Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Mars for America's Future

"Our next generation must think boldly in terms of a goal for the space program: Mars for America's future... An American colony on a new world."- Buzz Aldrin

For some time now I've been deeply interested in the human future in space. It's not something I know about in any great detail; I'm not one of those people that knows NASA history like the back of my hand, and I'm not a Trekkie. But I am deeply inspired by the history of human space exploration that I do know. Even more central to my interest, as a social scientist I'm inspired by thinking about the prospects for human progress. Markets, political liberalism, and technological innovation have rapidly lifted humans from being sedentary, impoverished, unhealthy, short-lived (albeit quite intelligent, thoughtful, and artistic) animals to new heights of civilization, sophistication, distinction, and promise. When you are on an exponential trajectory like that your thoughts quickly turn to the future and how much better it will be tomorrow. I think Mars is going to play a large role in that future, and I want to use this post as an opportunity to sketch out a few thoughts about (1.) what is this future? (2.) why Mars? (3.) why is this so important to pursue as soon as possible?

Our Interplanetary Destiny. It's hard to provide strong evidence for a forecast like this, but I think it should be clear that the human race has an interplanetary destiny. Perhaps eventually an interstellar or even an intergalactic destiny, but for now let's just stay with interplanetary. Our population has grown at an exponential rate in the last several centuries, and population growth has been accompanied by technological development. The technological development we've experienced has two primary effects on our interplanetary prospects: (1.) we've made mass destruction of human populations more likely, and (2.) we've repealed many of the constraints on normal species population dynamics by using technology to both eliminate threats to human existence and maximize the efficiency with which we use the resources we need for survival. In other words, our technological development has made it quite possible that our exponential population growth may not level off, at the same time that we've developed the means to kill millions of people, and an industrial economy that risks turning our own planet into an environment more hostile to human habitation. Stephen Hawking has cited many of these pressures and threats in his recent call to colonize space. He suggests that "our only chance of long term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space."

Why Mars? As Robert Zubrin has remarked, "Mars is where the future is. Mars is the closest planet to the Earth that has on it all the resources necessary to support life and therefore technological civilization. It has water; it has carbon; it has nitrogens; it has a twenty four hour day; it has a complex geological history that has created mineral ore; it has sources of geothermal energy. Mars is a place we can settle." Mars also has higher gravity than the Moon, another option for a space colony that is mentioned. It provides closer access to the asteroid belt which may be an important mining resource in the future. It provides the best prospect for terraforming, which will be necessary for the development of human civilization.

Why a public initiative? John Stuart Mill, an important 19th century economist and philosopher, wrote about the necessity of the role of the state in colonial enterprises. He wrote:

"If it is desirable, as no one will deny it to be, that the planting of colonies should be conducted, not with an exclusive view to the private interests of the first founders, but with a deliberate regard to the permanent welfare of the nations afterwards to arise from these small beginnings; such regard can only be secured by placing the enterprise, from its commencement, under regulations constructed with the foresight and enlarged views of philosophical legislators; and the government alone has power either to frame such regulations, or to enforce their observance."

While private interests will certainly play a part in the colonization of Mars, the greatest benefits of a Martian colony will accrue to our descendants, generations after we are dead; generations that will build a new, permanent human civilization on the Martian surface. I have a great deal of respect for the market, but market action relies on the pursuit of self-interest, not the interest of future generations and certainly not the interest of generations in the far distant future. In this sense, the market is extremely conservative, and it will overlook and ignore the pursuit of unprecedented benefits because they are not immediate benefits. State action obviously introduces a host of new efficiency problems, but it is preferable to relying on a market that has no way internalizing the benefits of a Martian colony. There is also a moral advantage to state-led colonialism on Mars, compared to all other colonial ventures in the past. Mars, for all intents and purposes, is lifeless. We may potentially find some algae or lichen, but nothing that will introduce a great moral dilemma. Mill's insistence that "philosophical legislators" would have the "foresight and enlarged views" to prosecute a colonial venture makes us cringe now, because we know about the colonial ventures of Great Britain during Mill's lifetime. But that oversight on Mill's part isn't relevant for Mars - and the remaining portion of the argument - that the state is best suited to have "a deliberate regard to the permanent welfare of the nations afterwards to arise from these small beginnings" is still valid.

Why an American colony?
The Buzz Aldrin quote that initiated this post specifically spoke of an American colony on Mars, and I strongly agree with him. But why? Why bring 20th century nationalism into the 21st and 22nd century? To be honest, I think nationalism will inevitably be downplayed in the 21st and 22nd century anyway, but I still think that it is important for America to make the first move. The world is integrating, and I think this integration is as inevitable as our interplanetary destiny. Given our advances in transportation and communication technology, our recent embrace of the idea of universal rights, the indisputable economic benefits of openness, and the clear record of nationalism in producing horrifically bloody conflict, I think the inertia behind globalism is tremendous. But who will define this new world order? It largely depends on when you think that world order will emerge. If it happens in the next several years, it is likely that the U.S. will shape and define it. If we wait even just another decade, it will be the U.S. in partnership with Europe. Wait longer than that and China, India, Russia, or even Brazil will play a larger role. I think each of these partners - even China and Russia - will come to the table in good faith. But just because they come in good faith doesn't mean they won't have a fundamentally different view of what life on Earth should be like. The new world order must be a liberal world order, and ideally a constitutional liberal world order, and the United States must lead the effort if we want to guarantee that.

The same is true of life on Mars. The antecedents of Martian civilization will play a major role in determining the nature of Martian civilization, and an American initiation will guarantee the promotion of American values. In perhaps two centuries (closer to our time now than we are to the American Revolution), I think we'll probably have a functional society on both Mars and Earth, as well as functional communities in space stations in between the two, and we'll probably have a single federated government. It might not happen, but I think it's quite likely. We need to concern ourselves with what that civilization will be like. If Washington and Jefferson hadn't concerned themselves with what the American civilization would be like two hundred years in the future, we would not be enjoying the life we have today. This is why I'm cautiously open to ideas like a global reserve currency, and a global government, not to mention the rapid establishment of a colony on Mars. America may get a second wind, but it may not. This is our time to shape these institutions, and I think it would leave an awful legacy if we squandered that opportunity. We have something important to offer the world.

1 comment:

  1. Congrats on your blog. I'm commenting here cuz your brother has a comment! I remember watching you wrestle like bear cubs and now I get to enjoy some intellectual wrestling. Great fun. By the way, my sentiments are with Evan on this one. Not sure the terrain is greener, though it will be more red, on the other side of this fence. The idea of a fresh start is pretty appealing, though it seems we still struggle to harness the intellectual resources and goodwill we need to make this planet work. If we do move in the direction you suggest, you ought to rename the title to Mars for the World's Future. Keep it up!


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