort of way, how he manages to be wrong nearly every single time he opens his mouth publicly. For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to limit myself to how he is wrong about colonizing Mars. Just within that narrow range, his wrongness is multifaceted. The wrongness Stirone identifies, while accurate, is, to my mind, not the most interesting way in which Elon Musk is wrong on this topic.

First, let’s take a look at Stirone’s argument, which seems to be the most common one bandied about the internet these days. In essence, this planet (Earth) needs to be stable and relatively disaster-proof, both politically and environmentally, before we should even think about dumping massive amounts of resources into producing humanity-sheltering infrastructure on another planet, particularly a deathly frigid one with no protection from cosmic radiation.

That, to my mind, is a pretty good argument. But I think there’s an argument that is at least equally compelling, and which I haven’t seen discussed, even in science fiction novels like Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I admittedly have only read about half of the first novel, but as I understand the series from synopsis, the questions within it are more about whether or not humans have a moral/ethical right to change any part of Mars at all. Stirone hints at this line of thinking in her article by quoting Carl Sagan: “What shall we do with Mars? There are so many examples of human misuse of the Earth that even phrasing the question chills me. If there is life on Mars, I believe we should do nothing with Mars. Mars then belongs to the Martians, even if [they] are only microbes.”

My argument against going to Mars is that it would, quite literally, destroy us as human beings, and if I have any principle that I am not willing to budge on (unlike liberalism; see the first paragraph of the linked article for the correct definition of that word), it’s humanism.

If we did build infrastructure on Mars, once the practical challenge of creating it was over, there would come the practical challenge of maintaining it. Mars has never had any plant or animal life, and thus we could expect no coal or oil. The upshot there is that a vast number of synthetic materials, the most obvious of which is plastic, would have to be imported from Earth. Even if we did get the Earth into a relatively healthy equilibrium, environmentally speaking, supporting a Martian colony would be likely to drive it right back to the brink of collapse again.

And so, barring some breakthrough in energy and material generation that is inconceivable today, the only way for humans to live on Mars without massive supply shipments from Earth, would be to alter our organism to be capable of surviving -80° C and bursts of gamma radiation. And that organism, I would argue, would not be human.

I touched on this in my novel The Other in the way I depict the species that calls themselves “human,” but who regularly modify their genome and perform cybernetic upgrades. They can access the internet at will in their minds and communicate instantaneously with one another across any distance. This isn’t just a nice new convenience. It alters what it means to be in a way that possessing a shovel or a smart phone doesn’t. (No, I don’t buy Kevin Kelly’s argument about all technology being cybernetic enhancements, either. I can choose to throw away my iPhone. I cannot chose to throw away something grafted into me. Such a device would change the fundamentals of how my organism functions. It would be capable of altering my sensory inputs and cognition, and it would damage my organism if removed. None of these things is true of an external technological implement. Also in the case of truly cybernetic technologies, concepts like “vendor lock-in” and “upgrade dependency” take on horrifying connotations.)

This is also where I think travel to Mars differs fundamentally from any of the other landmark human transportation achievements: intercontinental ships, rail, flight, low orbit space travel, and brief excursions to the surface of the moon. None of those things required us to change the human organism, although in the case of the last two, we’ve discovered that interstellar space takes one hell of a toll. Mars, to my mind, either locks us into building infrastructure we cannot afford with our environment on Earth already as badly degraded as it is, or it forces us to make ourselves into something that is not human. Some individuals might find the latter an acceptable trade off to experience a first-hand stroll among the red rocks of an exoplanet. My preference is to remain biologically and psychologically human. That, to my mind, is wonder of the cosmos enough.