I presume you all already know about my deep antipathy to Elon Musk’s stupid lifeboat rationale for going to Mars — I’m still getting hate mail for not worshipping Musk. In my defense, though, allow me to pull out Kim Stanley Robinson to say exactly the same thing.
What needs to happen for the Mars colony to live sustainably and give humanity the lifeboat Musk envisions?
It’s important to say that the idea of Mars as a lifeboat is wrong, in both a practical and a moral sense.
There is no Planet B, and it’s very likely that we require the conditions here on earth for our long-term health. When you don’t take these new biological discoveries into your imagined future, you are doing bad science fiction.
In a culture so rife with scientism and wish fulfillment, a culture that’s still coming to grips with the massive crisis of climate change, a culture that’s inflicting a sixth mass-extinction event on earth and itself, it’s important to try to pull your science fiction into the present, to make it a useful tool of human thought, a matter of serious planning as well as thrilling entertainment.
This is why Musk’s science fiction story needs some updating, some real imagination using current findings from biology and ecology.
But I’m not posting this to flog Musk some more. I’ve found a rationale even worse than Musk’s — we’re supposed to colonize Mars to expand the sacred worship of gods. James Poulos uses some ridiculously bad history to suggest that a religious impulse ought to drive our colonization.
The traditions of humanism and religion we’ve inherited from ancient Athens and Jerusalem also treat the natural world as a type of “base reality” against which our collective history can take place. Those traditions allow old myths and social orders to be honored and new ones to be founded — fresh starts, but by no means blank slates, where the best of what came before can be retained and given promise on new soil. In this sweeping journey of civilizations, what was begun with the exodus from Egypt and the founding of Rome continued, more or less, right up through the Pilgrims’ arrival on Plymouth Rock, Abraham Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom,” and on, perhaps, to the present day. You don’t have to be pious to think of human history in these essentially religious terms — as a multimillennial journey that is far from over (perennial panic over the literal End Times notwithstanding), and that in its totality can only be fully conceived of and known by a consciousness beyond what our human nature affords.
I must point out that the Biblical Exodus is a myth — it didn’t happen. That’s a very weird justification for a huge secular enterprise, to cite a self-serving and false story. Rome was founded by bandits and rapists who had a poor reputation among their neighbors, and likewise the religious gloss on their founding myth was added after the fact. The Pilgrims? Jesus. Horrible awful religious fanatics who contributed a deplorable Puritan sanctimony to American history. The Gettysburg Address mentions “God” only once, and even that is questioned — there are multiple drafts and transcripts, and they don’t all include the “under God” phrase, which is a peculiar focus to use to claim that the consecration of a graveyard is analogous to colonizing Mars. This guy is really reaching to claim a religious drive behind all of human history.
And that last sentence —
can only be fully conceived of and known by a consciousness beyond what our human nature affords — total bullshit. You can imagine all kinds of nonsense, their irrationality does not mean that there must exist a cosmic intelligence that can make sense of it all.
The babble continues.
From this standpoint, the exciting thing about colonizing Mars (and tomorrow, the galaxy!) is not the prospect of accelerating humanity past the point of humanity. Instead, it’s continuing the grand journey of humankind, wherein sacred traditions can be imitatively repeated and re-founded. A colony on Mars, then, is not like a personal trainer, pushing us through some artificial but valuable exercises that end up taking us to a higher plane of aliveness otherwise unavailable to us. Humanity’s achievement of interplanetary life wouldn’t allow us to break with the past and level us up into a new reality. It would humble us in recognition of a newfound, enduring mission — to create new ways to honor our human essence and praise what has allowed it to be sustained over time, whether we call that nature, nature’s God, or something else.
You know what? That’s just noise. Religion is really good at generating well-meaning phrases that can be strung together into a happy collection of sounds that resonate because they’re familiar and often repeated to believers, but to anyone outside the belief, it’s just word salad.
He just keeps going!
Such an act of providence would be restorative for humanity — and there’s reason to think we now require a Mars colony to allow for it. What’s clear is that Earth no longer invites us to contemplate, much less renew, our deepest spiritual needs. It has filled up so much with people, discoveries, information, and sheer stuff that it’s maddening to find what F. Scott Fitzgerald called a fresh green breast of a new world — the experience of truly open horizons and an open but specific future. That’s a problem that does suggest a terrible calamity, if not exactly an imminent apocalypse. But by making a fresh pilgrimage to a literally new world — say, red-breasted Mars — we could mark our pilgrims’ progress from the shadows of ignorance and apartness from God.
Oh, he’s done with Earth. It’s got nothing lovely anymore. So let’s go to a place that isn’t ruined for good Christians!
He thinks we might need a religious litmus test for the Mars colony ship — maybe they should all be religious, with no atheists to pollute the contemplative theology of Mars.
That means asking and answering initially awkward questions, like, would we be best off if our first Martian colonists were religious observers? Especially today, nature and freedom won’t defend themselves, and they’re certainly not taken as a given by some of Earth’s more powerful people. But it turns out that even today, and in the far-flung future, many of those who see our cosmos as supernaturally real are still their best defenders. There may not be much to recommend for life on Mars if we don’t clear a path for Christ on Mars.
Now I’m torn. I’m horrified at the idea of spawning a space colony that is a home to religious zealots, but at the same time, I expect the colony to fail, especially if it is entirely crewed by babbling Jesus freaks. And then I’m further torn by the dilemma of whether to cheer at shipping out fanatics to their inevitable doom, or to mourn the loss of human life, or to regret that the tiny numbers of ‘colonists’ will make no dent in the population of idiots remaining here on earth.
Gets me right in the feels, it does.